COLUMN: Manage stress by fostering mind, body connection

Taylor Finley

These chilly winter months amidst a pandemic have left many of us feeling more emotions and moving around less. We are often hunkered down in our homes, staring at screens and facing ever-changing stressors. Have you ever paused to notice the connection between your mental and physical health? When your child is hungry or tired, are they ever more irritable? When you are feeling anxious or stressed, do you experience headaches and muscle tension? Do you ever feel more energetic and focused after a brisk walk outside? Research shows that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. The converse is also true – so when we work to improve our physical health, our mind often follows. Now, more than ever, it is important to intentionally foster a strong connection between our mind and body in an effort to better manage stress. Here are a few tips to help you and your family get started:

Know your stress response

Stress is the body’s response to any demand placed upon it. This response has physical, psychological and behavioral components and can present very differently depending upon the person. The first key for managing stress is knowing you are stressed. Be aware of your warning signs and what symptoms you typically present. Psychological symptoms include anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness, difficult concentrating, boredom, fatigue and low self-esteem. Physical symptoms include insomnia, headaches, dry mouth, neck or back aches, gastrointestinal problems, etc. Behavioral symptoms include: sleep disturbances, excessive TV watching, increased substance use, job or school burnout, withdrawing from others, over or under eating, yelling or arguments, etc. How do YOU experience stress? What does it look like and feel like for you? How does your child typically show they are stressed?

Check-in

In addition to knowing your stress response, practice bringing your awareness to your experience in the present moment with a quick check-in. Notice your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, surroundings and behaviors. Take 2 minutes to ask yourself or help your child reflect, “How am I doing, really?” “How do I feel in my body right now?” “What emotions am I experiencing?” Being able to feel how your body responds and holds onto emotions is an important step. Make it a routine and check in throughout the day.

Prioritize sleep

We all probably know by now that sleep is extremely important but sometimes it is just plain hard to find enough hours in the day. Lack of sleep can interfere with your ability to think rationally, make good decisions and cope with stressful situations. Skipping sleep may give you more hours in the day, but it won’t be quality time and can increase your risk of getting sick, upset or feeling depressed. Try experimenting with your sleep schedule and create a “wind-down” routine that works for you. Plan ahead and prioritizing can help you get the sleep you need. If you struggle with falling asleep, try listening to a sleep mediation, limiting screen-time before bed, or practicing a deep-breathing relaxation technique before bed.

Practice mindfulness

Contrary to common belief, mindfulness does not need to occur during meditation. Rather mindfulness can really be completed anytime, anywhere, as long as you are shifting into a mindset of observing with curiosity and without judgment. For example, mindful walking occurs when a person notices what it feels like to take each step. It involves observing what one’s feet feel when walking and rolling from heel to toe. One might notice what it feels like to stride, including the muscles that activate during this process. Try practicing incorporating mindfulness into your daily activities. Take a mindful moment at home by observing together with your child and appreciate all the sounds, sights, colors, and other sensations that you are experiencing in that moment. With practice, you will continue to build your “mindfulness muscle” and may experience the some of the many benefits of mindfulness such as improved mood, immune system, emotional regulation, focus, and resilience.

Taylor Finley is a practicum therapist with Relate Counseling Center in Minnetonka.

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