The mind-body connection is well-documented in research from neuroscience, psychiatry, and medicine. Findings have consistently shown that your emotional experience (stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.) can have a negative impact on your health. The good news is that, when harnessed correctly, you can use your mind to help heal the ailments of the body while also improving your mood. The reverse is also true. When you are in emotional distress, you can use the body to shift your perspective.
Take Back The Reins – Improving Your Mood Through The Mind-Body Connection
When we are stressed, scared, or sad the brain sends cues to the body that danger is present and the body assumes its natural fight or flight response. This can result in muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased body temperature, shortness of breath, etc. This fight or flight response is very helpful when there is actual physical danger present (i.e. help us run from a potential predator), but rest of the time it just sounds a fire alarm in the body even though there is no smoke. However, we can send a message back to the brain that things are actually safe by making subtle, yet powerful shifts in the body. Through adopting different postures, changing our facial expressions, or even placing a hand on our heart we can slow the body’s stress response and start to soothe the emotional pain we may be experiencing. Improving your mood is as simple as a change in mentality.
Smile – Especially When You Don’t Feel Like It
When Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy,” he was really on to something. Turns out that there is evidence to validate his assertion. Research by Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman at the University of Kansas demonstrated that smiling can alter our stress response in difficult situations. Their study indicated that smiling, even if one is not feeling happy, can slow heart rate and decrease perceived levels of stress. Smiling sends a signal to the rest of our body that things are okay, it’s safe to let down our guard. So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, try smiling, even if you don’t feel like it. It might just make a difference. (Tip: If you really can’t get yourself to smile, practice holding a pen or a chopstick in between your teeth. It mimics the same expression as a smile and can produce the same effects.)
Posture — Sit Up Straight And Take Up Space
Shifting our posture can also shift how we feel. A study by Brion, Petty, & Wagner in 2009 reported that sitting up straight positively influenced people’s feelings of self-confidence, while slumping over had the opposite effect. Additionally, research by Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney at Harvard University has shown that holding “power postures” for 120 seconds can create a 20 percent increase in testosterone (helping to boost confidence) and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol (reducing stress). In order to reap these benefits try assuming an open and expansive posture. Take up space, put your hands on your hips and spread your feet (think wonder woman) or lean back in a chair and spread your arms. Hold the posture for at least two minutes. This is the easiest tactic for improving your mood. For more info on Cuddy’s research, you can watch her TED Talk “Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”
A Hand On Your Heart Is Not Just For The Pledge Of Allegiance
Touch is also a very powerful healing tool. When we are sad we often turn to others for a hug or to be held. We can actually provide ourselves with some of the same benefits. During a particularly distressing moment try placing a hand on your heart, rubbing your own arms, or massaging your own head. May sound cheesy, but it actually can be very helpful in slowing the body’s stress response. Pairing this with the self-compassionate thoughts such as, “This is really painful, but this too shall pass” can help sooth the discomfort of the present moment both physiologically and mentally.
So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by whatever is arising for you emotionally, try standing up straight, smiling, or putting a hand on your heart. For a super boost in improving your mood, try all three.
Daniela Tempesta, LCSW is a psychotherapist with a private practice in San Francisco. In her practice she specializes in helping millennials to successfully navigate “quaterlife” concerns so they can create a life filled with authenticity, passion, and joy. She is a graduate of Stanford (BA, '02) and USC (MSW, '04). Daniela is a compassionate listener and teacher and a fierce advocate of love.