Have you ever had times when you thought you felt fine all day, then someone says something to you and you just snap? You didn’t even realise you felt angry or on edge until that moment when you exploded? This happens to the best of us, as we fail to recognise our emotions early on. A way to mindfully manage this is to read your own body language.
There is an intimate and dynamic relationship between what is going on with our feelings and thoughts, and what happens in the body. The body is acutely sensitive to even the tiniest glimmer of emotions that move constantly across the mind. The body often detects our thoughts almost before we’ve consciously registered them ourselves. This means, by paying mindful attention to the body, we can feel the first stirrings of an emotion. The biggest reason why a lot of us aren’t already doing this, is because we are barely aware of our bodies at all! We often spend so much time in our head that we become disconnected from our bodies.
For example, have you ever had times when you’ve been so overwhelmed with stress or a problem that you’ve been physically sick or had an upset stomach? This is your body telling you something is wrong! By learning to “read” our body and being mindfully aware of the sensations within it, we can mindfully recognise which emotions are arising. Let’s look at some examples of how the body reacts to certain emotions:
- Anger – When you feel angry, your body often tenses up, your hands might become clenched, you might grit your teeth or wear a frown on your face. Furthermore, your breathing and heart rate will increase, and you might feel “fired up”.
- Sad or depressed – Your body might feel very heavy, you might slump in your seat or when you walk, you might do things at a slower pace, and your body might feel tired and lethargic.
- Anxious – You might become increasingly sweaty or hot, maybe your palms become clammy, you might become extremely fidgety and “on edge”, and your body might even shake. Moreover, your breathing and heart rate will increase, and your breath might become shallow and quick. The neck area may become tight and sore.
- Nervous – You might feel slightly nauseous or get that feeling in your stomach commonly described as “butterflies”. You might sweat more than usual and fluff up your words when talking to someone.
- Happy – Generally when we feel happy, our bodies feel a lot lighter. We might feel more energised and relaxed, with the appearance of a smile as our facial expressions begin to soften. Your breath might also be a lot deeper and slower.
It is important to watch how your body reacts to each emotion, as everyone is different, so how you react to a certain emotion might differ from how someone else reacts to the same emotion. Learning to recognise how your body reacts in certain situations can help you cope and mindfully deal with the emotion early, before the emotion becomes “overwhelming” and therefore a lot harder to cope with. I have gone into further detail about how to cope with emotions and how to mindfully react to them in other blog posts; to read “How to Mindfully Respond to Situations”, click here, and to read about “How to Cope with Bad Days”, click here.
So now we know that we can read our body for emotions, we can use this link in reverse, and use the body to prompt certain emotions. Research is now showing us just how powerful our bodies can be in influencing our thoughts and shifting our mood. Something as subtle as breathing, smiling, or altering your posture can have a dramatic impact on your mood and the types of thoughts that flicker across your mind. So here are some simple things you can do with your body to help create a positive effect on your mood:
- Smiling – A perfect example of how a facial expression can change how you feel is smiling. The spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy”. Scientist and spiritual teachers alike agree that the simple act of smiling can transform your mood. Smiling can not only lift your mood, it can also lift the mood of those around you, as research has shown that smiling is contagious. Wayne State University have shown that endorphins are released when a smile flashes across your face, this not only relaxes your body, but it can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, helping relieve stress, boost your immune system, and simply make you happier! So start smiling more!
- Breathing – A lot of us are told to take “deep breaths” when we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and for good reason. Our breathing and the emotions we feel are so closely connected, which is why you can change the way you feel by changing the way you breathe. As we talked about earlier in the post, depending on what you are feeling can alter the way you breathe, for example, when you are feeling anxious your breaths tend to become quick and shallow, or when you are feeling happy your breaths become deeper and slower. Patricia Gerbarg who leads the organization called Breathe-Mind-Body, says “By changing our patterns of breathing, we can change our emotional states and how we think.” This means that breathing can become a very powerful tool to help change our emotions. When you’re caught up in the intensity of an emotion, especially emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety, it can become difficult to observe your own breathing pattern. But by always paying attention to our breath, we can soon recognise when it changes, for example if you notice you are feeling anxious as your breathing rate starts to rapidly increase, you can think to yourself, “I’m breathing really fast”, and then by mindfully recognising this you can take some deep, slow breaths to bring it back to normal. Remember, you need to practise deep breathing through times of joy, not just when you’re in the grip of strong feelings, as this will mean it will be easier to practise during negative emotions.
- Relaxation – Sometimes at night if my mind is going full speed with thoughts, I try to remember to focus on my body and the sensations, and I often find that my hands are clenched and my body is tense. By mindfully recognising this, I then focus on releasing the tension in my hands and relaxing my body, and almost immediately all the thoughts in my brain slow right down and allow me to take back control. When you relax your body, your heart rate slows down, your breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your muscles relax, which helps boost your mood and leave you feeling a lot calmer. There are so many ways to achieve this relaxing state, such as meditation, yoga, stretching, visualisation, body scan meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or self-massage. One of the easiest go-to relaxations for me is the mindful body scan…
- Mindful Body Scan – Right now while you are reading this, think about the points of contact your body has on the floor, in bed, or on the chair beneath you. Start with your attention focused on your feet. How do they feel? Do they feel heavy? Relaxed? Maybe a little tense? Note how they feel against the floor, or on the mattress, and then carry on up the body towards your legs with the same process, and continue this until you reach your head. You are not judging whether they feel tense or sore, just accepting how they feel and then moving on. Now take a few deep breaths and with each breath as you breathe out, allow your body to relax and sink further into the points of contact beneath you. Start to let any tension melt away, and just focus your attention on the body sinking further and further into the surface, observing how heavy your body feels. Try and practise this for a minute or so, maybe with your eyes closed if this helps. Now again make a mental note of how you feel right now – remember this pleasant feeling carefully so next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, practise this mindful body scan.
- Posture – A recent study at the Ruhr-university at Bochum found that people who are depressed walk more slowly, and they walk with a slumped, forward-leaning posture. This can happen when your mood worsens. If you try right now sitting for a minute with your shoulders slumped forward and head down, notice how you feel. Do you feel your mood has worsened at all or your frame of mind has changed? Now shift your posture so you are now sitting or standing upright, with your head and neck balanced on your shoulders. How do you feel now? Has your mood lifted? Have your energy levels changed from the two positions? Bad posture can lead to many other problems, including lack of energy, pain and reduced breathing. When you slump, with your head and chest forward, you can cause compression of the chest cavity, which reduces the air capacity in the lungs and oxygen intake and can cause shallow breathing. This can often make you feel more tired due to the restricted oxygen intake, as your body will feel fatigued having to overwork itself. So start to keep your head centred over your shoulders, keep your shoulders back and relaxed, and your head upright, and will probably immediately find you feel more awake and your mood uplifted.
I hope you find this post useful and you will start to notice and be more mindful of the mind-body connection. With regular practise, you can use this connection to both manipulate your mood and recognise your emotions more easily.
Metta, E xx