There is no mystery as to why Netflix and baking bread topped the list of activities over the past year. We feel our emotions in our body and anxiety, depression, boredom, disappointment, sadness, anger don’t feel good. Netflix and baking bread change our bodies’ chemistry to make us feel better, at least for a while.
Staying busy as a way to handle emotions is not really managing, though, it’s storing. Your body is hardwired to fight, flee, or freeze in response to emotions and holds emotions as tension until released. When you get busy to distract yourself, the tension is still stored. I found this out in a very humbling way last year.
When the pandemic hit, I dove into my work. I was even more passionate about contributing a positive message about exercising to be well. Even though I was still exercising regularly, I spent a lot of time at my computer working. Emotionally, I was so focused on staying positive, I was not letting the full range of emotions surface. The negative ones had to be stored somewhere. I got up from my desk one day and found out where—in my back! It spasmed to let me know it could not store this tension any more. It was time to pay attention to the full range of emotions.
Although I was channeling the emotions of the pandemic into something ‘good’, it was still a form of escape from the full range of emotions. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat Zinn calls it living in “the full catastrophe”. Exercise helped to keep my brain flooded with great chemicals to stay positive; however, it was not releasing the tension from the negative emotions I was keeping in my blind spot.
Research shows when we name emotions, our body instantly starts to calm. Naming what you are feeling calms the amygdala or ‘guard dog’ in your brain. Name it to tame it is the catchy phrase that helps us remember this way to respond to all emotions, especially the ones we want to escape.
This is one reason mindfulness is such a powerful tool for being well and healthy. It helps you acknowledge what is happening inside—not because you want it to be here, just because it IS here. As I found out, this is important even when you are trying to stay positive. This is why they call mindfulness a lifelong practice.
Naming what you are feeling briefly opens the doorway to calm. The doorway will, however, close and leave you back in the stress response if you don’t take the next step. You have to (literally) move through that doorway to return to a state of well. Changing your thinking is just the start. Your body needs to move to release the tension. But not all movement will do it—only exercise will, and even that depends on how you define exercise.
Moving to get things done, even if you are getting lots of steps or burning lots of calories, is not exercise, it’s physical activity. It will not return you to the state of calm, healthy, and well because it’s just another form of escape.
Exercise for health and well-being is when you move for the sole purpose of self-care. It is when you take time out of your daily routine to listen to what is happening inside and give your body and mind what it needs to restore well-being. When you distract yourself to ‘just do it’, you limit the health benefits of exercising.
Movement with mindful self-compassion gives your whole person what it needs to release tension held from emotions. That is when movement becomes exercise that has the greatest impact on your health. It does not mean you cannot listen to music or a podcast while you are exercising. It simply means you are using it as a time to check in, not tune out.
While this may sound complicated, it’s much more simple than storing strong emotions and trying to burn enough calories every day. Mindfulness and movement are two powerful health tools that help each other work for our wellbeing. The bonus is, they make motivation more sustainable. Together they make being healthy simpler and well possible.
The hardest part is letting go of the idea that to be healthy you have to push through life to get to a goal. As I was reminded this year, being healthy is not about thinking positive and it’s not about achieving goals, it’s about constantly staying open to the full range of emotions that are part of being human, and responding with kindness. This willingness to stay open to your whole person in the present moment, respecting the way your body is hardwired to take care of you, is the way to emerge from this past year stronger than ever.
Bottom line: Being healthy is not a destination, it’s a continual exploration of what it means for you to be well now. Being well in times of stress is a three-step process. Mindfulness gives your mind what it needs. Being Kind Inside gives your heart what it needs. Movement gives your body what it needs. This teamwork is the way out of the stress response and back to a state of being well.