Happy Mind, Healthy Body

Five easy ways to achieve mind-body wellness.

By Maryann Hammers

Long-distance runner Beth Weinstein remembers a particularly grueling 50K trail race last year. “I was undertrained, tired, in tons of pain,” she recalls. “It was muddy and wet from heavy rain—many runners didn’t finish.”

But Beth wasn’t about to give up. So, she began repeating positive mantras in her mind:

My knee feels great!
Strong, fast, easy, smooth.
My legs are full of energy.

“I focused my mind, listened to only my breath, and shifted my energy,” she says.

Beth not only finished in the top third, but she also beat her time from the previous year. Now a firm believer in the mind-body connection, she attends group meditation sessions and named her Brooklyn-based activewear company, OnlyAtoms, in recognition of the “connection between energy and matter,” she says. “It sounds nuts, but it works and it’s really cool.”

Akram Alashari, MD, a general surgeon at the University of Florida in Gainesville, affirms the mind-body link. “In response to emotions and feelings, the endocrine system secretes hormones, and the nervous system releases neurotransmitters, which affect every organ system,” he explains. “Worry, anxiety, depression, and any negative stress response lead to deleterious effects such as immune system suppression.”

Stress raises heart rate, cholesterol,1 and blood pressure. 2 It causes fat to accumulate around our bellies, 3 boosting the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular death.4 And women are more likely than men to experience heart problems while under stress, according to recent research from Duke University School of Medicine. 5

“People often dismiss the connection between emotions and physiology,” says Dana Simpler, MD, a board-certified Baltimore internist who specializes in what she calls “lifestyle medicine.”

“Think of a time when you had a near-miss experience— nearly in a car accident, nearly dropped something fragile and valuable, or imagined a burglar in your home,” says Dr. Simpler. “Your heart pounded; you broke out in a sweat; you felt a shock through your system. Your body reacts to mental stress.”

Bottom line: What harms the mind—such as stress— harms the body. And the reverse is also true: what soothes the soul boosts your physical health.

“All things are connected—relationship interactions, medical diagnoses, psychological makeup, spiritual belief,” says Michelene Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego. “When one is affected, a ripple effect occurs among the others. Mind-body wellness means we take care of both simultaneously.”

You are probably already aware of time-honored exercises such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness and breathing techniques. But you can also incorporate mind-body wellness into your everyday life in myriad ways.

Here are five practical tips for healing mind, body, and spirit.

1. Prioritize Wellness.

When do you feel most calm, centered, alert, and energized? Perhaps it is after a yoga class or while you are taking a lunchtime stroll. Take note of those moments.

“These [instances] occur when you do things that simultaneously maximize your emotional wellbeing, physical health, and quality of life,” says psychologist Megan Jones, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at Stanford University in California.

But we can be our own worst enemies—setting up obstacles that block us from doing those things that are best for us.

While busy catering to everyone else’s needs, we may forget to make time for our own wellness. For example, a yoga class or lunchtime stroll may be just the remedy to perk you up and calm you down after a stressful day at the office, but you may feel guilty if you tear yourself away from your desk and deadlines, so you decide to skip your well-deserved “me” time.

Just Do It: If it’s good for your body and good for your soul, put it at the top of your to-do list.

If you start to worry that you should be toiling away at work or cleaning up after the kids instead of taking that morning walk, Dr. Jones says to remind yourself: Work/housework will still be there; the benefits of a walk exceed an extra hour of work/housework; I’ll feel better, be nicer, and think more creatively if I take time for myself.

2. Think Positively.

Put on those rose-colored glasses. By recognizing happy moments as they occur, you better manage adversity, buffer stress, and build resiliency against whatever curveballs life throws your way, according to a study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.6

Positive thinking can even cut your risk of heart disease in half, according to a 2001 Johns Hopkins study that for five to 12 years followed nearly 600 adults with a family history of heart disease.7 Those with an optimistic attitude were half as likely to have a heart attack, chest pain, or sudden cardiac death, regardless of age, race, or gender.

Just Do It: What brought you joy today? Take a few minutes each day to identify what you are grateful for and why, suggests Cara Maksimow, a New Jersey licensed clinical social worker who leads optimism workshops. “By consciously recognizing the positive and the good, we appreciate more and increase our happiness,” she says.

You might start a journal of what went well that day. Every night write down three positive events, experiences, people, or whatever brought you joy.

Or follow Maksimow’s lead and set up a “B.A.G. jar”: “At the end of every day, we each focus on the things we are happy and grateful for—and why. We write out on pieces of paper the best part of the day [B], what we accomplished [A], and what we are grateful for [G]. We read them to each other, put them in the jar, and get ready for bed.”

3. Doodle, Draw, And Play Away.

Art therapist Joan Stanford leads “creative playshops” at the Mendocino Center for Living Well in Northern California. “By playing with materials, words, or ideas, you unwind, release pressure, free yourself, and enjoy the process,” she says. “By having fun you escape your brain’s constant chatter and get rid of tension. Pleasure and fun are great stress relievers.”

