The act of being physically present within our body has a tremendous impact on the mind. It encourages us to acknowledge our needs, spend time with our emotions, and feel our body’s unique strengths and limitations. When in our body fully, without distraction, we are able to integrate how we feel, with what we feel. In these moments, we appear as our most honest and most complete self (Van der kolk, 2015).
The condition of our intimate mind-body relationship defines our self image, our sense of agency and our sense of control over the challenges of life. The daily needs and rhythms of our body form the stage upon which we experience the world around us (Van der kolk, 2015). Our mind-body relationship is so precious in fact, that bodily autonomy is considered a most basic human need (Potter, 2020).
Physicality is a term used here to describe the physical activities and movements that connect us to the energy created within our body naturally each day.
Physical exertion has been shown to lower stress levels through systemic regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. It can also release endorphins that improve our mood and enhance the activity of reward chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. When under the influence of such hormonal changes, our minds and bodies are better able to resist the impact of stressors (Potter, 2020).
Engaging in activities and movement of the body increases neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) as well as increases the growth factors required for optimal functioning of the brain (Potter, 2020).
Physicality is so powerful, that research has shown that engaging our body for 30 minutes each day is able to manage the symptoms of moderate anxiety similarly to that of medication alone. Intentional movement of the body has been shown to produce similar outcomes as using cognitive behavioral therapy alone (Potter, 2020).
Incredibly, there is a demonstrable therapeutic effect on the body after just one session of physicality (Potter, 2020). Engaging in a session every other day has shown to provide consistent mental health benefits that include enhanced mental clarity and reduced fatigue (UW, 2012).
Physicality has been shown to improve bowel and bladder function as well as enhance our ability to sleep through the night and feel rested in the morning. Movement helps our metabolism speed up, regulating our blood sugar and burning more calories in the day. Additionally, physicality reduces our blood pressure and cholesterol levels - improving our overall heart health (UW, 2012).
Moving our bodies offers us a way to gain confidence and relieve feelings of worry through action. It can also offer a distraction, while increasing our opportunities for social interaction. Long term - physicality enhances our mental health, physical health and overall sense of well-being (Potter, 2020).
Before Getting Started
To begin our physicality efforts, we may consider setting a one hour timer on our phone for when we are in front of a screen. Each hour, we stand up and slowly stretch for five minutes. We can also add physicality into our daily routine right away by increasing walking speeds, taking alternative routes, and spending break time outdoors (UW, 2012).
Let's be sure to take a moment to assess our needs and preferences regarding physicality. We can do so by listing out realistic goals we have for ourselves and the outcomes of our endeavors. We should be sure to fully consider, and prepare for, any personal limitations that may alter how we approach physical efforts (UW, 2012).
Remember to begin all new movement efforts slowly, so as to not overload the body and experience pain. Let's also consider any medications we are taking, and the impact those medications may have on our heart rate or blood pressure. We should also discuss all new physicality regimens with our healthcare provider, as they may have insight to our body and our unique needs (UW, 2012).
We benefit from trying to stay focused on the things we are able to do, instead of what we cannot. Be sure to think about what time of day is best, consider friends to share the endeavors with, and research classes or clubs nearby that are interesting. We may consider tracking our time spent on physicality in a journal so we can look back on, and feel pride in, the efforts we’ve made (UW, 2012).
Try to engage the techniques below for 10 minutes at a time to create a more immersive experience. Remember while engaging in physicality to listen to physical needs. Stay hydrated, stay cool, wear appropriate clothing, and be aware of surroundings to prevent injury (UW, 2012).
Deep Breathing Exercises - This is a technique recommended for managing all forms of intense emotion, as it allows us to take a step back from the upsetting stimuli, catch our breath and self-soothe. This is accomplished by focusing our energy on slow, deep, even inhalation and exhalation (USDHHS, 2021 April). To start, we breathe in deeply while counting to four. Next, we hold our breath for four seconds. Then exhale for four seconds. We do this at least five times in a row before moving on to our next task. We can also play music with a slow beat, and breath to the rhythm (USDHHS, 2021 June).
Progressive Muscle Relaxation - Here we slowly tense and relax our muscle groups in order. This effort allows us to identify areas of the body where we are holding tension, and practice relaxing that area and we work to soothe whatever stressor has triggered us.
Begin by seeking out a safe, quiet area and setting aside 15 minutes to complete the strategy (Torres, 2021).
- Start by standing with the back as straight as possible, shoulders back, chin up, with feet shoulder distance apart. Keep the abdominals pulled in and the back straight, and curve the pelvis down and forward to lower the center of gravity. We may also choose to lay down for this effort - in which case we try to find a flat, comfortable surface where we can elongate our spine fully.
