Stress management – and more. A fuller body / mind note. A 30 minute read with a bit of science and visualisations – including the two I use in workshops.
To start with an important distinction about stress:
In talking about stress, there are two approaches, not mutually exclusive. And obviously people need to address both.
We can focus on objectively stressful situations or events and try and moderate those. This would include identifying aspects of life and work that are stressful. Health problems and worries. Money problems. Family anxieties. In work – the pressure to meet deadlines, to meet billing targets, fear of making mistakes as well as the often distressing or traumatic content of our work of some people which we may underestimate from sheer familiarity.
They would be the subject of an interesting debate and in fact should be the subject of discussions within each firm or organisation which should start from a survey of people’s experiences of stress and what can be done to ameliorate them.
However – this note is not about that subject. Maybe another note will do so some time in the future.
This note is about the other approach to stress which is to focus on the impact on the individual and see what can be done to help each of us deal with that stress.
It requires us to think in a different way and perhaps a more embarrassingly honest way – to talk about our anxieties – even our fear – and how we can ameliorate that. This note attempts to offer some techniques to reduce anxiety.
It is now very common to talk about the mind – body connection. For many years these seemed to be two separate worlds: psychotherapy worked with the mind while yoga, tai chi etc were seen as mainly physical.
Quite rightly that is now breaking down and people are seeing the connections. In fact yoga and tai chi have always seen the connections; always seen that the physical states involved have mental effects. It has been the Western, psychotherapeutic side that needed to make the connections and this note is approaching it from that side.
I have had two lots of notes that I have worked on over the years. The first was about breathing and the other was about my ‘Stretching and Bending’ exercises.
So I have integrated them together into one note.
This can be read at three levels:
1. It can be seen as being about immediate, practical stress management.
2. It can be seen as being more profoundly about general emotional health, which is my growing interest.
3. It can be seen as being about something more profound again – a form of emotional health and integration that some people would call spiritual.
I am encouraged by the knowledge that in many religions and in practices like yoga breathing is not a small side issue but is a central part of the practice and the means to progress.
If this third aspect is unattractive to you, then you can ignore it and just focus on the stress management aspect – or the general emotional health aspect.
They are both start from a fact which is simple and obvious but often overlooked: stress and anxiety causes the body to react in a certain way – which I explore in the notes – and, less obviously but crucially, this feeds back to the mind as a message of stress.
This becomes a vicious circle, a reinforcing situation or a stuck place with thoughts and feelings that can be uncomfortable or painful or frightening.
Psychotherapy can try and work directly with those thoughts and feelings; but also enlisting the physical aspect can really help to have a more immediate benefit. The vicious circle can be reversed into a benign circle. The situation ceases to reinforce itself and the stuck place can be escaped from.
A word or two before we start – A lot of the material here will be familiar to many people. And some of us may do yoga, tai chi, meditation classes etc once or twice a week for an hour. But perhaps the most important question about stress is why we don’t in fact use these techniques more – when we are aware of them and we rationally know they would be helpful? The last page of this note explores that paradox and may, for some people, take the brakes off. It introduces the concept of being, not just a workaholic, but a “stressaholic!”.
If this is all familiar stuff, or especially you find it off-putting … maybe just read that part? See below: Important Central Question
The classic stress books always emphasise ‘The Flight or Fight reflex’.
However what is perhaps more important in helping us cope with modern life is to notice and to pay intelligent attention to the Freeze reflex.
That often comes before flight and fight. And it is a reflex that remains when we are in any situation with no obvious immediate fight or flight option. This can be either a short term, real danger or a situation of longer term helplessness. We will look at how that works that in practice below.
But crucially – we can get stuck in this freeze reflex. And I suggest that this is the root of many problems.
The main expressions of that freeze reflex are breath holding and bodily freezing – physical tension.
These express stress. But it is not simply a one way message. As mentioned above, once in that state the body then holds the stress body and behaviour and feeds it back to the brain as a message: “We are under attack, remain super-alert, look for the danger, look for the negatives, assume the worst.”
The brain then continues to cause the cascade of hormones that are experienced as anxiety.
To be a bit technical – this is the HPA axis – the Hypothalamus deep in the brain send messages to the Pituitary gland which sends messages to the Adrenals which produce cortisol – the main, very unpleasant fear hormone – and nor-adrenaline which generates hyper-alertness and adrenaline which gives the energy for fight or flight. A great cascade of hormones flow through the body. The subjective sensation can be of being flooded. At an extreme – drowning in anxiety and panic.
