Mind & Body Health

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While western medicine traditionally views and treats the mind and body as two distinct entities, there is now a growing body of evidence that points to a powerful mind-body connection. One of the guiding principles of mind-body medicine is the interconnection of all things including the mind, the body, and the environment in which we live. This means that emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioural factors can directly affect our health.

According to the Chopra Center for Wellbeing , every time we have a thought, we set off a cascade of cellular reactions in our nervous system that influence all the molecules in our body. Our cells are constantly observing our thoughts and being positively or negatively changed by them. This view is supported by research which shows that psychological factors can play a major role in illnesses such as heart disease, and that mind-body techniques can aid in their treatment.

In turn, what we do with our physical body (such as what we eat and how regularly we exercise) can also positively or negatively impact our mental state. Our page Exercise outlines some of the profound mental effects that exercise can have, including elevating your mood, improving alertness and concentration, and reducing levels of stress and anxiety.

This results in a complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies. While it’s important to acknowledge that factors like genetic inheritance can be an underlying cause for illness, it’s also essential to shed light on the amazing potential that exists to heal and transform ourselves through our thoughts, perceptions, and choices.

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Most people think of yoga in terms of the physical practice of postures (asana), however yoga extends beyond the physical. Derived from the Sankrit word "yuj" which is often interpreted as “union”, the practice is about balancing the mind, body and spirit to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.

The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. This sacred text describes the inner workings of the mind and provides an eight-step guideline – known as the eight limbs of yoga – for controlling its restlessness so as to enjoy lasting peace.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali writes Yoga citta vritti narodha, meaning “yoga is the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” Three out of the eight limbs of yoga are immersions into the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind. These three limbs – dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (ecstasy) – are inextricably linked and collectively referred to as samyama, the inner practice of the yogic path.

The sixth limb, dharana,is the very first step in the process of stilling the mind: concentration. This is an active practice of focusing the mind upon one stable entity, instead of allowing it to go out in many different directions. When this ‘one-pointedness’ of mind is no longer an active effort and occurs naturally without any effort, then dhyana (the state of meditation) is achieved. Once your attention and meditation skills have been cultivated, samadhi (enlightenment or union with the divine) is the third piece of the meditative experience, as well as the final limb of yoga. It is characterised by a state of ecstasy and the knowledge that you and the universe are one.

By engaging in a regular yoga practice, you can introduce a sense of calm and stillness to your internal world. Beyond yoga’s physical benefits, it is also an excellent vehicle through which to experience a greater sense of wellbeing and inner peace.

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The physical benefits of exercise and fitness, such as improving physical condition and fighting disease, have long been established. But exercise also plays a vital role in your mental wellbeing. From aerobics to yoga, exercise in any form can act as a stress buster. Learn more about the connection between exercise and stress relief below:

  • Exercise reduces stress-hormones and stimulates production of your brain’s feel-good chemicals: Not only does exercise keep the heart healthy and get oxygen into the system, but it helps deplete stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also releases endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators which allow us to cope with stress better.
  • Exercise has a positive behavioural effect: Exercise can enhance self-image by improving body shape, strength or stamina. According to Harvard Health , the confidence and discipline gained through regular exercise can also help you achieve other lifestyle goals.
  • Exercise can help you forget the day’s worries: After a few laps in the pool, a long jog, or a vigorous game of basketball, you'll often find that you’ve shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity. Exercise can also act as a form of meditation for some, where focus on a single task (and the resulting energy and optimism) can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do.
  • Exercise affects your mental and emotional health: Studies show that exercise is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate. Exercise is also a proven way to improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
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Meditation involves focusing your attention to eliminate the stream of thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. The practice is thought to produce a range of well-publicised health benefits including increased concentration, decreased anxiety, and a general feeling of happiness. Spending even a few minutes each day in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace. And the best thing is that anyone can practice it as it's simple and inexpensive, can be practiced anywhere, and doesn't require any special equipment.

There are many different types of meditation – some which may involve chanting, deep breathing, visualisation or the use of mantras. While techniques vary, most types of meditation have these elements in common:

  • Focused attention: This is typically the most important element of meditation. Focusing your attention is what helps free your mind from the many distractions that cause stress and worry. You may focus your attention on a mantra, an object, or the sensations of the breath.
  • A quiet setting: Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. This is particularly helpful for beginners.
  • Comfortable posture: Depending on your particular practice of meditation, it can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking, or in other positions. Just try to be comfortable so that you can get the most out of your meditation.
  • Relaxed breathing: This technique involves deep, even-paced breathing. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen and reduce tension in the body.
  • An open attitude: An open attitude during meditation allows you to let distractions come and go naturally without judging them.

If you’d like to give meditation a go, remember that you can alter your practice according to what suits your lifestyle and situation. Setting aside just a few minutes a day can be enough to clear away the tensions that build up every day, and to make a big difference in your life overall. 

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While everyone experiences stress at times, untreated chronic stress can affect your health and ability to cope with life. Practicing relaxation techniques helps to reduce everyday stress and boost your energy and mood. In general, these techniques involve refocusing your attention on something calming and increasing awareness of your body. It’s not important which relaxation technique you choose – what matters is that you try to practice relaxation regularly to reap its benefits.

Some of the most common relaxation techniques include:

  • Meditation: During meditation, you focus your attention to eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. There are many different types of meditation – some which may involve chanting, deep breathing, visualisation or the use of mantras.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group to release tension from the body and relax your mind. This also helps you focus on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, so that you become more aware of the physical sensations caused by stress.
  • Guided imagery: This relaxation technique involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace – free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Guided imagery, or visualisation, requires you to not only make use of your visual sense, but also your sense of smell, touch, taste and sound. Guided imagery can be directed by you or a therapist.
  • Deep breathing: With this method, you consciously slow your breathing and focus on taking regular and deep breaths. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.
  • Yoga or tai chi: Yoga involves performing a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and calm mind. Practiced regularly, it can also strengthen the relaxation response in your daily life. Tai chi, a form of gentle Chinese martial arts, is a self-paced series of slow, flowing body movements. These movements emphasise concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. Like meditation, tai chi practitioners focus on their breathing and keeping their attention in the present moment.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep a night. While some might suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea, most of us fall well below the recommended amount by cutting corners on sleep when there are not enough waking hours to complete all of the day’s tasks.

Sleep should not be regarded as an indulgence or luxury. While a few less hours of sleep here or there doesn’t seem like it makes much of a difference – it actually does. Sleep deprivation has an effect on both your mental and physical health.

Sleep is absolutely essential for normal, healthy function. Even minimal sleep loss can take an immediate toll on your mood, energy, efficiency, and ability to handle stress. And in the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

For those struggling with sleep problems, our Ways to Improve Sleep page sets out a range of tips to help you cultivate healthy sleep habits. If, however, you simply need to catch up on your sleep debts, follow the advice below from Harvard Health :

  • Settle your short-term debt: If you missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, add three to four extra sleep hours on the weekend and an extra hour or two per night the following week until you have fully repaid the debt.
  • Address a long-term debt: Organise a holiday with very few activities scheduled in. Then, turn off your alarm and just sleep every night until you awake naturally.
  • Avoid falling back into a new debt cycle: Factor the amount of sleep you really need into your daily schedule and stick to it. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day to form a healthy sleep habit and to avoid creating a new sleep debt cycle.
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