- Next, take ten slow, deep breaths (four seconds inhaling, four seconds exhaling).
- We then place our intention on the top of our head or the soles of our feet. It may help to use our hands or another surface to touch the area we wish to start from in order to generate sensation there. Return to straight before starting.
- We squeeze the muscles we've chosen as hard as we can - inhaling for five seconds.
- Next, we exhale for five seconds while releasing the tension. Let's be sure to focus on maintaining the relaxation for the full five seconds.
- Choose the next muscle group to work, and tense for five seconds on inhale. Exhale and hold the release for five seconds.
- We continue on until we reach the opposite end of our body.
Mediation - In an effort to cultivate internal awareness, mediation offers us the chance to focus our attention on the thoughts, emotions and sensations occurring in our body at any given time. The goal of time spent meditating is to observe what we think and feel objectively and without passing judgment on ourselves. When we have a thought or feeling arise, we evaluate and observe it, then let it pass through us and away without allowing it to trigger a larger physical reaction. There are many forms of mediation, including mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). We may benefit from researching the different types of mediation before getting started to find the style that best suits us. There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person classes that require a financial commitment.
Dance - Dancing offers us a unique means of expression that enhances our ability to integrate emotions, thoughts, and the need to be social into our physical body. It allows us true individuality, and an ability to connect with our body’s strengths and limitations in a playful manner. It is a coping strategy by itself, and can be used to improve our self-esteem and body image, expand our movement vocabulary and gain insights into patterns of thinking and behavior (ADTA, 2022). If we’re not ready to dance with others, we can begin by dancing by ourselves. Choose a favorite song and sway slowly to the beat from start to finish. We can close our eyes and feel each movement. Here we do not pass judgment on our body during this effort. Instead we embrace our body and its ability to move us.
Swimming - Spending time in the water can provide us with a reduction in symptoms of stress and depression alongside enhanced cognitive flexibility and improved selective attention (Acordi Da Silva, 2019). Although it is sometimes difficult to find a safe, affordable place to swim, we may consider searching for the pools nearest us to determine if there may be a way to incorporate aquatics into our physicality efforts.
Weather Engagement - Consider taking a few minutes and experiencing the outside weather for as long as it is safe to do so. Close both eyes and allow the wind to push against skin and hair. Let the rain fall and experience each drop as a unique interaction with the world. Maybe we take our shoes off and touch the soil beneath us, sensing the temperature and texture.
Yoga - This is the practice of posture changes and breathing techniques combined with mediation and relaxation strategies. This therapy is ascribed to an ancient philosophy originating in India, and it offers gentle exercise of the muscles and lungs (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person therapies that require a financial commitment.
Tai Chi / Qigong - Much like yoga, this practice utilizes posturing, slow movements and mediation to control the flow of energy as it travels through our body. Based in eastern medicine, this strategy has a spiritual component that helps us cultivate our own understanding of our vital energy, or ‘qi’ (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). There are online classes available for free, as well as in-person therapies that require a financial commitment.
Massage - By manipulating the muscle layers and connective tissues, we are able to release tension, promote relaxation and better connect our minds with areas of our bodies that may be holding onto emotional and physical pain (Van der kolk, 2015). Each massage therapist will have their own approach and area of expertise. We can empower ourselves to research the type of massage we think will benefit us the most, seek out the best practitioner for our preferences, and move on to another practitioner if we find that we didn’t benefit from the time spent together.
Reiki - Originating in Japan, this strategy uses light touch to focus our internal intention on areas where we desire healing. Through this effort, we are able to access our ‘source’ or ‘universal’ energy and guide it toward feelings of comfort and overall health (Potter, 2020).
Cupping - This therapy has deep cultural roots, with Chinese, Egyptian and middle eastern practitioners dating back thousands of years. The activity itself involves placing a cup onto the skin, and using heat or an alternative to create suction. This increase in pressure then breaks apart tiny blood vessels and draws fluid to the area, leaving behind a circular bruise. The body then treats the area as if it is an injury which stimulates the natural healing process and addresses pain (CC, 2020).
Acupuncture - This therapy uses very thin, solid, metal needles to penetrate the skin in highly sensitive areas of the body. Once inserted, the needles stay in place for a set amount of time, while we focus on maintaining a relaxed pose (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). Electrical stimulation may also be used to help alter our perception of pain and discomfort. When working with an acupuncturist, focus on developing a calm, soothing head space for the duration of the visit and pay attention to acts of needle hygiene (no reused needles, use of sanitizer, hand washing).
