- being prescribed an hour of gardening 3 times per week to treat your symptoms of depression;
- sparring with your life coach to address your fear of conflict;
- treating breast cancer with dance.
Unconventional? Perhaps. Effective? Emerging studies suggest yes. Worthy of further investigation? Absolutely.
Therapeutic and coaching practices which incorporate physical movement or activity alongside or in combination with more traditional cognitive approaches are becoming increasingly common, according to research conducted by Trish Matthews of Magpie Coaching in the UK.
Doctors have pondered the relationship between our mental and physical health for centuries, and alternative health practices (both traditional and modern) are often based on the assumption of a mind-body connection, but it’s only recently that Western medicine has begun to accept such a connection as valid. The advent of prescription drugs that act directly on brain chemistry as a means of affecting the emotional and mental well-being of patients is evidence of this slow acceptance.
The placebo effect is another example of the often little understood connection between the mind and the body. There are numerous documented cases of patients experiencing improvement in and even complete spontaneous healing of serious diseases after taking sugar pills, because they believed they would be effective, though they are often dismissed as random chance occurrences. The fact that anxiety and stress have direct negative impacts on our physical health is now well understood and accepted by mainstream medicine. These emerging understandings illustrate the very real link between our cognitive, emotional and physical bodies.
It is becoming more and more accepted that the physical body responds in a very real, concrete way to our thoughts, emotions, beliefs and behaviours. But what of the reverse pathway? Is the connection multidirectional? Can manipulating the physical body in turn have a measurable affect on our emotions, beliefs and behaviours? Yes it can, according to a growing number of therapists, coaches and healers exploring this link through the incorporation of physical activity and movement in their practices.
What we do with our physical body, from what we eat to how much we exercise, can and does impact our mental and emotional state either positively or negatively. The saying ‘fake it ’til you make it’ illustrates this point: smiling and sitting up straight can improve your mood and feeling of confidence instantly.
Incorporating physical practices, movement and activity into a coaching practice or healing therapy can have profound effects on a client’s emotional and mental well-being. Some coaches are finding that coming at an emotional or behavioural issue from the perspective of the body is as or more effective than approaching it from a cognitive angle.
Some examples might include the physical practice of martial arts having a positive effect on an individual’s self-confidence, their ability to handle conflict appropriately, and an increased capacity for mindfulness. Other studies have shown the positive emotional effects of gardening therapy on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Groups practicing laughter to improve both emotional and physiological health are now gaining in popularity. Something as simple as walking, drawing or engaging in crafts can encourage cognitive processing of difficult emotions and thoughts, leading to increased self-awareness and problem-solving without having to discuss the issue in a traditional manner. Simply taking a coaching session outdoors and into a natural setting can have a profound effect on a client’s progress and the healing process.
A growing number of coaches and healers are deliberately bringing physical approaches into their work – from martial arts, massage & other bodywork, dance, yoga, sports, and arts & crafts – or are incorporating activities that include a physiological component such as meditation, chi gong or laughter therapy. Utilizing the mind-body connection to approach healing from a physical perspective provides additional ways of engaging and connecting with a client, and more opportunities for accessing emotional and behavioural issues that may resist other more conventional approaches.