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Christy Matta, M.A.Christy Matta, M.A.
A Blog on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

Change Your Body, Change Your Mind

Christy Matta, M.A. Updated: Apr 17th 2012

When we're feeling stressed out or when we're highly emotional, it is common to experience certain psychological symptoms. Most of us have gotten stuck in worry, felt close to panic, thought negative things about ourselves or had trouble focusing at some point or another. These symptoms can be painful and when they are prolonged, interfere with our ability to function or cause us to act in ways that are risky, we've got to find strategies to lessen them.

woman in bubble meditating on beachThe body and the mind are connected. Often we think of them as two separate entities, but the reality it that our bodies and minds are a part of our whole selves. The body and mind communicate to and influence each other. Sometimes, the best way to change how you are thinking is to make changes to how your body is feeling.

When you are stressed, overwhelmed or stuck in negative thoughts, it can be helpful to first get your body into a more calm and relaxed state, which will have a calming effect on your emotions and thoughts.

A focus on breathing is an important part of treatment for stress, panic, and anxiety. One strategy I suggest is called Wave Breathing. Likes waves, our breathing is constant and, like waves, it is sometimes calm and rhythmic and at other times crashing and intense. In this exercise, you choose several times throughout the day and simply notice the quality of your breath. Call to mind the image of waves and imagine your breathing as either a calm sea or as crashing waves. Often, just noticing your breathing has a calming effect, but it's not necessary to try to calm it. Keep your focus on your breathing and acknowledge it's quality for 20 to 30 seconds and then return your attention to what you were doing previously. This is an strategy you can use in a meeting, while driving (keep your eyes open) or in the midst of a conversation.

At other times, psychological symptoms of stress come from the energy that is released during an acute stress response. If you're sitting behind a desk or are in a car and find yourself ruminating, worrying or close to panic, you may need to release some of that energy. If you're not able to get up and walk around or exercise, it can be helpful to tense and then release different muscles in the body. For example, you might clench your fists as hard as you can or lift your shoulders as high as you can for five to ten seconds and then release your fists or let your shoulders slide back down your back and let the energy drain out of your forearms and hands or neck and shoulders. Repeat that two or three times and your body will begin to feel less revved up. As your body relaxes, you will likely find that your thoughts have also slowed and that your emotions have calmed a bit.

Over time and with practice, these exercises and others designed to calm and slow the body's physical reaction to stressful circumstances, can have a significant impact on the intensity of your thoughts. As you calm your mind, you are better able to decide whether to notice problematic thoughts and respond to them, let them pass by like clouds in sky or attempt to change them.


Christy Matta, M.A.

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress. She is intensively trained in DBT and has designed and provided clinical supervision to treatment programs, including a winner of the American Psychiatric Association Gold Award. Matta has a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Boston College. For more on her consultation and trainings visit her web site For more tips and mindfulness tips and strategies visit her blog

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