Stress, pain, and the pandemic seem synonymous these days. Nearly 80 percent of American adults cite COVID-19 as a significant stressor. While its toll on mental health isn’t exactly surprising, the acceleration of remote work coupled with the resulting increase in sedentary lifestyle, raises concerns that the novel coronavirus could lead to another pandemic of back pain.
Yet Americans have been stressed out long before COVID-19 hit. In fact, there’s nothing novel about body tension brought on by stressful thinking. In 2014, the American Institute of Stress reported 77 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress.
Moreover, the findings of a 2018 Gallup poll suggest 55 percent of Americans report feeling stressed for a large part of their day. This is compounded by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons finding one in two Americans has a musculoskeletal condition. Discerning between mental and physical stress is becoming increasingly obscure.
While the mind and body have long been regarded and treated as separate entities, this distinction does little to promote holistic health. Understanding the direct relationship between thoughts and tension can illustrate how the mind and body either work dysfunctionally through separation or optimally as a unit. What’s more, viewing the body as a whole being — in thought and activity — can promote better habits that eliminate tension.
The Link Between Stress And Pain
Dividing the self into parts is common practice in the Western world. Expressions such as “I’m mentally exhausted” vs. “I’m physically exhausted” provoke differing self-reflections. However, the psycho-physical relationship is evident in the tension stimulated by either thought.
For example, sitting in front of a computer necessitates both thought and action. Viewing content on a screen lends itself to a reaction from behind the screen. This response can be minimal and inconsequential, or it can be subtle, yet critical. Repeatedly engaging in certain thinking habits like, “I have to get this done and fast” are often reflected in forms of body tension such as stiff fingers at the keyboard, a clenched jaw after a meeting, or a tense neck at the end of the day. These unconscious responses are common and have a pervasive effect.
The prevalence of technology has led to a plethora of occupational ailments, now referred to as technology diseases. These include carpal tunnel syndrome, mouse shoulder, and cervical pain syndrome. These physical responses occur because of excessive work at the computer — especially with keyboard and mouse usage. According to the book, Tech Stress by Dr. Erik Peper, 45 million people suffer from tension headaches, carpal tunnel, and back injuries linked to computer use, and more than 30 percent of North Americans who work at a computer develop a muscle strain injury every year.
Pushing Through Mental Tasks Is Reflected In The Physical
Dr. Peper, a biofeedback expert, and Professor of Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco University gives an illustration of the mind-body connection in relation to pain. His example requires the use of a computer mouse while trying to complete difficult mental tasks. He asks me to:
- Hold the mouse in my dominant hand and draw the last letter of an address.
- Then continue to go backward with each letter of the street name, making sure the letter height is only one-half of an inch.
- He tells me to perform the task as quickly as possible.
- As I’m drawing the address backward trying to recall the letters and their order, Dr. Peper commands, “Do it quicker, quicker, quicker! Don’t make a mistake! Quicker, quicker, quicker!”
These commands reflect the endless to-do lists that pile up throughout the day and the stress associated with their efficacy and timely completion. While enacting this task, Dr. Peper asks me:
Are you tightening your shoulders? Are you tightening your trunk? Are you raising your shoulders possibly holding all this tension? If you are like most people who do this task, you did all of that and you were totally unaware. We are usually really unaware of our body posture.
I have spent the past 20 years practicing the Alexander Technique, a method used to improve postural health. At its core, the technique is about observation and utilizing psycho-physical awareness to stop repeating harmful habits. Dr. Peper’s words resonate because becoming aware of unconscious responses isn’t easy. Most people are completely unaware of the relationship between mind-body habits and how they contribute to stress-related pain.
Posture Affects Mood And Energy Levels
Posture is often thought of as a pose — most notably being associated with “sitting up straight.” Yet the health implications of good posture extend far beyond any held position. The agility and movement which are evident in good posture exemplify the mind-body connection.
It is well-known that feeling depressed has been linked to having less subjective energy. The American Psychiatric Association listed a variety of symptoms connected to depression including feeling sad or having a depressed mood, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and loss of energy or increased fatigue. While the treatment of depression hasn’t traditionally considered the role of posture in informing mood, researchers have started exploring this relationship.