This is not just being over-technical – by knowing what it happening it gives us much more sense of being able to control it – less of being the passive victim of this hormonal poisoning which can dominate someone’s life. It is easy to Google and research HPA.
This hyper-alertness can also produce superstitious, magical, symbolic thinking. “I will be ok if I wear this piece of clothing, go through this routine” are the more banal but we also have ideas that “Things will be ok if only…I work things out, do certain actions or get enough information… or enough success, attention, praise, food, possessions, sex, love.”
OK – so that is the problem situation. What could be the solutions?
By undoing that stress body, we can reduce those messages going back to the brain.
By letting out the breath and unfreezing the body we really can alter the brain and our perceptions. By breathing out and by lowering and loosening the shoulders, the neck etc – we can alter our hormones, our mood, our fears and angers.
I find in totally practical ways that breathing out and adjusting my body language are excellent antidotes to anxiety or even panic. (For me now the real challenge is to maintain this better body state all the time – not just when I focus on it. See note 4 at the end of this note.)
But it is easier to start with focusing on the two aspects separately: breath holding and body tension:
BREATH HOLDING AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH.
This is based on some perfectly conventional science and theory which I have sketched out above. But I realise that this can be off-putting to some people. And even if it is not off-putting, scientific facts are not necessarily the best way of motivating anybody.
Later in this note I offer specific ideas about stress management techniques including breathing, mindfulness and a very simplified sort of yoga. You can scroll down to the double lines across the page where that starts and you could skip the next section.
But… the object of this note is to offer new ways of doing things and that requires motivation. To be motivated, I find that people actually remember things and absorb them – at a different level that may change their habits – if more of the brain is involved than just the rational, verbal part.
We remember things in a motivated way if we can engage visual or experiential parts of the brain – for example by stories and by doing things.
So rather than labour the theory, I will offer some stories or visualisations, invite you to practice certain breathing as you read this note and then draw out from those stories the necessary theories and the science.
First story – or visualisation: We’re in a group on a picnic in a field. Sunny day. Food spread out on a cloth. We are all relaxed and happy.
Suddenly the gate behind us swings open – a bull. It snorts and scratches the earth.
Everyone Gasps. Absolute freeze. They hold their breath.
After a long pause, the bull turns round and goes back into its own field. Someone darts over and secures the gate.
Phew! We gasp out. We all run to the road and our cars. We pile in shouting, screaming, laughing, talking. Sharing. We need to talk. Tell each other what has just happened. And this will continue for quite a long time before we decide what to do next. And given the gate is now secure running to the cars is strictly speaking irrational – symbolic.
Now try that sequence now: Gasp in. Hold for 10 or even 5 seconds. Breathe out – ‘Phew’. Do it a few times.
Comment. This is obviously about the immediate, deep seated, animal physical reactions to danger as it would have been “in the jungle or forests” . The most direct result of an emergency is the holding of the breath. We gasp at the shock of a threat or an attack. It is important to notice that a gasp is a quick inhalation of air.
So before the flight or fight reflex, this freeze had cut in. As I have said it is a reflex that cuts in when we are in certain situations. In this example – a very dangerous one with no obvious immediate fight or flight option.
If the bull had attacked then the flight and flight would have cut in – chaos as maybe some brave people fought the bull and most who ran away. But until that moment, Freeze is appropriate.
And the freeze reflex involves holding the breath for as long as this situation continues. In a the wild this freeze reflex has the survival function of making a person or animal less noticeable; reducing movement – even chest movements. It also reduces sound and reduces scent emission. It engages the Sympathetic Nervous System. Again, Google and research that if you like,
Certainly it allows a person to hear much better. When you think you hear a burglar at night, the breath holding reflex allows you to listen much more acutely.
It may have also a function of pressurising the lungs and driving oxygen into the blood stream ready for fight or flight.
Crucially for longer term states it also prolongs the hormones in the blood stream – the cortisol, adrenalines and others – the cocktail of hormones needed for fight and flight.
Endocrinology text books talk of adrenaline being metabolised (ie removed from the body) by the lungs. Other hormones are reduced by movement.
