Life is hectic. Between our jobs, taking care of our families, pets, plants, homes, etc., there is hardly a spare moment in the day to focus on ourselves. On top of that, we live in a bustling city that makes it even more difficult to tune in to our internal processes. Thus, it’s no wonder most of us experience stress of varying degrees, negatively impacting our emotional and physical states.
Mindfulness is one way to improve stress and help our bodies function better. Through self-observation without judgment, mindfulness can enhance one’s understanding of their present-moment experience. This practice of “tuning-in” has been supported by scientific research to have physical and cognitive benefits, including reducing blood pressure1, depression2, anxiety3, chronic pain4, and enhancing our learning and memory processes5. In addition, the American Heart Association supports the use of meditation and mindfulness as a means to reduce stress and risk of cardiovascular disease.6
Approaching your physical therapy with mindfulness can maximize the benefits of therapeutic exercises and help you to better understand your body. Here are some ways to use mindfulness to optimize your rehabilitation:
- Take a moment to pause. Use this moment to gain an understanding of the state of your body. Whether you’re sitting on the subway, at your desk, or maybe lying on the treatment table about to do some exercises, take a moment to acknowledge any sensations or emotions you are feeling. Are you holding tension in any part of your body? Can you consciously let that area relax? After a stressful meeting or exercise, how has your body responded? Establishing a connection between stress, emotion, activity, and your pain can help you gain a sense of control of how your body feels.
- Focus on your breath. Bringing attention to the breath is a great way to tune into the body and help you to relax. To start, place one hand on your chest and the other over your navel. Take note of how they rise and fall as you breathe. Is your breath slow and steady, or restricted and tense? Do you tend to hold your breath more when you’re stressed or exercising? It’s quite common for people to hold their breath when they’re exerting themselves. Therefore, try practicing focused breathing while doing your exercises!
- Perform exercises with intention. When performing your exercises, you should have an understanding of the area being targeted and the purpose of the exercise. For example, is the exercise helping with strength or flexibility? When you’re performing the exercise, do you feel it working the targeted area? Are you performing the activity with the proper form? If you are unsure, just ask your physical therapist. They will be more than happy to review your exercises with you!
- Quality over quantity. As you progress through your rehab, your exercise list starts to grow and it can take a while to get through everything. You may find yourself quickly powering through those leg raises or rows because you need to get back to work or start dinner, or they may be challenging and you just want to get them over with! Unfortunately, when performing exercises faster, the tendency is to lose that sense of intention discussed above and form starts to break down. Without the proper form, you might not be optimally working the targeted area, and therefore not reaping the full benefits of the exercise. Therefore, when it comes down to it, your physical therapist would rather you maintain the quality of the exercises, even if that means you may have to reduce the quantity.
In conclusion, get to know your body! We as physical therapists are here to get the ball rolling and provide guidance, but ultimately you play the most important role in your body’s journey toward healing. Practicing mindfulness in your everyday life and applying it during your therapy will help enhance your understanding of your body and make the most out of your rehabilitation.
Hillary Keating, PT, DPT
- Hughes, Joel W., et al. "Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for prehypertension." Psychosomatic medicine 75.8 (2013): 721-728.
- Teasdale JD, Segal ZV, Williams JM, Ridgeway VA, Soulsby JM, Lau MA. Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2000;68:615–623
- Roemer L, Orsillo SM, Salters-Pedneault K. Efficacy of an acceptance-based behavior therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: evaluation in a randomized controlled trial.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2008;76:1083–1089.
- Grossman P, Tiefenthaler-Gilmer U, Raysz A, Kesper U. Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 2007;76:226–233.
- Hölzel, Britta K., et al. "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191.1 (2011): 36-43.
- "Meditation and Heart Health." Meditation and Heart Health. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/StressManagement/TakeActiontoControlStress/Meditation-and-Heart-Health_UCM_452930_Article.jsp#.VrIReLIrJD8 . 07 Feb. 2016.