Mindful Movement and Mental Health Part 2 – A Mind-Body-Brain Approach to Wellness

“As we begin to re-experience a visceral re-connection with the needs of our bodies, there is a brand-new capacity to warmly love the self.  We experience a new quality of authenticity in our caring, which redirects our attention to our health, our diets, our energy, our time management.  This enhanced care for the self-arises spontaneously and naturally, not as a response to a “should.”  We are able to experience an immediate and intrinsic pleasure in self-care.” – Stephen Cope, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.

In my last blog (part 1) I shared my introduction to the benefits of mindful movement (yoga, mindfulness meditations, breathing, and guided relaxation exercises) with the middle school students I worked with in Portland, OR.  I want to expand on how a mindful movement approach to wellness could work for you.  And just like the middle school students learned, you have the personal agency to decide what works and what doesn’t for you.

What I love about yoga and mindfulness is it asks you to pause, slow down, and non-judgmentally tune into your whole experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations, behaviors) in the present moment in a curious versus critical way.  The practices condition and train your mind to tune in and ask “What’s going on?” vs. “What’s wrong?”.  The first question, I believe opens us up to calmly and curiously attend to our experience and determine what we need.  The latter can lead to a frantic or anxiety-based reaction of labeling our experience as wrong or bad and focusing on fixing it or making it go away.  I often encourage my couples and parents to try this simple language change technique when checking in with their partner or children.  It can be a tricky habit to change. 

For example, I can easily be at home with my family and in my own head of worries while interacting with them.  Sometimes my husband notices I’m a bit off before I do.  And if he asks me “what’s wrong”, sometimes I can react defensively “What do you mean, nothing’s wrong, why do you think something is wrong?  I’m fine.” or I may respond with a detached and simple “Nothing.” And then the conversation and opportunity to connect to myself and partner at a deeper level is missed.  If he asks, “What’s going on or more specifically what’s going on for you right now you seem distracted?” I tend to pause and be more open to reflect on that question and share or re-engage fully with my family and let the distracting thoughts or feelings go.  The second phrasing of the question allowed me to return to presence with my family vs. become anxious or disconnect.   Same with children, if I ask my son “what’s wrong?”, he tends to take on the lens of hmm…what is wrong?  And he may search to answer that question from a lens of wrong when nothing was wrong to begin with.  Or he may have an emotion of anger or sadness but those are not wrong emotions to be fixed, but my what’s wrong questioning puts that filter or judgement around his feelings.  Now, I’m not saying we can never ask someone what is wrong, in fact, it is a perfectly normal, fine, and at times needed question.  The challenge is to slow down and mindfully tune in to our self and others and determine if that is the most helpful question in that moment.  This is the skill and practice of awareness and self-awareness.

So, how else does the practice of mindful movement help us tune into our whole experience?  Yoga through its movement, breathing, and relaxation practices teach us to inhabit our body.  To soothe and relax the muscles and balance our heart rate to stay calm and regulated.  Then our mind and brain can intentionally and appropriately respond to the present moment and do so in a wise and healing way.  Yoga is often referred to as bottom-up regulation.  It teaches us to tune into the body first and attend to the visceral or deep inward feelings (sensations) before the intellect which would be top-down regulation.  This is a practice, and the calming and staying in the present, is so important.

As Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book title implies “The Body Keeps Score”, meaning our body holds onto trauma and painful experiences.   If you’ve been in a car accident you know that it takes time to drive in a car again without flinching, tensing, or an increased heart rate.  Those sensations are telling you that you may be feeling anxious or scared, which makes sense, your body remembers the terror of getting into an accident.  It remembers that experience and holds onto it protectively, even if there are no current, present threats.  The work of yoga and mindfulness and trauma work in general is learning to let go of or change those associations that keep you consciously or unconsciously stuck in the trauma.  Tune in and notice you are gripping the steering wheel for your 30min drive to work or your heart is racing.  The cost of not noticing means stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) pumping through your body and you may arrive to work agitated and jumpy or tired and withdrawn.  The bottom up regulation approach would be relaxing or softening the hands, taking deep breaths and in time the association of driving and accident go away or when they come up, you know how to return to the present moment of safety via the body and breath.  Yoga is full of cues to tune into areas of your body and notice what they feel like.  It wasn’t until yoga that I realized my shoulders are often tense and up towards my ears and my jaw clenched.  Those regular cues to soften the jaw, relax the shoulders in yoga class carry through for me off the mat.  And when I notice I can breathe, relax, and let go vs. hold onto that tension that leads to muscle pain, headaches, and continued release of stress hormones.

Yoga and mindfulness also teach us to befriend our feelings and feelings are sensations in the body.  I know that may sound a bit woo woo (slang term for unconventional, supernatural, pseudo-scientific) but stick with me.  Anxiety is a top concern that brings clients into my office.  Clients comes to me feeling fearful of their anxiety, rightfully so, for some it has had debilitating effects on their relationships and life.   They experience traumatic panic attacks that leave an imprint of fear, causing them to avoid situations and events which leads to isolation and sometimes feelings of depression.  If you have ever had a panic attack, you know, it is as if you are dying and you can convince yourself you are.  So, befriending anxiety and panic may sound, well woo-woo, but again it is a practice and a trauma informed yoga approach emphasizes skill building and choice. 

For me, I often start with validating a client’s responses to their anxiety and teach them a bit about the brain and the fight, flight, freeze survival response.  I acknowledge that of course they avoid going to parties if they lead to panic attacks, that is terrifying to have experienced.  I work to lift the shame and again that “What’s wrong with me?” thinking that can keep us stuck.  I honor the strategies they are using to avoid and minimize their suffering and empower them to know they can learn new ways.  They can learn to thrive and not just survive.  They can train their brain and body to tolerate anxiety and see it as a helpful emotion versus an emotion to run from or fight.  We often start our work with awareness and learning to identify how you experience the emotion of anxiety.  I encourage clients to get curious and note throughout the week what situations trigger anxiety, what does that anxiety feel like in their body (where do they feel it?), what are their thoughts, action tendencies, and what do they actually do in those moments?  They work to note these things and by writing the thoughts they often identify their thoughts around the feelings of anxiety are anything but friendly.  We then map this out into an anxiety spiral and find an entry point to break the cycle or spiral of anxiety.  For some with anxiety, breathing is not regulating, especially if they have had panic attacks that include a feeling of suffocating and not being able to breath.  So, the entry point may be their thoughts and intentionally getting outside of their critical head and naming everything they see in their surrounding (table, chair) and then moving to the other senses (connecting to body) what do I feel (rub hand on chair they are sitting in), what do I smell, hear, taste?  We practice this in session when they are not triggered, and I encourage them to throughout the week so they can access it easier when they are. I relate the important of practice to performance activities (sports, acting, speeches), we practice so that when we are in the pressure situation, we have the confidence and muscle memory to move through it and thrive. 

A couple amazing past clients share more here on their experience of using mindful movement in counseling: https://www.danellechapman.com/what-is-mindful-movement (scroll down to “What Do Clients Say about Mindful Movement?).

Wishing you all moments to pause, tune in, respond, and thrive.

Yours in Mindful Movement and good health,

Danelle