Using Your Body To Change Your Brain

You know that your brain controls your body, but did you also know that your body controls your brain? It’s a feedback loop that works both ways.

The activity in your brain changes every second based on what your body is doing – a process called biofeedback. You may have heard of and thought that biofeedback required some equipment, like a finger heart rate monitor or software application. While technology can make measuring bodily changes easier, it’s not necessary. You can alter your brain’s function with conscious biofeedback simply by paying attention, which can have a huge impact on your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress level.

Your brain is perfectly capable of noticing what’s going on with your body – heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, sweating – and in fact, it does all the time anyway. To practice conscious biofeedback, you just have to become aware of this happening.

How Biofeedback Works

Your brain is constantly receiving signals from the rest of your body informing it of the environment and telling it how to think and feel. Information coming from your senses first gets interpreted by your brain as emotion, and then your brain adds its own subjective “special sauce” to produce feelings. (See: What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions)

A gnawing feeling in your stomach could mean that you’re hungry or it could just be that you are feeling anxious about that meeting tomorrow. In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb explains it this way:

These types of signals are like your car’s check engine light – alerting you that something is happening, but not being very helpful in telling you what. Calmly doing a self assessment of your feelings can help distinguish the signals.

The neural signals for your heart rate, breathing, digestion and other bodily functions are carried by the vagus nerve which runs throughout your upper body ending in your brain where they’re given meaning. Many physical sensations, like a queasy stomach, tight muscles, or miscellaneous aches and pains, have an emotional component which your brain may be correctly or incorrectly adding on.  It’s up to you to interpret and influence the physical sensations coming into your brain.

Unknowingly, people tend to automatically generate many types of negative biofeedback, especially in the case of depression. For example, frowning or scowling expressions and timid or withdrawn postures increase feelings of sadness. Studies have shown that people with depression have greater muscle tension which increases anxiety and lowers heart rate variability reinforcing the depression.

Heart-Rate Variability

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the change in the time interval between heartbeats and is directly related to a person’s health. HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system which is made up of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the calming brakes of your nervous system, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the gas pedal of your nervous system. (See blog: Calming Your Brain And Body) Every time you exhale, information travels along your vagus nerve causing your heart rate to slow down increasing your HRV. SNS activity increases your heart rate decreasing HRV.

When a person is depressed, they have less activity in their vagus nerve, which means their heart does not change speeds as much, instead remaining steady. This is so significant that one treatment for stubborn depression is electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve.

HRV is affected by many factors including aerobic fitness, age, genetics, body position, time of day, and health status. During exercise, HRV decreases as heart rate increases. Generally, increased HRV with longer intervals is found in a well conditioned heart at rest. Your heart rate is intimately tied to the your bodily functions and emotional and mental states. I’m sure you can think of times when your heart raced with excitement or “missed a beat” in surprise.

However, HRV patterns are much more significant than simply their rates. In states of stress, anxiety, anger, and sadness the variation tends to be disordered and chaotic. In positive emotional states such as love and gratitude, the variation tends to be ordered and rhythmic. This state of rhythmic variation is known as coherence and is highly efficient and healthy for your mind and body.

On the HeartMath Institute’s website, the “Article Explains Importance of Heart Rate Variability for Your Health,” says:

‘An optimal level of HRV within an organism reflects healthy function and an inherent self-regulatory capacity, adaptability, or resilience,’ McCraty and Shaffer write.

Although generally the greater the HRV, the better, they note that too much variability, or instability ‘such as arrhythmias or nervous system chaos is detrimental to efficient physiological functioning and energy utilization… ‘Too little variation indicates age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology, or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems.’

Many studies have correlated learning to regulate HRV or achieving greater HRV coherence with physical and emotional health benefits including: enhanced cognitive function and memory, reduced cortisol levels, anxiety, and blood pressure, and increased mood and physical stability.

Biofeedback DIY

In HRV biofeedback training using equipment, a computer would analyze your heart rate and respiration usually via a finger monitor to measure coherence. This information is fed back to the person training in real-time, so that they can learn how to alter coherence. There are systems available for you to learn how to do this on your own. and with training, most people can easily learn to engage in slow, effortless diaphragmatic breathing at a rate that will synchronize breathing with their natural heart rhythms to put them into a state of heart coherence.

When healing from a brain injury, I learned how to do this in neurofeedback therapy and even bought a home device for my son to learn to calm himself.

But you don’t have to have equipment to use your body to alter your brain or to stimulate your vagus nerve. You just have to become aware of and influence your body through your own actions. Some ways to do this are:

Splash cold water on your face – Rinsing your face with cold water stimulates your vagus nerve. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious try filling a sink with cool water and splashing your face.

Use the power of music – Music has been shown to increase HRV.  While just listening to music works, making music has been shown to have an even greater positive effect. Music engages most of your limbic system which largely governs emotions.

Smile – It’s a simple thing to do and really can improve your mood. Even a fake smile causes your brain to release dopamine. Think of a fun time, a silly situation or your favorite joke. There’s not much difference in your brain between provoked and genuine smiling.

Stand Up straight – Studies have shown that standing up straight in a more confident posture makes you feel more decisive and confident in your own thoughts and beliefs. A confident posture also proved to be correlated with being more optimistic. Posture is an important source of feedback not only for your brain but for those around you. A confident posture makes others more confident in you. One study even showed that standing up straighter increases energy while slouching decreases energy levels. Sitting up straight has similar effects.

Calm your face – There’s a muscle in the middle of your forehead in between your eyebrows. In the same way your brain thinks you’re happy when you smile, if your brow is furrowed and this muscle is tense, your brain interprets it as you being worried or upset. On bright days, wearing sunglasses will reduce squinting and relax this muscle making your brain feel calmer.