But we need those emergency hormones to continue for as long as the danger continues. So we freeze and hold our breath to prolong the hormonal level. This is significant later as we will see.
And note the action required to come out of that state: It is both quite extreme and also quite extended.
It involves 1. the physical act of breathing openly, making the ‘phew’ sound, the instinctive use of laughter, loud voices.. That engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System – again research will show you the beneficial hormones that are released including oxytocin – the hormone that encourages bonding and affection – to others – and to ourselves?
And 2. the need to talk, to share the experience. To acknowledge what happened and how awful it was. To get acknowledgement from others about the reality. 3. Some symbolic behaviour – acting out.
I suggest you run through that sequence again this time being more aware of exactly what is happening – but also acting it out in a heartfelt way. Maybe repeat several times until the idea is absorbed deeper into the mind than just the reasoning, verbal bit.
Second story or visualisation: A longer one. More modern, social stresses.
We are going on holiday. The traffic on the way to the airport is bad, we are nearly late, the plane is delayed, the seats are wrong, there is an obnoxious drunk in the next seat, the airport has long queues, the customs people are rude and threatening, the taxi drive to the hotel is long and hot…..
And all the time we keep control, verbally. It would not help to moan or to shout at the traffic or the customs people etc. And physically – we hold our breaths. Well – not entirely of course. Maybe it’s better to say we are holding back our breath. In fact we breathe in a shallow way, using just the top of the lungs. Shallow, upper chest breathing.
All this time – maybe four or five hours – we are not aware that we are holding back our breath.
We get near the hotel and through gritted teeth we say that the hotel will probably be an unfinished building site – or something like Fawltey Towers. ie we are in a negative mindset.
Finally we arrive. In fact the hotel is delightful, the room is lovely. We put our bags down and say ‘Thank Goodness we’ve arrived’ and gasp with relief and laugh and make repeated ‘phew’ sounds and our shoulders come down from around our ears. And now we can talk and say how awful it was.
And this will probably continue for an hour or so. We will return to it later, we will want to tell other people about it. We want to share the information and preferably to have people sympathise and agree how awful it was. We may want to do some actions – write a letter to the tour company or airline etc. We may want an explanation for the delay and an apology.
Try that now. Shallow breaths, using just the top of the chest. Be aware of it for 5 or 10 seconds. Then – let the breath out properly. Again: ‘Phew’ or ‘haaaahhh’. Repeat a few times. Then again possibly put the note down and let it soak in deeper.
In this second story the need is for freeze as social self-restraint. It highlights how this self-control and the necessary breath holding can continue for hours – without the people concerned being very aware of it.
To come out of that emergency mode, the need is again for physical relaxation – breathing openly to disperse the hormones – and for the sharing of the experience. And we are usually able to do that instinctively, automatically.
So Freeze and breath holding can be about social self-restraint.
Stress books seem to rely rather heavily on the Jungle Book view of life – Dealing with wild animals. But in the evolution of humans – and going way back to our primate ancestors – the evolutionary pressure would have been as much about social success with other members of the tribe as success in dealing with wild animals.
We can see a continuation from pre-humans, living quite like modern apes, through to prehistoric tribal living. That is what formed a large part of our deep psychology.
We are an intensely social animal and also in certain situations, very hierarchical. Life can be a series of confrontations, threats and bluff. Probably this is more true of males but it certainly can apply to females.
So in those situations fight and flight are often not appropriate. Freeze becomes a form of self-inhibition, pretence – socially necessary self-control.
It is a way of being that is particularly appropriate in a situation of real powerlessness. That is important as we will see later.
This situation of social self-restraint freeze, breath holding can last for much longer – months or even years.
Third story or visualisation: Imagine someone back from the front line having survived in the trenches of the First World War, traumatised..
Maybe four years of physical tension. Four years of breath holding, of self-control, denial of feelings.
1. How long would it take him to learn to breathe again?
The instinctive use of laughter and making phew sounds would no longer come automatically. His throat might be frozen in a closed position. The other physical signs would be stuck. Muscular tension, posture, displacement activities.
2. The need not to complain, not to notice, never to tell people of the experience would have become habitual. And the non-complaining was anyway a part of his culture. The taboo on admitting fear, sorrow. The taboo on ‘self-pity’.