A study by Dr. Peper and Dr. I-Mei Lin examined the subjective energy levels of university students and their corresponding expression of depression. Participants who walked in a slouched position reported lower energy levels and higher self-rated depression scores. In contrast, when those participants walked in a pattern of opposite arm and leg skipping, they experienced an increase in energy, allowing a positive mindset to ensue.
As mentioned in the study, the mind-body relationship is a two-way street: mind to body and body to mind. If thoughts are manifested in the way you hold your body, the inverse would also be true. Namely, changing the way you carry your body will also influence your thinking and subsequent mood. If stopping certain habits — such as walking in a slumped posture — could have a positive impact on mood and well-being, perhaps it’s worth exploring the mind-body relationship even further.
Supporting The Mind-Body Connection
One of the best ways to improve the mind-body connection is through awareness. The more present you are in your activities, the more unified the relation becomes. Give yourself a couple of minutes to connect your thoughts with what you are doing at the moment.
Begin With Grounding
If you’re sitting down, imagine coloring in the space of your whole body with an imaginary marker.
- Begin with your feet planted on the floor.
- Start to outline the footprints of your feet and then color in the bottom and top of each foot.
- Take your time.
- Fill in all the space.
- See if you discover new parts of your feet — like the spaces between your toes.
- Continue up through your ankles and toward your calves.
- Pay attention to the entire limb (front and back).
- Work your way upward through the knee and then the upper leg.
- See if you can find your sit bones along the way to the torso.
- Explore new joints — such as the hip joint.
Lengthen Your Body Through Thought
- Continue up while circling the front and back of the torso.
- Extend the awareness of your thoughts through your shoulders.
- Allow for an exploration of the arms – noting the joints such as the elbows, wrists, and fingers.
- Pay attention to their length and mobility.
- Come back up through the arms.
- Extend up through the shoulders again, this time noting the passage through the chest and neck.
- Observe the length and space within your entire being.
- Journey up to the head and travel around its circumference.
- Imagine filling your headspace with air.
- Picture the wholeness of your head from top to bottom and side to side.
This two-minute mind-body meditation allows you to feel the full extent of the space your body takes up. It is a way to awaken the senses and include them in conscious thinking. This helps generate awareness in how to engage the mind-body relationship optimally. The next time you try it, use a visual aid like an anatomy diagram of the whole body. This can also introduce new parts and spaces of the body you may not have thought of before. However, don’t rely on the diagram each time, as it can pull away your attention from the mind-body meditation. Instead, use it as a reference or guide every once in a while.
Learn From Other Cultures
In Western cultures, it’s common practice to divvy up musculoskeletal ailments into an array of categories such as tension headaches, tension neck syndrome, or mechanical back syndrome. For instance, in countries like the U.S., it is normal to seek a specialist for each area of concern — like a neurologist for migraines, an orthopedist for neck strains, or chiropractors for back pain. In contrast, Eastern lifestyles have historically taken a more holistic approach to treat (and heal) their patients.
An article by Dr. Cecilia Chan, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, explains how the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional Chinese medicine adopt a holistic approach to the healing of an individual. Rather than diagnose and treat with medication, Chan and her colleagues explore health through the harmony and balance of the body-mind-spirit as a whole.
Because basic biology clearly delineates how the human head is attached to the body, it seems fitting that the entire being be regarded as a unit. By recognizing the relationship between thought stressors and their manifestation in the physical body, awareness is elevated. This, in turn, can prevent mindlessly engaging in harmful patterns that lead to stress and pain. Combating tension is possible through the realization of how thoughts — whether they are emotional or task-oriented — directly impact the body as a whole.
This excerpt from Taro Gold’s book, Open Your Mind, Open Your Life: A Book of Eastern Wisdom, cites Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote which beautifully elucidates the mind-body connection:
Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.
Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.
Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.
Referring to the mind and body as separate entities perpetuates a disconnect in the being as a whole. This is why distinguishing the mental from the physical further exacerbates the notion that the two don’t work together as an indivisible unit. Understanding the relationship between stress and tension begins through the awareness of habits.
Body Tension: Thinking Habits
There are recurrent thinking habits like “I’ve got to get this done now” and their unconscious counterparts that become visible through posture. The unknown habits are the ones that accrue over time and often appear seemingly out of nowhere — in the form of tension or pain. Modern culture is quick to treat symptoms, such as those related to excessive technology use. However, a holistic approach to addressing the underlying issue would examine how stress and pain work hand in hand. Once the thoughts change, so will the tension.