Many physical ailments can benefit from mind-body therapies. Wrap your head around guided imagery, music and pet therapy and progressive muscle relaxation.
It’s good news that more Australians are integrating mind-body therapy practices into their wellness programs. Our minds directly affect our health, and this has been the essence of many ancient healing philosophies.
It’s taken conventional Western medicine a long time to accept the connection between the mind and body in wellness, but as more of these mind-body techniques have been scientifically studied and shown to be helpful for many health conditions, they are gaining newfound popularity and interest.
A key strategy of mind-body therapies is to reduce stress, a major contributor to illness. If our minds and bodies are constantly exposed to stress, we may encounter some serious health issues. Long-term exposure to stress increases our risk of adverse conditions, including sleep and digestive problems, obesity, depression, memory problems and heart disease.
Stress starts in our minds, or brains. When we encounter a perceived danger, the hypothalamus in our brain stimulates our “fight-or-flight” response. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released from our adrenal glands. Our bodies return to normal when our brains believe the threat is gone.
However, if we’re always surrounded by stressors, our body stays in alarm mode because our stress hormone levels do not diminish. As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure stay elevated. The digestive, immune and other body systems remain compromised. It’s no wonder that our health becomes negatively affected!
Thankfully, practising techniques that involve mind-body focus can contribute to better health. Keep in mind that mind-body techniques are mostly very safe and are usually used as complementary treatment to other forms of care. As always, consult your health care practitioner before trying them.
The magic of meditation
Meditation is an ancient practice. Although its original purpose was to enhance comprehension of the divine, many people now meditate as a form of stress relief and to enjoy the deep state of tranquility achieved from focused attention, which reduces distracting thoughts.
It is thought that meditation affects our involuntary nervous system, which has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system prompts the body into stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system calms it down. Meditation may slow down sympathetic nervous system activity and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Research has shown meditation to help reduce anxiety, pain, stress and depression. By doing this, meditation and mindfulness may help conditions such as asthma, binge eating, risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep problems.
Meditation physically changes the grey matter of the brain, according to recent research. One such study used anatomical magnetic resonance imaging to discover that after subjects practised meditating for eight weeks, the parts of their brain associated with learning and memory and emotion regulation experienced increased grey matter concentration.
Try it out
There are many different types of meditation to choose from. Mindfulness meditation, for example, involves increased awareness of, and focus on, the present moment. Mantra meditation involves concentrating on a word, sound or phrase silently repeated to calm the mind.
To find a qualified meditation instructor, visit the International Meditation Teachers Association at meditationteachers.org. Your local yoga studio may also offer classes.
Breathing technique MATTERS
Shallow breathing seems normal to many of us, but it can mean that our lower lungs don’t get a full dose of air with oxygen and we end up feeling anxious and short of breath. The right way to breathe is deeply. In what is often called abdominal breathing or belly breathing, one inhales through the nose, fully filling the lungs and the lower belly rises.
Deep breathing techniques can combat stress. Performing slow (not rapid) breathing exercises regularly can improve autonomic functions, which can result in a relaxed state. In one literature review, a type of yoga and breathing technique called Sudarshan kriya was suggested to be beneficial for stress-associated conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Try it out
For a very simple breathing exercise, sit or lie down in a place that is comfortable and quiet. Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your lungs and letting your chest and belly completely expand. Exhale through your mouth or nose. Repeat and continue. As with other relaxation exercises, practising daily for 10 to 20 minutes should show benefits.
There are many breathing exercises to choose from. They can be practised alone or as part of other techniques such as meditation, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation.
Renew with progressive muscle relaxation
The method known as progressive muscle relaxation is based on the concept that tight muscles are associated with stress. The theory is that if we’re feeling tense or anxious, we can feel relief by contracting and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body.
A 2007 literature review found many published studies showing that progressive muscle relaxation helped a number of conditions such as insomnia, migraine headaches, pain and some psychiatric disorders—especially anxiety disorders such as dental phobia and panic disorders.
While the authors found scarce evidence that stress reduction requires muscle relaxation, they believe this technique may work and have value because of subjects’ belief in its benefits rather than its effect on the muscles. This again demonstrates just how powerful our mind-body connection truly is.
Try it out
To try progressive muscle relaxation, contract and release muscles for at least five seconds, relax for 30 seconds and repeat. Work your way from your toes to your head, or vice versa. You can easily learn this technique on your own.
Guided imagery: a pleasant trip
In this technique the imagination is used to achieve a state of focused relaxation in response to thoughts and suggestions. Our bodies will often respond to vivid mental images as if they were real. For example, if you create in your mind a slice of juicy, aromatic apple pie, you may salivate as you imagine it. Often, images of a safe and comfortable place, such as a beach or garden, are used in this technique to help promote relaxation.
Research has shown guided imagery to help improve functionality and pain management in fibromyalgia patients, and to reduce stress and help prompt anticancer defences in breast cancer patients. Mental imagery can also be used to help people who have had strokes to relearn daily tasks. On a lighter note, visualisation may even help improve your golf game.
