The mind-body connection is nothing new.
In fact, controlling the mind to control the body is common practice.
There’s sports psychology for improved performance, meditation to relieve stress, and placebos to decrease pain.
Even in our everyday life it’s easy to see this mind-to-body perspective.
When we’re sad we frown or cry. When we’re angry or stressed our blood pressure goes up. When we see something funny we laugh.
But what if it’s reversed? What if our feelings are actually a result of our body states instead of our emotional states?
What if we’re sad because we’re physically tired? What if we’re angry and stressed because we have too much tension in our body? What if we laugh because we’re physically excited?
In other words, we should consider that we might be transferring our physiology to our psychology.
The Flip Side
It’s more difficult to understand the reverse process of this mind-body connection (the body-to-mind connection).
Maybe because it’s uncommon to discuss the process of how our body affects our mind (sometimes referred to as embodied cognition).
It might be weird if we conversed in terms of our physiology instead of our psychology.
A Valentine’s Day card declaring our current sympathetic arousal state wouldn’t exactly charm our partner.
And yelling “I didn’t sleep much last night and I have a lot of tension in my body since I’m running late for work!” at the car that just pulled out in front of us wouldn’t have the same catharsis.
So maybe we don’t need to go as far as explicitly bringing our physiology up in social situations.
But since our body influences our mind, maybe we should try to listen to it more often.
If we can become more aware of our inner state, we might have more success in managing our thoughts and emotions. We might even improve our relationships and the quality of our lives.
Control Our Body, Control Our Minds
This isn’t the just latest trend in pop-psychology. It been around for millenniums. It is supported with a strong theoretical background, an abundance of research, and profound pragmatic effect. For instance...
Consider the following everyday scenarios where our bodies control our minds:
- We feel more anxious when we haven’t exercised
- Our significant others get emotional late at night when they’re physically tired (or when we’re tired)
- We dislike going to work after a sleep deprived night
- Our sister-in-law gets agitated when she’s hungry
- We’re much less ambitious when we’re sick or hungover
Here are just a few examples from the literature:
- Facial expressions can affect our mood
- We’re more generous when we hold a warm drink
- Skipping makes us happy
- We’re more likely to be attracted to people on a high bridge
- A wonder woman posture makes us feel more powerful
And then there’s one area of the body to mind effect that has been studied and practiced thoroughly by many different disciplines - breathing.
How You Breathe is How You Feel
One of the more consistent areas of research on how your body affects your mind has been with respiration.
A research review is beyond the scope of this article. If you want to learn more seek out the references listed below.
However, I do want to point out one study that we can start using immediately.
This study had people breathe with a specific pattern and then had them fill out a 22-item questionnaire on their physical sensations and emotions. They were told it was a study on breathing and cardiovascular characteristics to avoid any biases.
"Breathe and exhale slowly and deeply through the nose; your breathing is very regular and your ribcage relaxed." (Joy)
"Breathe and exhale quickly through the nose; slightly deeper than regular breathing amplitude. Your breathing is slightly irregular with some tremors and your ribcage is very tense." (Anger)
“Breathe and exhale quickly from the top of your ribcage; with a normal amplitude. Your breathing is slightly irregular with some tremors and your ribcage very tense.” (Fear)
“Breathe and exhale through the nose with a normal amplitude and pace. Your ribcage is slightly tense, and there are some sighs in your expiration.” (Sadness)
The results consistently showed a correlation between breathing patterns and emotions.
In other words, it could be theorized that emotions can be elicited by manipulating the breath (results below).
So next time you want to change your emotions, start by changing your breath.
*more thoracic breathing was found with fear than any other emotion
A Bigger Picture
This body-to-mind concept is useful beyond breathing and emotions.
Changing our physical body can influence the way we think, the way we feel, how we perceive our environment, and how we interact with others. In other words, it can alter our reality.
For a greater impact, consider the following 3 step process to change our body to change our mind.
Understand how our physiology (our body state) may be affecting our psychology (our emotional state)
Be aware and modulate the physiology we can control (use postures, movements, facial expressions, breathing, attention)
Develop habits that foster a better physiology (adequate sleep, healthy diet, exercise, etc.)
Unfortunately, as the pendulum swings it can cause many to forget where the momentum came from.
The body-to-mind peripheral theory of emotion used to be very popular. The body used to be considered as important as the brain, if not more. You may have even heard the ancient term, “your body is your temple”.
However, times have hanged.
We’re now in an age where the brain supposedly “runs the show”. Psychotherapy, complex cognitive theories, and neuroscience are very popular. And for good reason. Advancements in these fields have provided tremendous value in many clinical sciences.
But this isn’t a zero-sum game. Both concepts can add value. It is a dynamic system after all.
Our physiology matters. Our bodies matter. It’s not just a “peripheral thing”. It's a part of us. And it can have a great impact on not only ourselves, but our perception of the world around us.
Whether it’s as easy as altering our breath for a quick emotional change or as in-depth as altering our lifestyle for a more profound effect, being aware of how our body influences our mind can change our world.
References & Depth
Philippot P, Chapelle G, Blairy S. (2002) "Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion." Cognition and Emotion.
“Grasping air with the lungs goes hand-in-hand with grasping at life” -Alan Watts
Artificial Intelligence needs a body if it wants to surpass humans
Alan Watts - The Way of Zen
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Body Keeps Score
"what do you feel?"