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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

The Body's Innate Superpower: Mindfulness and Self-Regulation

Mindfulness practices have a growing body of literature showing their ability to promote healing and overall well-being. Mindfulness is a very broad term. It ranges from a variety of meditation practices and breath-work techniques, to simply taking a moment out of your busy day to check in with your body. Although mindfulness techniques have only become popular in Western cultures the past decade or so, Eastern cultures have been using a variety of mindfulness techniques, with great results, for centuries.

I know, this may sound very "woo-woo"... I would have said the same thing when I began my clinical career. But, in reality, mindfulness practices such as meditation, breath-work, visualization, journaling, and somatic tracking are some of the most well researched healing techniques in healthcare. The good thing for individuals looking to heal or improve performance is these techniques are often free, and fairly easy to learn.

Serenity Swing in San Luis Obispo, California - Spring 2020

When discussing mindfulness, I first like to bring up the concept of self-regulation. The ability to self-regulate our nervous system between states of stress, anxiety, pain, or threat to a calm, yet alert state (and vice versa) is quite literally a super power for human beings. This calm, yet alert, state is often described as "in the zone" or "flow state". In my opinion this state can simply be labeled as feeling authentically "you". A mentor of mine and excellent physical therapist, Seth Oberst, describes self-regulation as... "The body's ability to feel, without overwhelm." To expand on Seth's definition, it is the body's ability to take in sensory stimuli from your surroundings without having an abnormal response to a normal situation. This concept lives on a spectrum as one severe example of "overwhelm" is agoraphobia, the fear to leave one's home or environments known to be safe. Yet, the other end of spectrum may be a small pet-peeve triggering a massive amount of frustration and ruining someone's day. What is going on physiologically within the body in each of these examples is similar, just to a differing degree... the inability to self-regulate.

So what does self-regulation have to do with a mindfulness practice? Well, if mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment and our body sensations within that present moment, then the ability to self-regulate is a key factor in reinforcing that awareness. It is positive reinforcement allowing your body to safely interact in the world and deal with stressors. Seeing, feeling, and knowing the present moment is accomplished through mindfulness and self-regulation training.

Imagine a golfer standing over a 5 foot putt to win the Masters. An experienced golfer who has been in this position before is able to tap into his ability to self-regulate by slowing down his breath, relaxing his body and grip, taking in just the right amount of the crowd noise to focus while remaining calm... all while closing his mind off to thinking, instead just working off of muscle memory. Now, imagine an amateur golfer standing over a 3 foot putt on the 18th hole to win the match against his best friend. The exact opposite occurs in the amateur's body. Sweaty palms, over-squeezing grip, mind racing, and hypersensitive to noise leading to a lack of focus. You get the picture. We've all felt those sensations at some point in our life.

The amateur golfer's inability to self-regulate on the golf course doesn't truly effect his livelihood, but the effects are much more detrimental for someone who has a similar response when public speaking, confronted with a question from their boss, entering a crowded store, dealing with a disagreement with spouse, or battling with chronic health condition. Anxiety, stress, fear, and lack of ability to self-regulate can lead to a myriad of chronic conditions. Living in this hyperstimulated, fight or flight, state leads to a cascade of physiological reactions that both reinforce the programmed abnormal response and also degrade the body's ability to heal and thrive. This anxiety and stress response combined with the inability to self-regulate can be crippling for many people. The pandemic has been a prime example of this. I truly believe it may be the most debilitating phenomenon in human nature, and possibly has a causal relationship to most chronic and autoimmune dysfunction.

To expand on this topic, here is an excerpt from Stanford professor and leading stress researcher Robert Sapolsky's best-selling book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping:

If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses—but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.

Some may read that excerpt and start "worrying about their worrying" and that is exactly the author's point... the body can "get good" at having a large, negative physiological response to small stressors. This brings us back to the concept of the body having the ability to feel, without overwhelm. If the body can "get good" at having abnormal responses to normal situations, then it must also have the capacity to reverse this dilemma. How can the stressed out body and mind do this? There is no magic pill or quick fix... it simply comes from improving your body's ability to self-regulate and be in the present moment. The magic pill is practicing mindfulness.

Implementing a mindfulness practice can be challenging. If you are looking for a mindful meditation practice, I often refer many clients to apps such as Headspace, Calm, or Reveri. These apps are a great resource as an introduction to mindful meditation. If meditation isn't your thing then another option would be breath-work such as box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or simply taking a moment to check in with your breath. My personal favorite mindfulness practice is journaling. I journal 10-15 minutes every morning... sometimes doing intention journaling or gratitude journal, but mostly free writing to bring attention to my thoughts and feelings.

Somatic tracking is an extremely powerful mindfulness technique I use with my clients during sessions. It is the combination of mindfulness, body awareness, safety reappraisal, and positive affect introduction. The purpose of somatic tracking is to help clients attend to the stressful/painful sensations through a distinct lens of safety, thus turning the dial down on the stress/pain response. It's an incredibly effective tool in treating chronic pain, stress, or dysfunction.

I truly believe many of these mindfulness techniques combined with quality nutrition, sleep, and physical activity will shape the trajectory of healthcare over the next few decades. The world has never been more connected technologically, yet disconnected at the same time through distractibility, loneliness, negative self-talk, and loss of purpose in life. I see this disconnection on a daily basis with my clients dealing with chronic pain, stress, and dysfunction. Mindfulness and self-regulation training can be a way out of this suffering.

I look forward to writing much more on the topic of mindfulness and self-regulation in future posts. But for the time being, I'd like to leave you with a quote to encourage mindfulness in your day.

"When we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another - and ourselves." - Jack Kornfield


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