What is Health?
Health is the state of being free from illness or injury. Body By Bowens promotes the idea of TRUE health being the the application of this definition to 3 arenas: MIND, BODY, & FOOD. These arenas work interdependently and must all be trained for optimum health. In this article, I’ll go over simple strategies to train the mind specifically.
The most ignored aspect of health in American health culture is mental health. Most of us aren’t aware that our thinking plays a major role in the choices we make or how stress, both physical and emotional, affects the physiological workings or our bodies. In order to understand how we can create strategies to improve our mental health, we have to understand how stress affects our thinking and body function.
I’d like to introduce two divisions of your autonomic nervous system: sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) systems. I like to refer to these as your “survival” systems because control the reactions of your body when you’re feeling threatened, or when you know you’re safe.
The SNS and Stress
The sympathetic nervous system or, “fight or flight” nervous system, is activated when you have a perceived threat. If you were to take a walk in the woods and a bear jumped out behind a rock, this is the system that would be activated. When active, the sympathetic nervous system fires up your body to react to a threat by increasing heart rate, increasing respiration, dilated blood vessels, inhibiting digestion, and increasing blood glucose. All of things our doctors hate. Ideally this reaction should be short lived, however, due to the nature of modern life stressors this isn’t always the case. Our bodies perceive stress as stress. Our bodies don’t know the difference between lowering a 315 lb barbell to our chest or a 315 lb rock falling on our chest. It will react to the stress the same way by activating that “fight or flight” response. Also, emotional stressors like a dysfunctional workplace, getting a call from your child’s principal, or a death in the family will signal for a similar response.
If we don’t know how to manage this stress, our bodies can be stuck in that “fight or flight” response for days, weeks, months and in some cases years. Chronic stress and the overstimulation of the SNS can lead to heart disease, depression, mental illness, adrenal fatigue, chronic malaise, insomnia, diabetes, and more. Hopefully now we understand the importance of dealing with these stressors as a means of optimizing health.
Rest and Digest
The parasympathetic system lies on the opposite end of the spectrum as the sympathetic. This system is nicknamed the “rest and digest” system and is critical in the recovery process. When we understand that we aren’t under threat anymore and truly learn to relax, this system kicks in and allows are body to efficiently partake in all of it’s recovery processes. During this time heart rate and respiration decrease, blood flow improves, sleep quality improves, digestion improves, mood improves, and this system is also proven to be a major player in slowing the aging process. Put simply, quality and longevity of life are dependent on how much time we can spend taking advantage of this systems benefits! Below are a few practices that help up stay get back to the PNS, when life gets crazy.
1.) Breathing Exercise – This is probably the simplest way to elicit a PNS response when you are feeling stressed, angry, or anxious. Simply take in a big breath, breathing into the belly, then exhale on an 8 second count in a controlled manner. Continue to breathe this way, while focusing on what happens to the body when you’re breathing, for 3 minutes. Breathing this way is a way to signal to your body that you have control and that you aren’t threatened.
2.) Awareness Practice – One symptom of too much SNS stimulation is what’s referred to as “tunnel vision.” Many of us experience this as we drive to a stressful workplace . We can get in our cars, drive to work, and walk into the office without really having recollection of the environment outside of the car while driving. At this point we are stuck in a tunnel vision of thought where we are allowing the stressors of our lives to affect our life experiences or lack thereof. Awareness practices take you out of that tunnel vision and bring you back to the present moment.
Driving awareness is one of the best ways to practice being present. When you’re in the car and you know you’re stressed. Be mindful that you’re stressed and try to find 3 things in the environment that you may have overlooked or months or even years. Being mindful of the present moment will help you’re body switch gears back to the PNS.
3.) Meditation – Ok I know, some of you are thinking of a monk sitting crosslegged humming on a cushion somewhere when I mention meditation. It turns out, however, that meditation is the most powerful, game changing practice when it comes to stress management; and you can practice this anywhere! Meditation is simply a way for you to recognize your thought process and learn to be non-judging toward them.
All day long we are talking to ourselves and creating narratives around how people perceive us or how we perceive ourselves. Sometimes these thoughts can be positive and motivating, but oftentimes these thoughts can be negative and debilitating. Meditation helps us identify these thoughts and understand that we don’t have to let them affect our emotional state, preventing us from going into unnecessary SNS responses.
If you are unsure of where to start in regards to meditation, there is an awesome app called HEADSPACE, that will walk you through the whole thing. You’ll see a difference in just a few consecutive days using this!
The MIND is a terrible thing to waste
Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far in the article, you understand how important it is to have regular practice with these strategies. I assure you they will make a noticeable difference very quickly. Your mind is the most crucial part of living a healthy, fulfilling life, so don’t waste it!
-Howard Bowens III