Try it out
Guided imagery sessions may last 20 to 30 minutes and yield benefits if performed daily. You can practise on your own with a recording or seek out a professional. Your health care practitioner may be able to recommend a guided imagery practitioner near you.
The term hypnosis is derived from hypnos, which means “sleep” in Greek. In hypnotherapy, patients are in a deeply relaxed and focused state known as a trance, and are thought to be especially responsive to suggestions intended to change a behaviour or perspective.
During a session, the hypnotherapist uses mental images and ideas to guide the patient through relaxation techniques. Patients learn self-hypnosis basics and are given a recording to use at home.
Many beneficial effects of hypnotherapy are demonstrated in studies. Hypnosis is thought to positively affect acute procedural pain and chronic pain conditions, and self-hypnosis might help relieve recurring headaches. It may also aid insomnia in children and effectively treat certain types of apprehension anxiety and some anxiety-related disorders. It may even accelerate wound healing.
Try it out
Hypnotherapy sessions with a professional are typically close to an hour long and results are often seen after about four to 10 visits.
When looking for a hypnotherapist near you, choose someone with a diploma from a recognised school who is a member of a professional hypnotherapy association.
Yoga: a healing classic
Well known and widely practised, yoga has ancient origins in India. It combines physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and relaxation or meditation techniques. Many practise it for mind and body benefits, including stress relief, fitness and quality of life.
Yoga is thought to be effective for a variety of mental and physical health conditions because of its regulatory effect on the body systems involved in stress. It holds promise for managing persistent pain and is being seriously considered for treatment of depression, in part because it encompasses various aspects of other successful techniques, such as mindfulness and exercise. Many other implications for yoga’s benefits are being researched, such as improving immune function and relieving insomnia.
Try it out
Yoga has numerous different styles, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga, Sivananda, Kripalu and Kundalini. Many newer styles are derived from the traditional hatha style, and each has a different emphasis on physical or spiritual practice. Depending on the style, yoga classes are typically 45 to 90 minutes long. Choose a style and class based on your abilities and specific needs. Yoga is best practised with a qualified instructor who has at least 200 hours of training. Ask a trusted source for recommendations.
“Qi” concepts of qigong and tai chi
Qigong and tai chi are traditional Chinese mind-body health regimens practised by millions of people. Both are based on the premise that they encourage the circulation of qi, or vital body energy.
Believed to be at least 4000 years old, qigong may have more than 5000 different styles. It is also the origin of martial arts and tai chi. Qigong and tai chi both involve concentration, focus on the breath and movement.
A recent scientific literature review analysed 77 studies of qigong and tai chi involving 6410 participants in total. The strongest evidence for both was for bone health, heart and lung strength, balance, quality of life and self-efficacy.
Try it out
Qigong and tai chi sessions vary in length and frequency. Approximately 20 minutes of daily qigong or about an hour of tai chi a couple of times a week are common recommendations. Get suggestions, talk to the instructor and use your own judgment to find the right qigong or tai chi class or instructor for you.
Relaxing notes: Music Therapy
Music has played a role in healing since ancient times. It’s been only recently, however, that scientific studies have explored many of its beneficial effects on mind and body health.
Research suggests that music therapy may aid
- stress reduction
- immune system regulation
- post-operative pain and recovery time
- psychiatric disorders (when used as a complementary therapy to standard treatments)
- stress and anxiety, relaxation, mood and pain in cancer patients (when used in conjunction with standard treatment)
Music therapy can involve listening, singing, playing an instrument, engaging in rhythmic-based activities, improvising, composing and songwriting and even a combination of music and guided imagery.
To find a music therapist near you, visit the Australian Music Therapy Association’s website at austmta.org.au.
Furry friends: pet therapy positives
Research shows that friendly interaction with animals can improve our social interactions and mood; relieve stress and fear; and aid physical health—especially cardiovascular diseases.
Due to results such as these, pet therapy has grown in popularity in recent years. In pet therapy programs, volunteers take their pets (typically dogs and cats) to such facilities as hospitals, retirement residences, schools and nursing homes, where the pets can be petted and cuddled. The visits may help encourage conversation, interaction and overall improvement in quality of life. They may also significantly reduce symptoms and emotional distress for those with chronic pain.
Stress relief supplements
While mind-body health practices can provide stress relief, various supplements may also help. As always, consult your health care practitioner before taking any new supplements.
- A multivitamin, mineral and herbal supplement has shown to improve alertness, reduce negative mood and enhance feelings of well-being in a study on older men.
- A vitamin B complex may reduce stress symptoms such as strain, confusion and depression.
- One study showed a vitamin C and E supplement to help lower blood pressure.
- Omega-3 fatty acids might help reduce anger, anxiety and depression.
- Zinc may help reduce stress, especially in older people.
- L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, may prompt anti-stress effects in the body.
- Chamomile might aid mild anxiety and improve sleep.
- Lavender aroma may have a stress-relieving effect on the body.
- Panax ginseng might help combat chronic stress.
- Rhodiola rosea may help reduce fatigue and increase mental performance.