Manage Stress by Listening to Your Body

Stress—it's not all in your head. The body acts as an early warning system, and people who pick up on its signals are more resilient.

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A new study in the journal Biological Psychology suggests that people with better body awareness tend to feel less stressed. That’s no surprise, perhaps, if you’ve already been practicing mindfulness, but may seem odd otherwise. Stress leads to a physiological response, such as increased heart rate or sweating. Participants who reported themselves less overwhelmed by a challenge also noticed their physical state sooner that others—with brain scans suggesting they were able to reign in anxiety before it escalated.

This relatively simple idea illustrates a somewhat complex concept around stress management and mindfulness. In part, mindfulness practice develops attention—for example, within a body scan we typically observe physical sensations from our toes gradually moving up to our head. But what’s the actual benefit of knowing what’s going on with our toes?

Start with the Body

Mindfulness is meant to be practical, and once again, this study shows why. The body scan practice monitors subtle physical shifts constantly occurring in our bodies.  Observing in this way is not an abstraction; it’s a useful approach to a less stressful life.   Through practice and over time, we develop the awareness that stress-management experts in the study discovered for themselves.

Left unattended, stress often amplifies itself all day long. A thought or experience sets us off, and that affects our body and our mood. How our body feels and our emotional state affect how we think, thoughts lead to more thoughts, on and on. Awareness of that pattern, and actively choosing to step out of the cycle, makes a world of difference. Since it’s far easier to settle ourselves when mildly stressed than after fight or flight takes over, body awareness can help.

Being aware of our bodies helps break the stress cycle. When under-aware of our physical experience, we may miss the first signs of stress. Of course it’s not only about stress, since our body reflects our emotions and provides early warnings of many shifts in mood. Even more subtly, our body influences how we feel; for example, one recent study showed poor posture (in particular, the slouch used while staring at a phone) may make our mood worse. So being aware of what’s up in our body can be one vital way of adjusting to and managing our lives.

With the body scan, we develop the capacity to notice our physical experience. Instead of following ourselves down the typical path, we practice pausing and perhaps redirecting ourselves out of our mental ruts. Or we manage to settle our racing hearts and minds before anxiety takes over. Catching the cycle early, we more easily adapt and redirect it. Try it today, and see what you find.

Adapted from Psychology Today