Relax your jaw and tongue – When stressed, you tend to clench your teeth and tense your tongue. Consciously loosen your jaw, wiggle it around, and open your mouth. Make it a point to relax your tongue which also calms your mind. (See: Why Your Eyes Look Up And Your Tongue Tenses When You Think)

Change your breathing – Taking long, deep breaths into your tummy, slows your heart rate and activates the calm, parasympathetic nervous system. Place your hand on your diaphragm, the center of your stomach a couple of inches below your lungs, and take slow, full breaths counting to six making your hand move in and out with each inhale and exhale. Even better – Get a device and learn how to consciously alter your HRV. After you get the hang of it, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing anywhere without using anything. Conversely, breathe faster to get more energy.

Clench and relax – Sometimes it’s actually helpful to clench your muscles and relax them to fully know the difference. Take a deep breath and intentionally flex a tense muscle for a few seconds. After holding it, exhale and relax the muscle. The most important muscles to relax are in your face, but don’t forget your hands, neck, butt, back, and stomach.

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14 Comments

  1. Great suggestions Debbie! I’ve often used the idea of smiling to change how I’m feeling. When I feel down, anxious or angry, the mindful me asks, “Do you really want to feel this way?” The answer is always ‘no.’ So I smile a big smile and hold it for at least 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, I usually feel like continuing to smile and I feel much better. The process of smiling also gets me to slow down my breathing.

    I’ve found mindfulness to be very helpful in allowing me to notice my body’s signals and making proactive choices as a result.

    • Paige, you already intuitively are using your body to change your brain. Good for you! I too have found peace and happiness in mindfulness – even with choas swirling around. (That’s when it is the most powerful!) Thanks for the comment.

  2. Hi Debbie – it’s so funny the concept of smiling. My mother said I was born with a smile on my face and it’s still there today lo these many years later. Maybe that’s why I’m frequently called a Pollyanna – and I’m ok with that. And as for music…well it makes my world a more lovely harmonious place…I wouldn’t want to be without it. 🙂

    • Makes sense. Our natural state is happy. Life sheds us of thatr until we consciously get back in touch with our nature. I’d take “Pollyanna” as a compliment!

  3. Debbie, Thanks for the great post! I love all the practical tips you have as well as the facts about heart rate variability. I also use smiling as a way to make myself feel better. I used to do that as a child and then I found the data on it as an adult!! I’m going to try the clench and relax technique and the calm your face techniques now. Thanks for the lesson!!

    • Thanks for the comment, Betsy. I think we intuitively know how to balance, calm, and relax ourselves as children. Like a lot of other wisdome, we lose it. Glad you are getting bsack to it. (Me too!)

    • Thanks for the comment, Betsy. I think we intuitively know how to balance, calm, and relax ourselves as children. Like a lot of other wisdom, we lose it. Glad you are getting back to it. (Me too!)

  4. Totally agree Debbie, I’ve ran an online stroke support group for 13 yrs now and recovery anything really does rely heavily on state of mind and how bad you want to achieve it. We strive to keep as positive and optimistic an environment as much as possible. As negativity is highly contagious especially to those who’ve recently (last 3 yrs) have had either a Traumatic or acquired brain injury with or without depression and anxiety as well. Thinking positive as you rehabilitate your body helps neuroplasticity happen faster I believe. Also no such thing as a “plateau” at least not permanent, in makings gains for the remainder of your life. As long as you keep trying to do what you still cannot you’ll keep making gains. They’ll be small but gains are gains.

    • Kristi, thank you for sharing your experience. I had an ABI, which is how I became interested in all this brain stuff. I found or came up with my own neuroplastically based rehab exercises, including cognitive, utilized alternative therapies, and recovered fully. The medical professionals had nothing to offer me. With each activity, I would see positive results diminish or “plateau,” but I just took that to mean that it was time to move on to something else. Once I did, the improvement began again, or if not, I didn’t continue with that particular thing. Every brain injury is different, and people have to find what works FOR THEM. Something inevitably will. I wanted others to know this. I also believe, like you, that believing positive change is possible is half of it and does help to rewire your brain.

      • Yes, having an absolute belief that recovery continues throughout the rest of ones life as long as they keep trying to do what they still cannot. No matter how big or small and whether they get there or not. Additional rounds of therapy can be had depending on ins. at least 4 mos out of every year and usually only requires a referral to from your Dr. Depending on your ins. you’ll get at the least 28 wks=4 mos some ins. allow you to continue as long as you’re progressing and will stop when they decide you’ve reached the “plateau”. Don’t take it personally as it’s not personal. May be stated that way but know that’s bullshit. You can also do therapy at home. Therapist’s have many how to exercises to do at home while on hiatus from therapy ask for some print outs and invest in 3 different colored resistance rubber therabands, 2.5work up to 5 lb velcro ankle weights, hand bike, find in stroke smart mag. Doubles as a sit down pedal bike and get a big round exercise ball and practice core exercises. Smaller ball for weight bearing on hand. Practice using normal everyday household items as much as possible, except added safety items. The world will never adapt to us so we must adapt to it best we can with what we’ve been provided thus far. Change your attitude change your life it really does play a HUGE role especially in those with ABI & TBI’S. YES I CAN…….AND WILL. Keep fighting with everything you have.

        • Kristi,

          I admire your attitude and determination. I think, no I know, with those two important ingredients you will see results. I know that my belief and determined persistence were the main reason I recovered from my brain injury. It doesn’t happen quickly, but it CAN happen. Keep up the good work. All the best to you.

          Debbie

          BTW : Insurance did not pay for any of my rehab except some very poor OT for 3 months right after the injury. But there is SO MUCH you can do on your own.

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