'The paradox of mindfulness is that it begins with the body'
In day three of his guide to feeling happier, psychologist Dr Paul D'Alton explains why even our posture can betray our stress levels
When it comes to looking after our emotional well-being and managing stress, we often tend to forget that looking after our bodies plays a central role. Research from across the world is all pointing in the same direction; good emotional well-being means not forgetting about your body. There are two steps to this. Firstly, simply paying attention to your body and secondly, physical exercise.
When people sign up to an eight-week mindfulness course, they are often surprised that the first two weeks are about the body. The paradox of mindfulness is that it begins with the body as opposed to the mind. This is based on findings from western psychology and eastern traditions that point to the importance of being aware of the body as the foundation of good mental health.
Our bodies function like the dashboard of the car - sending us warning signals that we are going too fast or are in need of fuel. We ignore these signals because we are often on automatic pilot.
Halfway through a mindfulness course at the hospital recently, a patient said: "I have been ignoring the warning signals coming from my shoulders for years."
What he was describing was the very common experience of our shoulders creeping up towards our ears as we get more stressed.
Right now - just notice how close your shoulders are to your ears. Simply noticing this and then allowing your shoulders to relax a little, brings us out of automatic pilot and interrupts the vicious cycle of stress. In this way we can use our shoulders as a signal telling us when we need to slow down or refuel. By not forgetting our bodies we can use them as the gateway to a happier and healthier life. Here's an exercise that, if you do it a few times a day, will help:
1. Pause for a moment.
2. Just notice how close your shoulders are to your ears.
3. Allow your shoulders to soften - even a tiny bit.
4. Take three deep, slow, deliberate breaths.
The second part of not forgetting your body as a way to live a happier life involves physical exercise. When we think about 'minding ourselves' and living happier lives we often get it confused with 'indulging ourselves'. When we do this we may risk turning to ice cream rather than physical exercise in a misguided attempt to "be nice to" ourselves. Despite exercise being the last thing most of us want to do when we're feeling down, there is strong evidence that exercise improves mood.
Increasingly doctors are recommending a daily dose of exercise as a 'treatment' for mild depression and anxiety. This daily dose of exercise as a treatment to improve mood is based on evidence that physical exercise releases chemicals that make us feel better. The release of neurotransmitters like endorphins and endocannabinoids from exercise has a very positive effect on our well-being. Research has also found that people who exercise regularly feel more confident, sleep better, are better at solving problems and generally tend to be more productive.
We do not need to look at any of this research to know that even after a good brisk walk we tend to feel better emotionally. It restores our sense of perspective. The American Psychological Association backs this up and has said "the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore" with research suggesting that within five minutes of a period of moderate exercise, your mood improves. The therapy offered by a brisk walk in the fresh air is free.
So if we're serious about wanting to live happier lives, we have make a commitment not to forget the body. The scientific evidence confirms that the daily dose of exercise not only improves our mood but is also proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and even some cancers. If you want to live a happier life; don't forget your body. Make a commitment to incorporate daily exercise into your life. And start taking notice of the signals the dashbord of your body is sending. Just notice how close your shoulders are to your ears right now!