Biofeedback - This therapy utilizes medical instruments that track our vital signs, body functionality, and muscle tension in order to provide real-time feedback on how our body is responding to stress and discomfort. A smart watch that tracks our heart rate for example. We can then use this insight to identify which stimuli generate which response from our bodies, and find ways we can control our physical reactions when triggered (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1).
Osteopathy - Medical doctors (MDs) are trained in conventional western medicine as are doctors of osteopathy (DOs). There is a distinction between the two forms of education, in that a DO uses the same diagnostic and medical treatments as an MD, yet they are also trained in physical manipulation techniques that emphasize the relationship between structure and function within the body (Potter, 2020 Box 27-1). This perspective focuses on treating the patient as a whole person, as opposed to treating the symptoms that have presented. We may benefit from engaging a DO in a health care setting who is experienced in mental health challenges.
Walking - Adding more walks into our daily routine is a low impact strategy that is attainable without any upfront investment. Here we consider walking to our local destination, scheduling friends or coworkers for walks during the work day, or parking farther from our destination to avoid the traffic at the entrance. Some malls, community centers and senior centers offer locations where walking clubs can meet to walk around a climate-controlled environment. Social media can help connect us to a wide range of walking club opportunities in our community, as well (UW, 2012).
Playing - Although our adult lives rarely provide us with the energy, time or opportunity to play, it can have a remarkable impact on our mood, self-image and interpersonal relationships. Next time the offer comes up, we can benefit from allowing our pet, child or family member to convince us to have a playdate. If we feel a time pressure or weight of other responsibilities, we can set a timer for 15 minutes and plan a short game. Allowing ourselves time to enjoy the company and happiness of our loved ones puts us more in control of our day.
Stretching - While stretching activities are listed above, traditional stretching is focused on improving muscle flexibility in an effort to maintain our ability to perform activities of daily living and prevent injuries. The goal of this strategy is to stretch for at least 10 minutes per day after warming up for a few minutes. We hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, and alternate stretches between muscle groups (UW, 2012). To get started, enter ‘static stretches’ into a preferred search engine and see if any options peak an interest.
Community Programs - We may consider joining a local community center, a YMCA or YWCA, or a local sports league as we explore our physicality. We can start by looking up our area on community forums like NextDoor, Facebook or Reddit to see if any local outdoor events are coming up. We may visit a local farmers market, community garden or park to see if upcoming events are being planned. Volunteering a few hours to engage socially with our neighbors while we engage our physicality is also an option. PokemonGo as a virtual reality game where we can play outdoors while meeting others who play as well.
Aerobics Videos - Some of us may not feel comfortable visiting a gym, joining a class, or playing a sport. In that case, consider a video program filled with energy and encouragement. Jane Fonda offers 30 minute, easy going workouts that allow us to meet ourselves at our own level and hear words of affirmation that support and motivate us. Richard Simmons, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Blanks and Tamilee Webb all have some incredible routines that are fun and easy to enjoy.
Strength training - Training our muscles against weight has been shown to reduce the likelihood of fractures, improve cognition and enhance flexibility (UW, 2012). This takes the form of lifting weights, pulling weights against resistance, or creating our own tension to push against (leaning on a wall for example). There is an almost unlimited number of strategies available regarding weight training. Enter ‘get started with weight training’ into a preferred search engine for more information.
Our bodies have been known to hold on to tensions that we associate with certain negative emotions. This may occur in ways that are easily recognizable. Imagine the example of someone with their head down, shoulders stooped, shuffling as they walk. From that description alone, we can understand a few things about that person and how they may be feeling (Van der kolk, 2015).
Sometimes, our bodies hold onto tensions in ways that surprise us, especially those of us who have lived through deep traumas. It is possible that we may begin our physicality regimen, and find that strong, unexpected emotions are brought to the surface in the process (Van der kolk, 2015). This may be a small, pestering emotion lingering in the back of our mind that we can’t quite place, or it may present itself as a full on flashback.
In the event that a troubling memory, thought or belief arises, we must be patient and compassionate with ourselves. We honor our presence in our body by allowing our emotions to exist. Though painful, allowing those emotions to loosen their hold on our mind and body is a critical step in mental health recovery. It's a sign that we are moving toward an improved internal balance. If possible, we may make time in the moment to sit with the feelings that came up and explore the meaning behind them.
Feeling these negative emotions may cause us to want to give up on our physicality efforts, in hopes of avoiding being uncomfortable. But we don’t have to give these emotions the power to separate us from our body. They will pass if we let them. We can be stronger than those memories, and seek support from our loved ones or like-minded friends as we progress through this part of the journey.