Nancy Weiser, MBA, NBC-HWC Sharp Again Naturally Board Vice Chair
Original Article January 2021, Updated January 2023
Have you experienced a knot or butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? How about a lump in your throat when you’re sad? Have you experienced grief as “pain?” Everyone experiences physical symptoms that emanate from thoughts or emotions. Our minds live in our brains, which live inside our physical bodies. It is not surprising then that how we feel physically affects how we think and feel emotionally, and the reverse is also true.
Stress and how we experience and interpret it in our bodies can play an important role in how we age, and how we preserve our cognition as we age. The short-term stress we may experience when exercising or fasting can actually improve our clarity of thought. It is longer term, unresolved stress that negatively affects our overall health – including the health of our brain.
Our emotional center in the brain, the amygdala, is activated when we sense a heightened state of emotion. This turning-on signal is sent to our hypothalamus which communicates to the rest of the body that we’re in some kind of danger. This is what causes the butterflies, the knot or the lump. Ongoing unmitigated stress can put us at higher risk for many chronic diseases—everything from diabetes, to autoimmune diseases, heart disease, cancer, and dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Knowing how powerfully the mind and body are connected provides us with an opportunity to intervene on our own behalf. Take some time today to think about changing how you react to stress.
Here are a few ideas to manage stress and preserve your health:
Don’t obsess. Observe your thoughts and inner dialogue versus engaging with them. Watch the thoughts pass. When they come back, observe and let go again.
Practice mindfulness: Be present in the moment. If you’re tying your shoes, brushing your teeth or chopping celery, focus on the activity at hand. Mindfulness is proven to improve sleep, lower our stress hormones, and improve mood.
Breath work: Try a 4-part breathing sequence to access the body’s own relaxation response: Exhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, inhale for 4, hold for 4. Repeat. This is also known as Box Breathing, Navy SEAL breathing, and tactical breathing.
Meditation has many health benefits including reducing inflammation, and improving cognition, memory, executive function, and processing speed. Try a great meditation app like Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer. If you have an Oura ring, the Explore page in the app includes several choices for meditation, breathing and relaxation. We recommend signing up for Sharp Again Naturally’s Awaken & Energize program.
Yoga, tai chi, quigong: All are mind-body modalities that are “meditation in motion”—holistic techniques for mind and body together. In fact, the word “yoga” means union or yoking—a uniting of mind, body and spirit. Yoga does it all!
Learning to reduce your body’s reaction to stress will benefit your mind and body for the long term. Most of us were not taught this in school, but it’s not too late to start right now! Your mind and your body will thank you!