“I knew it in my gut.”
“I felt it in my heart.”
“I had butterflies in my stomach.”
“It makes my chest tight.”
Thoughts, emotions, and intuition. Have you ever taken a moment to consider the ways in which these three important tools send cues to your physical body? Though we often perceive our thoughts to be largely contained within our heads, the language around emotions and intuition consistently points to a corporal association. How often have you met someone new and just felt a connection- or a repulsion- that you couldn’t explain? When you’re about to give a big presentation, what sensations arise in your body? Does your stomach feel fluttery? Do your palms sweat? Does your mouth become dry?
Sir Ken Robinson has said that in our modern era, many of us walk around as though our body is just a mechanism to take our heads to meetings. And while a disassociation of the mind and body may be rather convenient within many academic or professional settings, in the long run we handicap ourselves by denying one of our most valuable human assets.
The Mind-Body Connection
Your body is a sophisticated machine with a powerful network that connects your brain to your gut, and beyond. That super transmission highway is called the Vagus Nerve. Known as the “wandering nerve”, its two thick stems are rooted in the brain-stem and extend downward to the lowest part of the abdomen, touching the heart and every major organ.
Signals are sent back and forth- from the brain to the organs, and from the organs to the brain. When it’s time to rest and relax, the brain sends a message to the organs to digest and sleep. Conversely, emotional intuitions are carried from the heart and gut up to the brain as instincts and visceral feelings.
Healthy two-way communication via the Vagus Nerve spurs the release of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and GABA, which have the positive effect of lowering your blood pressure and heart rate. Research has shown that when there is a disconnection between the signals coming up from the gut and the brain, it is more difficult for us to regulate our response to fear and anxiety.
The Vagus at Work
Over the years, our jobs take have taken us further away from our physicality and moved us into increasingly sedentary, intellectual roles. In 1960, 50% of jobs required moderate physical activity. Today, that number has fallen to just 20%. As our responsibilities in the workplace rely less and less on our connection to our physiology, we increasingly spend time “in our heads”, consumed with worry about the future, or ruminating about scenarios that happened in the past.
As we’ve discussed in our previous blog posts, present moment awareness has been linked to improved focus and stronger leadership. Studies have proven that the practice of mindfulness literally changes the grey matter in the brain regions responsible for learning and memory, emotional regulation, and perspective. And, try as we might to find a way to think ourselves into the present moment, the only way to truly ground oneself in the here and now is by connecting to the realm of our senses, to our embodied experience happening here and now.
Tips for Improving Mind-Body Communication
The key to keeping your head and your gut on speaking terms is to build habits into your everyday work routine. The good news is that it’s easy to do. Even the busiest executives can spare two minutes to try one of the following 6 techniques to improve the mind-body connection and be better able to go with your gut.
1) Take a Breather
Focusing on your breath is one of the simplest but most fundamental techniques for present moment awareness. For millennia, this practice has been taught by gurus and yogis, and now science has proven that deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve and reduces the stress response associated with “fight or flight” mechanisms. To take advantage of this technique, simply close your eyes and take a deep breath that expands your abdomen with each inhalation. Exhale slowly. Repeat. Try it for a few moments a few times a day and see the difference it can make for yourself.
2) Stretch it Out
Taking the opportunity to stretch is another excellent way to reconnect with the sensations in your body. When we are tense, we sometimes fail to realize how our body manifests that tension, whether with a clenched jaw, tight shoulders, or balled fists. Even in the middle of a busy meeting, you can stretch out your calf muscles underneath the table, or take a few quick shoulder rolls while everyone is getting settled in. On a longer break, stretch your hands above your head, and then move them down to the sides, and then extend them back behind your body, reversing the typical “hunched over our keyboards” posture.
When we’re rushing through a busy day, we can neglect some of our most basic needs. Set the intention to remain hydrated, and invest in a sturdy, reusable water bottle that you can carry with you. Sip the water continuously throughout the day, and pay attention to the sensation of swallowing each cool gulp. An added bonus will be the necessary bathroom breaks that will encourage you to periodically get up from your desk.
4) Break Out
Speaking of bathroom breaks, another way to reconnect with your body is to step away from your work briefly every so often. Even if it’s just to take a walk to the washroom, or down the hall and back again. Instead of sending an email to a colleague, walk over to their desk to discuss the topic. Use the break as an opportunity to pay attention to the sensations in your body, feeling your feet making contact with the ground, noticing how your breathing changes as you move around, connecting with the present moment instead of the to-do list in your head.
5) Move to the Beat
Dancing and singing can be a fun, enjoyable way to reconnect with the sensations in the body. Singing your heart out to your favourite tune during the drive home from work, or having a solo dance party after a hard day can help to work the emotions through the body, so that they don’t get stuck and drain our energy and vitality. The root word for emotion in Latin, emovere, means “to move through”, and movement helps us to let our emotions move through us and out of us.
6) Sense and Sensibility
When we’re “in our heads” we often lose sight of how powerful our physical senses can be. Taking the time to engage your sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing can instantly bring attention back to the body. Consider keeping essential oils at your desk, or a soft throw over your chair as a way to return to your senses during the work day.
Mindfulness Training in the Workplace
For more than 50 years, SIGMA has provided science-based leadership development solutions to organizations. To learn more about our assessment and leadership programs, reach out to our team today.
 Psychology Today, “How Does the Vagus Nerve Convey Gut Instincts to the Brain?”, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-athletes-way/201405/how-does-the-vagus-nerve-convey-gut-instincts-the-brain
 New York Times, “Workplace Cited as a New Source of Rise in Obesity”, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/health/nutrition/26fat.html
 Science Direct, “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Grey Matter Density”, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092549271000288X
 Psychology Today, “Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve”, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/diaphragmatic-breathing-exercises-and-your-vagus-nerve