Physiological Approaches to Mindfulness

urlOur brains are powerful, they are involved in everything that we do. Mindfulness is all about filtering out the noise in our minds, and getting things down to being only this moment. This does a lot for anxiety and other mental health problems, though it has its limitations. Stress has a physiological component causing adrenalin and other neurochemicals to increase and decrease throughout our bodies. Sometimes just being in the moment isn’t enough. Instead, why not use these big brains of ours to make a decision to do an exercise that will impact that physiological response?

The exercises below have a distinct benefit on chronic pain and illness, since in our case the body is often the cause of the stress!

An important note on mindfulness exercises: it will often feel worse before it gets better. Being in the moment can be downright awful. Sometimes the moment is a crappy and painful place. Often times it takes ongoing practice of basic mindfulness exercises to get a benefit. Other times it is important to learn other skills within the mindfulness inventory such as containment, grounding, etc.

If you don’t believe we have these physiological superpowers read my article Pain, Trauma and the Brain be Mindful of the Whimsy.

Breath Training

Georgia Southern University Counseling Center’s page on Relaxation and Stress Management1 is a goldmine when it comes to mindfulness and breathing exercises. Throughout this article I will be citing them, and I use their exercises in therapy all the time. Many of them focus on the physiological aspects of mindfulness. They have a few that focus on how to assess breathing and breathe, a step that we are starting to skip with Mindfulness.

Diaphragmatic Breathing2 – This exercise is about more than breathing with your belly, it also has a great assessment and brief education on breath. Then there is a great tutorial on how to breathe with a focus on the diaphragm.

As a therapist I have to say seeing this exercise in action is very cool. It’s help me take people from hyperventilating to relaxed and breathing properly in minutes. It’s also nice to be able to put my full attention on watching someone do this type of exercise since I can catch the errors. Much harder to do when I’m dictating it!

Exercise presented by Dr. Allan Vives.

Deep Breathing I3 – This is a great exercise for practicing more aspects of deep breathing. It continues to work on proper breathing technique while continuing to teach how to pace breathing.

Exercise presented by Dr. Jodi Caldwell.

Mindfulness Breathing

Deep Breathing II4 – This is more a mindfulness exercise than a breathing exercise as it works on redirecting focus to the breath and developing an attention on the muscles of the body. This a great intro to other mindfulness exercises.

Exercise present by Dr. Prentiss Price.

Just this Breath5 – I always introduce Mindfulness with this simple exercise. First, Dr. Wendy Wolfe introduces each exercise with a simple explanation of Mindfulness, that most of our stress comes from the past and the future.

This exercise only focuses on the breath, and there is no preference on how you are breathing. It increases focus on the breath as it continues. It ends with 100% focus on the breath with a mindfulness mantra of “Just this one breath, just this one exhale”. Most clients get relief from this exercise after trying it a few times. I love this exercise since it increases focus on the body in one simple yet important physiological way, the breath.

I also love this exercise since it can be done anywhere at any time. Pairing it with first practicing diaphragmatic breathing can improve the outcome of the exercise since a state of relaxation and decreasing the stress response has already begun. The breath you pay attention to will be a slow relaxed breath.

Increasing Awareness6: This exercise focuses on increasing awareness of the present moment, most of the focus presented is on the body. Once again it brings one back into the body and helps increase attention to it.

Exercise presented by Dr. Wendi Wolfe

Physiological Quieting

This exercise I got from my physical therapist. It takes you head to toe through the body, noticing tension and pain, and then taking steps to relieve that tension and pain. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a good synopsis online.

This is a long exercise that should be done in a quiet and secure place since it often causes people to fall asleep. This takes progressive muscle relaxation to a whole new level. It goes through every muscle group in the body and for each moves from simply noticing, to providing a remedy.

For my clients this tends to be a jarring exercise as it brings them to a place they are unfamiliar with, one that is not ruled by the stresses of trauma and chronic physical illness. Coming fully back into the body tends to be very new for most people. I can’t recommend this one enough, it is unique in how it attends to the body and is particularly beneficial to those with chronic illness.

Physiological Quieting on Amazon7


Yoga attends to paying attention to the body and relieving tension, and not to mention getting exercise. There are classes and videos online that modify Yoga exercises for those with mobility disorders.

There are several Eastern practices that have the full spirit of Mindfulness and Yoga is one of them. The key ingredients to Mindfulness is acceptance of the moment, and being in the moment. Yoga accomplishes both while being in motion.

If you have mobility issues many Yogi’s know some great modifications, there are also some great Youtube videos like Yoga Tx’s Chair Yoga8. Note how she focuses a lot on noticing the parts of the body.

There are some great studies on this, but I of course only have access to the abstracts! This is why Santa for Anna9 is important, the goal of the campaign is to reinstate my access to full text research.

A lovely abstract on Yoga and it’s positive impact on Fibromyalgia:

An eight-week yoga intervention is associated with improvements in pain, psychological functioning and mindfulness, and changes in cortisol levels in women with fibromyalgia10

The Takeaway

Our actions are powerful, and we can choose to do things that impact our stress not only at an emotional but also a physiological level. Mindfulness practices with a physiological focus have a particular benefit in the case of chronic illness and pain as it can not only teach us to change our focus in the body, it also brings us back into full awareness of the body, and in the case of Yoga this can also provide a way to stretch and exercise.

Coming back into your body can be uncomfortable. We often cope by disassociating from our bodies and living instead in our minds. The discomfort of being aware of the body while uncomfortable, it is also the first step in changing how we can change how we feel physically. So start practicing these exercises and getting back in touch with your body, and also learn some ways to change how you focus on and manage chronic illness and pain.

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