Balance in the Mind and Body
What does it mean to live a balanced life and how do you actually achieve it?
There is a lot of talk about balance and its connection to health and well being; “eat a balanced diet”, “everything in moderation”, “take the good with the bad”, etc. But as with any theme, how people understand balance varies. Many people go about their lives without recognizing what is keeping them from achieving balance; some simply do not realize how an imbalance may be working against them; and others are very aware of an imbalance and struggle to correct it.
As a therapist, this theme comes up a lot in the counselling setting, and even more so since the world has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Around the world people are finding themselves lost without their routines or social outlets. Many are struggling to stay motivated enough to shower and get off the couch; while others are tackling project after project, or using this time to nurture their creativity. All of these behaviours are related to balance. Before you read on, take a moment and think about what balance means to you. How balanced is your life? I encourage you to write down what comes to mind.
The truth is many people are coming to realize how imbalanced their daily lives were before we were all forced into our homes for self-isolation. It is now becoming apparent to some that their mind and body have become enslaved to their job, their lifestyle, or even their routines. It is important to recognize that no matter how you are personally responding to self-isolation and physical distancing, your body is trying to adjust to this, trying to achieve balance- or homeostasis.
Homeostasis in the body
Basically, your body is constantly trying to achieve what is known as homeostasis. This simply put, means that the two branches of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) (connected to your Central Nervous System) aka- the thing that controls almost everything in your body- attempts to reach a balanced state. Ideally, these two branches have a wonderful give/take relationship; but if you live with symptoms of anxiety, it is likely that your sympathetic nervous system is too “activated”, too often. If you suffer from depressive symptoms, you have likely been stuck in your parasympathetic nervous system for too long (feeling tired, low-motivation, lethargic, etc.). This relationship is what is known as our stress response. It’s a great and helpful thing in life, but if it is unable to reach homeostasis for a length of time, we develop a dis-regulated stress response. This can happen in subtle ways over a long period of time due to chronic stress, everyday stress, or a traumatic event.
We all have different responses to stress, but if your stress response reaches fight, flight, or freeze, it is likely that you have one or all of the following symptoms: have started sweating profusely; your hands and knees are shaking; you're hot, then cold, then hot again; you feel like you may pass out at any given moment; you feel sick to your stomach; your body tense; your heart like it's going to explode from your chest; and I guarantee your breath rate is upward to 17-20 breaths per minute (not that you are thinking about your breath rate during these moments, of course). But, the wonderful thing about all this is that we can use our breath to stop these physical reactions (and the mental ones- lets be honest) in their tracks.
Now, try this. Take your middle and your index finger and place it on your neck (in that place where you can feel your pulse). Hold it there and feel the rhythm of your heartbeat. Now, continue to hold your fingers in the same place and take a nice long, deep inhale. Once you reach the top of your breath take a LONG and SLOW exhale. What do you notice about your heart rate in relation to your breath? Hopefully, you felt your heart start to beat faster as you inhaled, and slow down as you exhaled. If not, try again. 😊
INHALE= Increases heart rate, activates sympathetic nervous system- aka- stress response.
EXHALE= Decreases heart rate, activates parasympathetic nervous system- aka- relaxation response.
The goal is to have balance between these two branches, which means balance between our inhales and exhales. Take a moment right now to recognize how you are breathing. If you’re like me, you might hold your breath when your focused on something. This also causes a stress response in the body, or at least causes you to feel dizzy when you get up too fast. Try and recognize how you are breathing as you go through the rest of your day. You will surprise yourself.
In today's society, many people go about their lives rushing, talking, moving quickly- causing them to breathe quick, shallow breaths that keep the stress response ready-to-go at any time. Think back to what came to mind when you thought about how balance shows up in your life. What activities or behaviours do you participate in that might cause you to breathe more rapidly? When you are exercising are you breath holding, or shallow breathing? What external situations cause panic or anxiety? If you are feeling a low-mood, what is it like then? No matter what it is you are recognizing through this breath-awareness, there is one simple way you can establish control over these states of body and mind; and that is practicing diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. When you breathe from your belly, rather than your chest, you are using your diaphragm (like professional singers), which expands sort of like a balloon, “hugging the heart” as a colleague of mine explained once. This helps your heart rate remain in normal range, and controls the stress response before your stress hormones are released, and your mind and body go down the rabbit hole. Because after that stress response is activated and the hormones are released, you are in for a few hours of stress hormones flowing through your blood stream.
Now, try this. Take a moment and lie down somewhere calm and comfortable. Place your hands on your stomach and try and expand your breath deep down into the area you're holding. Some people prefer to put one hand on their chest, and one on their stomach to bring more awareness to where they are gathering their breath in their body. It may take a few breath cycles get this if you are not used to breathing this intentionally, but it will come with practice. Your body intrinsically knows how to do this- you were born with this ability. Spend a few minutes doing this deep-belly breathing every day if you can. I bet you will feel better. If you have trouble sleeping, do this breath practice and you will very likely fall asleep. 😊
To be catapulted into a new lifestyle with new demands is going to have an impact on everyone to some extent. Take note of what expectations you have of yourself right now, and ask yourself if they are realistic. Be careful not to compare yourself to others on your social media, because trust me- they are also feeling this shift. Trust that your body will achieve balance if you allow the opportunity. Meet yourself with some compassion. What activities you end up using to help nurture this process will depend entirely on your own personality and interests- but start with your breathing. Trust me. And come on, we could all use a little ‘heart-hug’.