Counselling not only provides emotional support in times of trouble it can also help improve your physical health and wellbeing. It does this because a healthy mind contributes to a healthy body.
Mind and Body Working Together
Since Sigmund Freud’s discovery that physical ailments are influenced and sometimes caused by mental distress, we have become aware of the connection between mental and physical illness.
Now research is helping us to better understand how that happens. Especially how paying attention to the way we think can improve our physical health and feelings of wellbeing.
According to award winning Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer: “If the mind is a truly healthy place, the body would be as well – and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.”
This is a bit different from the idea of mind over matter, which views the mind as superior to the body, rather it is about the mind and body working together as a team.
Our Beliefs Shape Our World
What we believe can influence our physical health, according to Langer.
She cites studies which show how our beliefs about the way things are has an influence on our physiology. In one study, female hotel room attendants were told their job was good exercise. They were provided with information about how each task burned a certain number of calories, and contributed to a healthy lifestyle. A control group was not given this information.
After four weeks the group that was told about the health benefits of their job, lost weight, their blood pressure was lower and they had reduced body fat. Researchers could find no other reason for this result. The control group remained the same.
According to Langer the study provides evidence that the placebo effect, not only works with pills, but also with exercise.
Langer’s studies are controversial, but they are consistent with findings in other areas of science that are finding their way into mainstream psychology and counselling practices, especially those practices that involve mindfulness, including acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT.
Mindfulness, in this context, involves focusing our attention on the present moment rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. This allows us to let go of self-defeating thoughts and fixed beliefs about the way things are.
Paying attention in this way trains the mind to work for us rather than against us, according to Langer, because self-limiting beliefs that may be influencing our physical health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness helps us to experience life more deeply, and live according to our potential. It does this by teaching us to become more aware of what we are thinking and feeling, so we are able to disengage from automatic or habitual thinking that keeps us stuck in a particular mind-set.
Mindfulness can be learned either in a group situation or in individual counselling sessions.
Meditation is one way of learning these skills because it teaches us to observe our internal experiences, including our thoughts, rather than identifying with them. We learn that we are not our thoughts and feelings, they are impermanent mental states that come and go. Only our awareness remains constant.
A mindfulness practitioner can also teach us ways of extending the meditation practice into everyday life.
Paradoxically mindfulness works best if we don’t try to achieve anything. So in many ways it is counter-intuitive to the way we are used to doing things, especially in western culture.
The rewards of mindfulness come when we are not focusing on achieving anything. Rather we just set our intention and then let each moment unfold as it will. This is called non-striving. It is like setting the rudder of a boat in a certain direction and then letting the wind in the sails take you there. Rather than having expectations about what is going to happen when you arrive at your destination, or ruminating about what you have left behind, your focus is on the feel of the wind in your hair, the smell of the salt air, or the changing colours of the sea and sky; simply experiencing each moment as it unfolds.
Doing Things Differently
This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything we just do things differently. Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, you experience being in the moment with whatever it is you are doing (including thoughts and feelings) without getting caught up in it; without expecting results or things to be a certain way.
You can try non-striving at home or work by putting your whole attention on the task at hand, regardless of what you are doing. Every time your mind wanders, which it will time and time again, you simply bring your awareness back to what are doing and give it your undivided attention. The more you do this the stronger your mindfulness ‘muscle’ (the ability to pay attention on purpose) becomes.