Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and a firm believer in the healing and transformative powers of mindfulness. She runs a free twenty-week mindfulness and self-discovery course to help others overcome their self-defeating patterns and fears, learn self-compassion, and take ownership of their body-mind wellbeing. She is also the author of The Art of Untangling, part writing journal, part coloring workbook for deeper self-inquiry, healing and transformation. Follow Joanna on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In this contribution to the KineSophy Mindfulness Series, she offers specific movement practices to lower cortisol and combat chronic stress.
It is now widely known that the low-level but ever-present stress of modern living is very detrimental to our well-being. Actually, it is not the stress itself but our physiological reaction to it that leads to imbalance and eventually illness. Today’s highly pressured, fast-paced world produces chronic, prolonged stress that is disastrous to our immune system and ultimately responsible for the majority of all illnesses, from heart disease to obesity, anxiety or depression.
On the bodily level, the stress response (also known as fight-flight) is responsible for the release of a flood of chemicals every time we face a threat (whether physical or psychological). Those chemicals—mainly adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine—were designed to prepare our body to fight or escape the danger—something that we rarely need in response to modern day stress. There is no tiger we have to run from today, no bear we need to face. But there’s a host of stressful circumstances we have to deal with on a daily basis (financial struggles, racism, nasty bosses, work overload, isolation, mental health challenges, relationship issues), each of which produces a similar cocktail of stress-related chemicals that end up circulating in our bloodstream.
Cortisol—the principal stress hormone—is responsible for muscle breakdown, weight gain, and slowing down of the immune system. The good news is that we possess a certain level of control over our stress response. We can counteract the effect of stress by taking better care of our body-mind.
Lifestyle changes that release accumulated stress from the body while relaxing the mind can minimize the negative while boosting the positive effects of stress. By combining physical exercises with meditative practice, we can give our body-mind the break we need to return to balance and well being.
Movement is a great way to release muscle tension and return our body to a relaxed state. Repetitive movement can also bring us into the state of mindfulness—it gets us out of our head and into our body, into the present moment. It helps integrate our body and mind, reset the nervous system, and rewire the brain for healing and wholeness.
Any movement that’s relaxing and repetitive can be meditative and healing—and lower cortisol levels too! The trick is to go slow and bring mindfulness to the practice.
3 Forms of Exercise That Lower Cortisol and Aid Relaxation
Walking is one of the easiest ways to balance the nervous system and make us feel more relaxed. It lowers cortisol levels (running increases it!), reduces blood pressure and shifts us toward the parasympathetic (relaxing) side of the nervous system, especially when done in a natural environment.
Walking also increase the presence of serotonin (comfort) and dopamine (motivation), enhancing mood and overall wellness. Walking is restorative—it can invoke mindfulness, clear your head, and release stress from the body. It even releases endorphins flooding you with feel-good vibes.
The most rewarding for me personally, yoga is a gentle practice of body-mind integration. Yoga combines awareness of the breath with different body poses, enabling you to achieve the state of mindfulness and body-mind wholeness.
As for its restorative properties, yoga reduces muscle tension and deactivates the stress response. Studies show that it can normalize cortisol levels and bring the body to balance by eliciting the relaxation response which invokes the restorative functions of the body.
Nothing connects me more to my surroundings and removes stress from my system quicker than digging in the dirt—it’s my go-to way to disconnect from chaotic days and relax. The calm of gardening can bring about the state of flow, as you become fully absorbed in the activity. Great for anxiety and taming the monkey mind, gardening is a perfect activity to help you become mindful and engage with the world around you with all your senses.
Gardening has been proven to reduce stress and cortisol levels, increase vitamin D levels impact serotonin levels, which can boost one’s mood, and even reduce the risk of dementia. Horticultural therapy is often prescribed to those suffering from anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Whatever practice you choose, tap into the sensations of your body to bring your awareness to the present moment. Follow your breath as you inhale and exhale deeply, noticing the sensations of oxygen traveling in and out of your lungs. Let the rhythmic flow of your movements relax your mind. Listen, notice, smell, and feel into your surrounding, using your senses to anchor yourself in the present moment.
Observe your experience, including your thoughts and feelings, without judgment. Notice when you get lost in thoughts, and bring yourself back to the movement, back to the now.
Chronic stress can be debilitating and self-destructing but, unfortunately, it’s here to stay. How we deal with it is largely within our control and we owe it to ourselves to take care of our well-being proactively.
Read the other articles in the KineSophy Mindfulness Series.