04/17/2012 07:29 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

Calm Your Body to Transform Your Thinking

Often we act as if our bodies and our minds are two separate entities. We exercise to keep our bodies healthy, for example, but give little thought to whether our physical state has an impact on our minds. Yet, both body and mind are a part of our whole selves and as such, are closely connected. The body and mind communicate to and influence each other. Sometimes, the best way to transform painful psychological symptoms of distress is to make changes to how your body is feeling.

Most of us have gotten stuck in worry, felt close to panic, called ourselves names (stupid, idiot or failure, for example) or had trouble focusing. It's painful to be stuck in negative thinking. When this goes on for a long period of time or when it interferes with your ability to function it's important to find strategies to lessen these symptoms.

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.

Two Strategies to Calm Your Body and Transform Painful Thought Patterns:

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 its 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 lift your shoulders as high as you can for five to 10 seconds and then release your shoulders and let them slide back down your back, allowing the energy to drain out of your neck, shoulders and arms. 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.

You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, "The Stress Response."

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

For more on stress, click here.