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Thursday, 30 October 2014 12:27

Mind Over Matter

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Determination. Willpower. Focus. Drive. Commitment. These are all terms that describe one’s devotion to achieving certain tasks or goals, no matter how lofty they may seem. These can be goals for improving one’s skin, diet, or overall appearance – or a business or personal goal like buying a house or planning a family.

Whether the end goal is a single deliverable (a home or the birth of a child) or a long-term lifestyle change designed to improve one’s health or appearance, a person must possess strength of mind in order to persevere.

The phrase “mind over matter” has long been used to explain how things get done. More and more studies are showing that the mind has the ability to help us achieve things – however, it also has the ability to get in our way.

We have all heard that we must reduce the stress in our lives. The question is, how can we do that if many of our stressors are external and lie outside of our control? Trying to control or change an external situation will often result in more stress than would have been there had we not tried to intervene in the first place. Our busy lives today often requires overscheduling, extreme multitasking, rushed lunches, long work hours, less support, more obligations, and less time for self-care and leisure. One day bleeds into the next and before you know it, you need to check your schedule just to see what day of the week it is.
Stress is not just an emotion – it is an intrinsic and extrinsic factor that produces a physiological response in the body. The brain interprets stress as an attack on the body. It responds by jumping into survival mode and sending out neurotransmitters that activate the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, also known as the “fight or flight hormone” or “the stress hormone,” takes over the parts of the brain that are normally regulated by hormones that keep us happy, even-tempered, and thinking clearly (the same hormones that are regulated by anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs). The response is similar to that of adrenaline: thoughts are urgent, hyper, and sometimes manic. One might even feel physically and mentally stronger, and sharper... as if they are ready for battle.
This was not a bad thing back in the hunter-gatherer days when prehistoric humans needed superhero reflexes to outrun saber-toothed cats. Once the threat had passed, the hormone levels would come back down and life went on calmly until the next threat presented. However, saber-toothed cats, as well the majority of the physical threats of those days, no longer exist. Today’s threats might not bite, but they are just as ominous – and we often are not allowed the appropriate amount of time to allow the cortisol levels to normalize. The body is constantly forced into this survival mode by chronic stress. This can result in many health problems such as depression and other mental illnesses, high blood pressure, compromised immune response, inflammation, hormonal imbalances that can cause problems with blood sugar, body weight, and flare ups of skin disorders like eczema, acne, rosacea, and psoriasis. Any and all of these issues can accelerate the aging process of not just the skin, but of the entire body.1
Although we cannot eliminate stress, we can take measures to help reduce its effects on our health. How? It is all about mind over matter. There are several ways we can minimize the damage caused by stress on the body. By eating well, exercising regularly, and developing awareness practices involving mindfulness and meditation, we can help our brains process stress in a healthier way and neutralize free-radical damage to our bodies.

In aesthetics, we are taught how antioxidants help fight inflammation and premature aging on the skin and we often incorporate them into our menus of service. Antioxidant-rich infusions, masks, ampoules, serums, and moisturizers are widely available to aestheticians in the treatment room and to clients as part of their home care regimens. The same is true for the body’s internal cells, tissues, organs, and systems. Eating rich diets, such as plant foods that contain high concentrations of antioxidants, helps reduce inflammation and neutralize free-radical damage internally. A good rule of thumb is that the more natural pigment a fresh fruit or vegetable has, the more antioxidants it contains. Good examples are beets, rainbow chard, sweet potatoes, blueberries, kale, and carrots. Main2
There is a branch of holistic nutrition called Food Energetics (born out of Traditional Chinese Medicine) that focuses on how the way a food naturally grows directly correlates to its effect on the mood. For example, foods that grow up and out of the earth like romaine lettuce and broccoli have an uplifting effect on the mood, whereas foods that grow down into the earth like carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables and tubers have a grounding and centering effect on the body. This is helpful to know because you can use foods to help lift your mood if you feel down in the dumps or to bring you back to earth if you feel things are spinning out of control.

One of the most important ways we can put mind over matter into practice is to learn how to increase self-awareness and teach this to clients. This includes awareness of your thoughts and emotions and their possible causes, awareness of your physical body – where are you currently holding tension? Can you find a muscle to relax? It is very important to be aware of your breath – is it fast or slow? Hot or cool? Deep or shallow? Natural or forced?
It is also important to increase awareness of the situations and tasks at hand and to see them for what they are. Many people make more of a situation than it really needs to be by dramatizing or exaggerating its difficulty or severity. We also tend to internalize events and take things very personally without considering the actual truth or reality of the matter.
Learning to objectively assess a situation without placing judgment or labels is often very helpful. While we may not be able to control a situation or the actions of other people, there are always ways to control reactions. According to Harvard Medical School, “The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches people to live each moment as it unfolds. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening in the present and accept it without judgment.”2 It is something that takes practice but is easy to do. You can start with focusing on the sound of the breath, then taking your focus to the sounds immediately around you, then extending your attention to the sounds in your room, then to the sounds you might hear just outside the room — and then you can slowly bring your focus back to the breath step by step. “The challenge is not to latch onto a particular idea, emotion, or sensation, or to get caught up in thinking about the past or the future.”2
Meditation brings us inside our own thoughts and bodies and helps us disconnect from the outside world. It often helps clear out mental or emotional cobwebs and focus on one point, thought, object, or task. It also brings clarity and promotes mental and physical relaxation. Meditation does not have to be structured or lengthy. It can be as simple as practicing a few cycles of deep, abdominal inhalations and exhalations between clients, or lying on a massage table for 10 to 15 minutes and listening to a guided meditation CD. It is easier, more convenient, and more effective to do brief meditations very frequently than it is to do one long meditation every once in a while.
Using foods to positively affect the mood, as well as regularly practicing mindfulness and meditation are great ways to really maximize the potential of using mind over matter in order to deal with stress in a more constructive and healthful way.


  • Pontillo, Rachael. Stress Less: Look and Feel Your Best, (2011). Holistically Haute, LLC, Web.
  • Pontillo, Rachael. Mind over Matter, (2011). Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. Web.

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