This Local Author Thinks Understanding “Physical Intelligence” Can Help You Regulate Your Emotions

Patricia Peyton explains how a few simple tools can improve your cognitive function — and help you calm yourself down, too.

Physical intelligence is a tool for making simple adjustments to the balance of chemicals in our bodies through how we move, breathe, think, and interact with each other. | Photo by Getty

Can you remember the euphoria you felt when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, or even when the Phillies won the World Series? Or, conversely, the agonies (too numerous to mention) you experienced watching all of our beloved and beleaguered teams lose? How about the fear that gripped you as COVID-19 locked down the city, the loneliness that came with quarantine, or the anxiety of working on the front lines or juggling working from home and home-schooling? We Philadelphians have experienced our fair share of emotions — and we’re typically not shy about showing them.

Regardless of big highs and lows, we’re all experiencing stress these days. Even before COVID-19, we were living and working in a challenging environment. According to McKinsey Global Institute, the pace of change over the past several years has been 10 times that of the Industrial Revolution and hundreds of times the scale — human beings are just not evolving as quickly as the world is changing around us, which, of course, leads to stress. We know that the pandemic has exacerbated our mental health crisis and overall stress levels, but the truth is, we were deep into a stress epidemic long before COVID-19 arrived.

As we head into a new year that promises continued uncertainty, there are some tools I recommend to help our brains and bodies feel more in control of our emotions (if not our circumstances). One is called “physical intelligence,” by which I mean the ability to detect and manage the balance of chemicals in our bodies through how we move, breathe, think, and interact with each other. I’ve co-authored a book on the subject: Physical Intelligence: Harness your body’s untapped intelligence to achieve more, stress less and live more happily. In the book, I explain that all emotions are really chemical reactions, or strands of neuropeptides, that we experience in the body as physiological changes. Those reactions largely dictate how we think, feel, speak and behave. 

Think about it this way: Hundreds of neurotransmitters and hormones are racing through our bodies in our bloodstream and nervous system at any given time. They arrive at receptor cells and activate circuits of response that lead us to feel sadness, elation, frustration and more. Most of us operate at the mercy of those chemicals, experiencing thoughts, reactions and emotions without realizing that we can strategically influence (at least some of) them. Physical intelligence is about understanding those chemicals and how we can influence them through simple actions. There are many physical intelligence techniques across four elements: strength, flexibility, resilience and endurance.

Patricia Peyton (pictured) is the co-author of Physical Intelligence: Harness your body’s untapped intelligence to achieve more, stress less and live more happily.

While there are many chemical interactions that we can’t and wouldn’t want to change, we can influence some chemicals that work in combination to power our performance and responses. Of course, it’s not always easy, and if you’re feeling serious emotional swings, you should contact a medical professional. But these small tweaks can usually help alleviate some stress. Here are two models of simple ways that we can try to balance our emotions.

Strength-Building Exercises

These simple exercises correspond to inner strength, confidence, and performing well under pressure. Enhanced strength starts with good posture and breathing to release DHEA (vitality) and acetylcholine (balance) and reduce cortisol (stress). 

  1. Stand or sit up straight with feet grounded, head up, neck and spine long, shoulders wide and relaxed. Practice paced breathing: Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth at a steady rate that is comfortable for you. In and out counts don’t have to match. If panicked, aim for a longer out-breath to dispel carbon dioxide, which can build up in our lungs and increase cortisol levels.
  2. To reduce nerves and increase confidence, we need balanced testosterone, or power and control, and cortisol and adrenaline, or fear or excitement. To achieve this, stand in a winner (Starfish) pose for two minutes. 

Endurance-Building Exercises

These simple exercises can increase staying power and determination and help you remain patient and persevering, so you can achieve long-term goals and find intrinsic motivation.

  1. Show appreciation for those around you, whether it’s a kind word to a co-worker about something she did or a genuine thank-you to a family member. This boosts dopamine.
  2. Stand in cold water for the last 30 seconds of your shower to improve energy. 
  3. Set interim achievable milestones — like answering an email you’ve been putting off or doing one load of laundry. This also boosts dopamine. 
  4. If your willpower weakens or you’re resisting something you must do, literally flexing your muscles (e.g., clenching your fists) and saying out loud, “Come on, you can do this!” boosts dopamine.

The more we understand the neuroscience that underpins our behavior, the more we can exercise greater control over the balance of chemicals we can influence, enabling us to achieve more, stress less and live more happily — regardless of, or in response to, the world around us.

Patricia Peyton is the co-author, with Claire Dale, of the 2020 book Physical Intelligence: Harness your body’s untapped intelligence to achieve more, stress less and live more happily, from Simon & Schuster. She was born and raised in Mayfair in Northeast Philadelphia and has spent 30 years working with Fortune 100 and FTSE 1000 organizations. She currently divides her time between Lower Gwynedd and Scottsdale.

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