It is widely accepted that our state of mind impacts our physical body. We have even adopted this into our common language. “Pain in the neck” is a well-used phrase that demonstrates a level of stress that someone is experiencing. This phrase is usually relegated to an identified individual or event that is creating a stress response within us that is then being felt physically. Stress is an experience that is derived from a perception. We observe something in our environment, and we respond to it internally. We believe something is happening; therefore, our bodies respond. What that means is that our body is responding to a belief, something that may not actually be happening to us.
Let’s put this into an example. You are sitting in traffic on your way to work and you start thinking about the possibility of being late for an important meeting. Scenarios begin to play in your mind of what will happen if you are late. You start to worry, and you start to feel stressed. This entire process began with one thought; the thought about being late. You don’t have any proof that you will in fact be late, it is just a thought. There is no evidence that you will be late because that is in the future, and you can’t predict the future. Regardless, you begin to feel slightly panicked. You feel a pit develop in your stomach. Your head gets light and fuzzy. Your heart rate and respiration begin to increase. Your body is beginning to feel the results of Fight or Flight. Your body is responding in a way to prepare you to survive a dangerous situation. Remember, this is all perceived and you may not be late for the meeting after all. If you have thoughts of this nature often, your body continues to experience this same stress reaction repeatedly, and you will begin to feel muscle tension.
Our body is responding to a belief, something that may not actually be happening to us.– Michael Senko
This leads me back to the earlier example of having a pain in the neck. This muscle tension is based on a perceived moment in your life. Now, in addition to the traffic, let’s take this moment and add work responsibilities, family and relationship responsibilities, bills and financial responsibilities, and any other ongoing daily responsibilities that you may also be experiencing. If all those items are occurring for long periods of time, and the list seems to continue to expand, a stiff neck may in fact be a result.
The previous example is just one demonstration of the mind-body experience that could result in a negatively felt outcome. The body and brain are consistently communicating through the means of chemicals. We witness a moment in our lives, then we repeatedly replay that moment in our minds making us feel a certain way time and again. Ultimately, the feelings of those moments will begin to live in our physical bodies as memories. The more you practice a thought process or behavior, the more proficient you become at replicating that same process in the future.
On a more helpful note, driving is another example of the same process. Our bodies do the driving while other parts of the brain ponder what to make for dinner or that we have laundry to do when we get home. Our rehearsal of driving further reinforces the muscle memory of the action of driving. Whether it is driving or worrying, the same memorization process occurs. If left unchecked, a negatively felt process can lead to more than just a “pain in the neck.” Headaches, back pain, illnesses, acne, and ulcers are just a few examples that medical professionals have already accepted as the results of prolonged psychological distress.
Now that we have some insight into how our psychological stress can translate directly into uncomfortable physical situations, let’s now at some coping skills to help reduce the occurrence of these moments. It is important, however, to practice these following strategies daily, and not only when stress is at its most intense.
- Meditation – Meditation is the act of focusing on one thought at a time. This can be accomplished by focusing on your breathing, or a repeated thought process such as a mantra. By practicing the focusing of your thoughts, you can begin to slow down worrisome thought cycles, and develop the control of what you would rather think about instead. There are many books and videos available to help begin and develop a meditative practice. Practicing a form of daily meditation helps reduce the bodies nervous system activation, thus allowing you to feel more of a sense of calm in situations that used to be stressful.
- Journaling – Journaling is an effective way to practice your thought and feeling identification. The simple act of writing down what you are thinking and feeling can, in and of itself, help make you feel better. But the main purpose of journaling is to bring your awareness to what you is going on in your mind and body. The more aware you are of what is going on in your mental, emotional, and physical experience, the more you will be able to institute change and feel a sense of mastery in your life.
- Massage – Therapeutic massage helps reduce muscle tension. Let’s face it, it can also feel pretty darn good, too. So, give yourself the time that you deserve and schedule a session for massage.
- Nutrition – Food effects mood. What we put into our bodies will inevitably impact how we feel. It is known that caffeine can contribute to anxiety and higher blood pressure. It is also known that alcohol and illicit drugs impact the brain’s development and functioning. Attempt to be more mindful of what you are eating and when.
- Exercise – Research shows that exercise increases dopamine levels, helping us be more resistant to depression and can create an outlet for anxious energy. Finding groups with whom you can exercise can create accountability for when you are not in the mood to be active. So, “take a hike” to reduce that “pain in the neck.”
There are many other ways in which you can reduce your stress levels. Aromatherapy, gardening, music therapy, creative arts, etc. Everyone has their own unique formula for what works best for them. Experiment to find out what the perfect combination is for you.