It would require a huge amount of skill and care and time to help that person to 1. physically relax and 2. to share the experience.
That is a harder one to practice. It may seem a long way away from our experiences but with some imagination it is possible. It may take some time to mull this over and let it sink in.
(This also provides a key issue which relates to my suggestions in another note on this website about arrested, perpetual adolescence and the war mode. How do we ourselves come out of a threatened, emergency or war state? Why does the culture continually pump up that state? What solutions to that – individually and personally or politically, as a society? Anyway – back to the main story…)
Fourth story or visualisation: Now think about childhood. Maybe our own. Or if that is impossible because of our own taboo on emotions and on ‘self-pity’ – then think of another child. Imagine one…. not having a good time…. adverse childhood experience is the current useful expression which copes with the flinching away from the strong language of “trauma”
Powerlessness? Abandonment? Fear? Frustration? Anger? Maybe witnessing marital conflict or violence? Divorce and loss of the family? Parents with mental health issues, alcohol abuse? The death or absence of a parent? Maybe gross and obvious abuse? Physical, sexual or emotional. Maybe the ordinary level of emotional malnutrition or pressure, judgement and criticalness by parents that is so ordinary that it is hard to see that there is anything damaging or to complain about?
Being told it’s not right to be angry? That fear is ‘childish’ and shameful. the child must inhibit and pretend not to have emotions.
Now think of that child learning instinctively to freeze – to hold the breath, close the throat, tense up. Block emotions. For how many years? 10, 15, 20 ? … and remaining in that state into adulthood? Permanently? Until released?
Think about the hormonal state of modern people – including children. The rise in anxiety, asthma, high blood pressure, depression, eating disorders, suicide.
Think of the need they – we – have for 1. Physical relaxation – especially breathing and 2. Sharing.
Sharing is being attended to increasingly with counselling and therapy. But maybe there is some catching up to be done on breathing?
The central general point about breathing is this: It is not deep breathing. It is open breathing. Breathing in the right way is not about driving large amounts of air in and out of the lungs.
It is about the state of the muscles of the throat.
This is because the actual holding of the breath is not done by lung muscles; it is done by closing the throat.
This may sound surprising but it is very easy to check. And I think very important; the main point of this note. Just hold the breath, pause for a second or two and then release the breath sharply and watching which bit of the body is involved. It is the epiglottis and the vocal chords. You may need to do this several times before it is clear. Make a noise and it is more obvious.
The fact that the vocal chords are involved is fairly clear from the fact that in certain stressful situation we speak with a higher pitched voice, or even lose our voice entirely.
Fear tends to make us squeak with alarm or panic. People also squeak with indignation – a frightened, controlled anger. Awe – where we gasp and whisper in a hoarse tone? People suffering from stifled grief sometimes suffer from the ‘fish bone in the throat’ feeling – which is muscles in the throat in spasm.
Now consider the opposite – the moment when the throat is opened. Laughing, crying openly, howling, shouting in a confident way (strong anger), singing for joy. Saying ‘phew’. These are all situation of uninhibited emotion expression. That is why it’s so healthy to sing in a choir! Or do chanting.
Possible future exercises to try:
Take the actions which were performed automatically, instinctively in the first two visualisations and then isolate them as techniques and then develop them –
Letting go of the breath, opening the mouth, opening the throat, making a noise, movement, sharing, expressing, acknowledging the emotions – having the emotions – sharing details.
Realise that to do them will now be to go against a very established habit, so against a strong resistance. It will need to be done in a contrived way. The work will require conscious effort, planning, hard work, encouragement, going against what seems instinctive.
I invite you while you sit here with this note on screen in front of you to try these:
1. Hot breath. Hold the palm of your hand in front of your mouth. Breathe on it with as hot a breath as you can manage. Maybe pretend to steam up a mirror held in front of you. That opens the throat very well.
2. Breathing very slowly and as silently as possible.
3. Experiment with different sounds as you breathe out – go through the vowels – A, E, I, O, U, – the classic ‘Om’. Watch how the throat changes with the different noises.
I find the best are: AAAAH (breathing in) then HAAAAA (breathing out).
4. Breathe out fully. Then breathe out some more. There is always more to come. It is quite surprising – and it can make us realise how the bottom of the lungs are never fully used. I like to think that I am expelling old, stale air that’s been there for weeks!
