4 Body-First Practices to Settle a Busy Mind
By Cara Bradley
Do you ever feel like you’re like a brain on a stick—you know that sensation of being stuck in your head, disconnected to what is happening below the neck, aka your body? Let’s just say, it’s not a comfortable (or productive) place to live—and, yet, it’s all too common.
Somehow, moving through the world like that brain on a stick is acceptable in our culture. In some ways, we revere those supposedly productive minds that are always thinking. The result of incessant over-thinking, however, isn’t higher productivity or creativity. It can actually feel like overwhelm and burnout.
How do we get our busy mind to stop being so busy? One effective solution is to drop our attention below the neck, so to speak, and steady and stabilize our physical state first. In other words, instead of trying to change our mental state by thinking about it, we use our body’s intelligence to calm a frantic mind. More often than not, shifting something in our physiology may be just what we need to refocus or reframe a busy mind.
Here are a few “body-first” practices that help to quickly change our mood and our mental state. The good news is they are common sense and you likely do some instinctively. The great news is that they can often work to change our mental state fairly quickly.
These practices are designed to get you out of your head and into your body. They work to shift attention to your senses, regulate your nervous system, and increase blood flow to your brain. Use these on-the-spot state shifters throughout the day. They can help you shift from feeling frazzled or frenzied to more focused and clear.
A word of advice. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity! These body-first practices work.
1. Move Your Body
If you need to solve a problem, go out for a walk. Seriously! Get some fresh air and clear your mind, and you’re likely to return home with your answer. Exercise is strongly associated with general mental and emotional well-being including reduced stress, and improved mood and quality of life, according to the John W. Brick Foundation’s recent overview of scientific evidence published over the last 30 years on the link between exercise and mental health (1).
Moving your body, either vigorously (run, jump, dance) or slowly (yoga, tai chi, gardening) can up-regulate or downregulate your nervous system. Depending on what you need, try moving for a few minutes to either energize a dulled mind or settle an overstimulated, busy mind.
2. Breathe In/Breathe Out
Our breathing patterns give us direct access to changing the state of our autonomic nervous system. In other words, by simply shifting how we breathe we can go from a stress response to a more calm, clear state. Coherent Breathing is a pattern of inhaling for 4-6 seconds and exhaling for 4-6 seconds. Research shows that breathing like this for a few minutes can shift us into a more balanced state of alertness and calmness. According to Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and author of The Healing Power of the Breath, Coherent Breathing practice “has a calming effect on the emotions while enhancing attention, clarity, and mental focus” (2).
3. Find Nature
Touching the natural world is a powerful (and super obvious) state shifter for both body and mind. And, you can do it even if you live in the city or can’t get yourself outdoors. Research suggests that mood disorders can be lifted by spending more time outdoors. David Strayer’s research shows being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving (3).
Try these not so obvious ways to touch nature—even if it’s for just a few minutes. You can sit by a window in the sun, play with your pet, get your hands on fresh food by chopping some vegetables, or tend to your plants.
When was the last time you really looked at the sky? We’re not talking about a glance upwards but an extended pause to take in its vastness. Whenever you are feeling mentally drained or overwhelmed, take a few minutes to take in the sky. Gaze out as far as you can into the sky. Relaxing into the expansiveness of the sky can leave you feeling refreshed and more energized.
These simple state shifters can lift your mood and brighten your spirit. So go ahead and find some nature! It can be just as powerful as a meditation practice.
4. Find the Rhythm
Rhythm, a steady beat, a repeated pattern of movement or sound, is found everywhere, from the beating of your heart to the ticking of a clock in another room. Rhythm is an effective to help settle and stabilize a busy mind, as “patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory activity… elicits a sensation of safety. Rhythm is regulating. All cultures have some form of patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity as part of their healing and mourning rituals — dancing, drumming, and swaying” (4). Moving, breathing or listening to a rhythm can be effective in regulating our nervous system, releasing tension and shifting us from high anxiety to state of calm clarity.
Move, breathe, touch into nature, and tap into a rhythmic beat. Can it be that simple? Sometimes it can!
The next time you are feeling stuck in your head, drop your attention below your neck and do something to shift your physical state. Remember, changing our physiology is sometimes all we need to change our minds and change the course of our day.
Besides, who wants to live like a brain on a stick anyway?
Coming soon: Mindful Leader and Cara Bradley are excited to bring you a new mental fitness online event. Details to follow!
Cara Bradley has been teaching body-first practices for mental fitness for over 30 years. Her signature strategies include mindful movement, nervous system training and gut-heart-brain optimization. Cara designs courses for top wellness brands and has trained premiere college sports teams, CEO’s and Fortune 100 companies. In 2020, she was named one of the “Top 12 Most Powerful Women in the Mindfulness Movement” by Mindful Magazine. Cara is the host of a daily podcast, the author of On The Verge: Wake Up, Show Up, and Shine and Founder of the award-winning Verge Yoga Center. www.carabradley.net
Do you have a favorite body-first practice? Please share below!
(1) Vieten, Cassandra, Olivia Lubarsky, Ryesa Mansoor, Erica Niebauer, and Meredith Sprengel. “Move Your Mental Health: A Review of the Scientific Evidence on the Role of Exercise and Physical Activity on Mental Health.” Move Your Mental Health Report. John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation, June 2021. https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org/move-your-mental-health-report/.
(2) Brown, Richard P., and Patricia L. Gerbarg. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. Boston, MA: Trumpeter, 2012.
(3) Atchley, Ruth Ann, Strayer, David L, Atchley, Paul. “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474. 2012.
(4) Szalavitz, Maia, and Bruce Duncan Perry. Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2009.