Art therapy has powerful stress-busting benefits and “can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances,” researchers concluded in a review of studies published in the American Journal of Public Health.8

Just Do It: Find a calm place to set the stage. For example, Stanford uses candles and music in her playshops. “It helps clients get into their quiet space,” she says. Slow classical music has also been shown to lower heart and breathing rates.

Close your eyes and savor the stillness. Then scribble, write, or draw, using chalk, pastels, pencils, watercolors—whatever you like.

Notice how your body feels after having spent this time playing,” Stanford says.

4. Buddy Up.

Feeling lonely? That’s bad for your health—especially if you are older than 60, according to a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.9

“Loneliness is…associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline,” says study author Carla Perissinotto, MD, MHS, assistant professor in the UCSF Division of Geriatrics. People who described themselves as “lonely” had a 59 percent greater risk of decline and 45 percent greater risk of death, the study showed.

But those who enjoy social interaction—including going to restaurants and sporting events, attending religious events, traveling, and volunteering— maintained better muscle strength, dexterity, and balance and were 65 percent less likely to become disabled, according to a National Institute on Aging study of 906 people over 80 years old.10

Another study showed that increased strength, higher activity levels, higher self-esteem, and a larger social network are some benefits enjoyed by volunteers for Experience Corps, a program that brings adults into public elementary schools to help students improve academic performance.11

“Mind-body wellness is difficult to achieve without healthy, supportive relationships,” says Wasil. “I strongly believe in the positive effects of having a ‘tribe.’”

Just Do It: Wasil suggests asking yourself these questions: Am I spending enough time with family and friends? Am I reaching out when I need support? Is this relationship what I want? If you answer no to any of these questions, reach out and call someone. Schedule a get-together. Meet for lunch. Or volunteer for a cause you care about. Opportunities abound— in schools and in animal shelters, for churches and charities and hospitals. You will be helping others while improving your own mind-body health.

5. Get Back To Nature.

Outdoor physical activity enhances mood and boosts energy, studies find. What’s more, people who exercise in nature are more likely to want to continue, so you are more likely to get—and stay—physically fit and healthy too.

A good hike puts things in perspective for me,” says personal fitness trainer and outdoor guide Melanie Webb, owner of Sol Fitness Adventures in Utah.

“When you think about how old and how solid the mountains are, when you experience the changing seasons and the way wildlife flows and migrates with the seasons, you realize that life changes—and that’s okay. You can weather those changes just like the mountain does and come out strong on the other side.”

Just Do It: Skip the gym; take your workouts outdoors. You needn’t do a hardcore 10-mile hike or grueling backpacking trek to reap nature’s mind-body benefits. Start with a stroll through your neighborhood park or a bike ride on a country road or along the beach.

Researchers have found that people who took a 25-minute walk in a leafy park were calmer, less frustrated, and less fatigued than those who walked through urban streets, according to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.12


 

References

  1. Steptoe A, Brydon L. Associations between acute lipid stress responses and fasting lipid levels 3 years later. Health Psychology. 2005;24(6):601-7. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.24.6.601.
  2. Greenage M, Kulaksizoglu B, Cilingiroglu M, Ali R. The role of anxiety and emotional stress as a risk factor in treatment-resistant hypertension. Current Atherosclerosis Reports. 2011;13(2):129-31. doi: 10.1007/s11883-010-0154-z.
  3. New Research Links Social Stress to Harmful Fat Deposits, Heart Disease [news release]. Newswise website. Available at: http://www.newswise.com/articles/new-research-links-social-stress-toharmful-fat-deposits-heart-disease. August 5, 2009.
  4. Vogelzangs N, Beekman AT, Milaneschi Y, Bandinelli S, Ferrucci L, Penninx BW. Urinary cortisol and six-year risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2010;95(11):4959-64. doi: 10.1210/jc.2010-0192.
  5. Stress May Be Harder on Women’s Hearts than Men’s [news release]. Duke Translational Medicine Institute website. Available at: https://www.dtmi.duke.edu/news/stress-may-be-harder-womenshearts-mens. October 14, 2014.
  6. Cohn MA, Fredrickson BL, Brown SL, Mikels JA, Conway AM. Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion. 2009;9(3):361-68. doi: 10.1037/a0015952.
  7. Positive Attitude Is Best Prevention against Heart Disease [news release]. Johns Hopkins Medicine website. Available at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press/2001/NOVEMBER/011112.htm. November 12, 2001.
  8. Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(2):254-63. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497.
  9. Perissinotto CM, Stijacic Cenzer I, Covinsky KE. Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(14):1078-83. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993.
  10. Buchman AS, Boyle PA, Wilson RS, Fleischman DA, Leurgans S, Bennett DA. Association between late-life social activity and motor decline in older adults. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009;169(12):1139-46. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.135.
  11. Morrow-Howell N, Hong S, McCrary S, Blinne W. Experience Corps: Health Outcomes of Participation. Available at: http://csd.wustl.edu/Publications/Documents/RB09-09.pdf. Accessed April 23, 2015.
  12. Aspinall P, Mavros P, Coyne R, Roe J. The urban brain: Analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;49(4):272-76. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877.