Stress and Mind-Body Interventions

We all experience stress in our day to day lives, sometimes moment by moment. 

Stress cannot be stopped, but what can be changed are our bodily and emotional responses to stress. Stress can be defined as the perception of a threat to one’s physical or psychological wellbeing, with a perception that it is not controllable.

Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is comprised of the Sympathetic ( SNS) and Parasympathetic (PNS)  branches of the nervous system is thought to control non-voluntary and thought to be unconscious processes such as heart rate, digestion, pupillary response, and numerous cascades of hormones and enzymes in the body that respond to perceived stress.

To the extent that the SNS is stimulated, our bodies are in a state of fight, flight or paralysis; our emotions are flooding our brains and our cortex is less able to focus and process information rationally. Emotions characterized by such a stressed state can include fear, anger, anxiety, and be experienced as stress and tension.

Anger and hostility can affect the heart and we constrict our breathing during these feelings states. Generally during high stress, these emotions have high jacked our higher cortical processes, and we are more likely to have exacerbations of pain.

To the extent that the PNS is activated, we are in a state of tending and befriending the waves of our feeling states, brakes have been put on our physiological cascade of stimulating hormones and enzymes. The relaxation response may be activated; rationality enhanced, and focused attention increased. In other words, the SNS is like turning the light on when we enter a room; the PNS is like turning the light off when we are no longer in need of it. But if these are unconscious processes, how can the systems be “turned on and turned off” like a light switch?

Mind-Body Medicine is based on the idea that mental or emotional processes can affect our physiology; consequently our physiology can affect our emotions. When we are stressed out, we may notice a flood of negative thinking and emotions that accompany the stressful event in our environment. The SNS is activated and the body physiology is changed.

Mind-Body Therapies including Bio-feedback, progressive relaxation, visualizations, meditation, slow paced breathing, are all techniques that have been shown in research to increase self-awareness and help a person to be able to tune in to their bodily responses,  and then self-regulate stress responses in the body and mind.

Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that uses scientific instrumentation to measure and provide feedback to the user regarding their previously unconscious physiologic states—such as breath rate, heart rhythm, hand temperature, and muscular tension. As a result of receiving this “feedback” by looking at a screen, a person is able to increase his or her awareness of previously unconscious body states, and change the physiologic responses to stress.

First one learns how to control external cues by looking at your physiologic markers on a monitor screen; next you are able to link this finding to inner sensations and cues. This allows the person to generalize what they have learned to the outside world so that when you feel stressed out, you can be more aware of your internal bodily states and change them. Bio-feedback has been shown by research to be particularly helpful in addressing digestive system problems, headaches, high blood pressure, TMJ, Shoulder, back and Neck Pain, and Anxiety.

Psychologists utilize slow-paced breathing in mind-body work. Research has shown that as a result of using incorrect ways of breathing, the body is robbed of sufficient levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide which can create health problems. Psychologists can work with you to begin breathing the correct way diaphragmatically , which can create a sense of well-being ( stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system) as well as positively changing your blood chemistry and reducing physical symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, abdominal discomfort, dizziness, headaches, muscle tremors and cramping, insomnia, IBS, etc.

Suzy Engelman1

Suzanne R. Engelman, PhD

California Licensed Psychologist PSY7977
Board Certified in Biofeedback
Certified Thanatologist
Certified Animal Assisted Therapist