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Our emotions and feelings don’t just live in our minds. They also manifest as sensation in the body. As we bring a gentle awareness to the sensations, we can unlock the potential of nourishing ourselves into a healthy lifestyle.
As a Mental Health Occupational Therapist, I take a whole person or holistic approach when treating individuals struggling with their mental wellbeing.
Occupational therapy clinicians work in collaboration with people in a manner that facilitates hope, inspiration, and empowerment. It creates conditions that help people make healthy changes in their everyday lives. My role as a mental health occupational therapist is unique, as my specialty only makes up about 4% of the entire OT workforce, but the roots of the whole profession are in mental health.
At the Centers for Behavioral Health at Cape Cod Hospital, I proudly serve the community by providing evidence-based and person-centered therapies that help people from all walks of life. We work to help our patients learn how to control their stress levels and their response to events from the past, present, and future that affect their daily lives.
When it comes to our mental health, more than 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event.
Harvard University tied more than 80% of all visits to primary care physicians to chronic stress. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. It can decrease the strength of the immune system, increasing susceptibility to viral infections. Additionally, high levels of stress speed up the aging process and damage our body at the cellular level.
Managing our mental health can heal not only the way we think, handle stress, and look at the world but also improve our physical body from within. In my role as a mental health clinician, I have implemented evidence-based, simple, and practical skill training to help my clients reach their goals and participate more fully in their everyday lives.
When used in conjunction with mindfulness skills, diaphragmatic breathing is well-received with most clients because they often feel results within minutes. It can be a useful tool to cope with chronic stress, anxiety, and some physical pain.
I teach the 7-11 breathing method initially.
This consists of:
Often, just ten mindful “7-11 breaths” can assist in relaxation, engage the wise mind, and decrease stress hormones within the body.
Try it out sometime. You won't be disappointed.
Stimulating your vagus nerve can also help the mind and body relax and return to homeostasis. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. It has an essential role in bringing the body from fight-or-flight (stress response) to rest-and-digest (relaxation response).
The vagus nerve inserts into all the major organs in our body and passes through the vocal cords. It’s why humming, singing, and chanting have helped people self-soothe for thousands of years.
Next time you are looking to bring your body back to a relaxed and peaceful place, try splashing cold water on your face for 2 minutes, singing, or stretching.
These are just a few of the many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and bring ourselves back to a more relaxed state of being where we see things clearly and without judgment.
Another tool in the toolbox of a mental health occupational therapist is sensory self-regulation. We all know about our five senses – taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight. Now, add two more – proprioception (spatial awareness) and interoception (awareness of what is happening moment to moment inside your body).
When we regulate and effectively modulate the sensory stimulus in our environment, we can find practical and healthy ways to soothe our sensory system or alert it. This skill can be one of the most potent forms of coping when we feel hyper-arousal (anxiety, stress, overwhelmed) or hypo-arousal (spacy, zoned-out, numb).
Some examples of sensory strategies that provide relaxation are:
At the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes need alerting stimulation to get energized.
Some examples of alerting sensory strategies are:
Apply some of these invaluable practices next time you feel a bit dysregulated mentally or physically.
During these times of change and uncertainty, it can help us to know that we have a wide variety of inner resources available to us if we stop, pay attention, and practice self-care.