What is in fact also happening is that the diaphragm is pushing up much more than it usually does. The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscles under the lungs which is – or should be – responsible for most of the breathing action. When we hold our breath or engage in stressed, shallow breathing, the diaphragm is held in one place. By breathing out fully, we stretch and use the diaphragm fully. And that sends messages to the rest of the body and the brain. Try it now?
5. Pretending to smoke a cigarette. Breathe in deep, then breathe out – slowly, luxuriantly, savouring the moment. I suspect half of the pleasure of smoking comes from this enforced or encouraged good breathing. The use of nicotine is a sad, ironic poison and an unnecessary addition. Using this technique, we can get the benefit without the poison.
6. It can help to cover the mouth. Pressing something to the lips. Covering the face as in prayer or extreme emotion. Being under a cover. Or closing the mouth and blowing up the cheeks – which we may do instinctively to cope with irritation, impatience. Imagine standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus that is overdue: Fed up. Sulky. Cheeks blown up. Puffing out. Sighing. All good stuff.
7. Counting the breaths. Or focussing really hard on the throat and the movement of air.
I always start the day while still in bed with this open throat breathing and counting the breaths. It highlights how “wild horse” my mind as I often lose track after three or four breaths.. I start again…and often again… and each failure lays the grounds for eventually getting there and I breathe slowly to ten and hold it at the end of each outbreath.
This is a very simple mindfulness exercise, clearing the mind of its over activity . And I sometimes need to help this by visualising the number – a brass number or a carved wooden one.. but after a bit the need for that dies away and I can just have a relatively empty mind. At least for a few minutes…
I am now able to do this in most places. Even the Northern Line.
Yawning. You may find that a few of these breaths trigger yawning. And that is fine. People may associate yawning with being bored. But it is also a reaction to fear. Soldiers waiting to go into battle or people waiting to parachute jump are sometime puzzled to find themselves yawning. It is the body insisting of some antidote to overwhelming fear. The wisdom of the body..
8. Belly breathing –v- Chest breathing.
This is the other aspect of holding back the breath that we have explored so far in the visualisations. The seven exercises or techniques mentioned above focus on opening the throat – but all the way through the visualisations there has also been the theme that stressed breathing becomes shallow and confined to the top of the lungs.
Closed throat goes with chest breathing. What is needed is to open the throat and then also breathe with the belly. Breathe in – extend the stomach. What is happening is that the diaphragm is drawing down. Breathe out – flatten the stomach. The diaphragm is coming up to expel the air from the bottom of the lungs.
Place your hands on the stomach, finger tips touching. Breathe in, extend the stomach and the finger tips should move further apart. Breathe out, pull the belly in and the finger tips should touch.
9. Use the whole of the body language – stress reaction.
Explore the body language of stress. Notice how holding back the breath is not the only physical result of stress, fear and self–control. We also draw our shoulders up, go generally rigid in the neck, shoulders, spine, especially the lower back. and this leads onto the next section…..
STRETCHING AND BENDING
Breathing is in fact only half of my physical routine. The other half, which I do every morning, which is even more useful emotionally. In fact I would say it is a life-line, a survival system. I worked it out myself by listening to what my body needs. It turns out it has a lot of overlap with yoga or tai chi or qi gong. I call mine simply ‘stretching and bending.’
When I do the breathing mentioned above and then do these simple exercises I can feel a major and rapid change in my body and mind.
Like with the breathing it starts from the fact that stress, fear, anger etc – are expressed in the body – they are, if you like, spoken in body language.
But they are not actually discharged as they might be in successful communication. They remain there as a held, frozen statement.
And as with breathing this technique uses the fact that it is not just a one way thing: Mind to body. Because again what happens is there is the feed-back loop: To hold the body in a certain form has an effect on the mind.
The state of stress, rigidity send messages to the mind that message “we are under attack, threat” etc. The message / state therefore goes round and round, reinforcing and perpetuating itself. A powerful vicious circle. Or a vicious and sterile stable situation.
Now – this vicious circle gives us a great opportunity: If we undo that body language / state then it sends a very different messages to the brain. “We are no longer under attack, threat etc”.
This is where we can again create a ‘benign circle’. A more relaxed body sends reassuring messages to the brain which send more relaxing message to the body etc. This is a very powerful mechanism which is why it is so effective.
So – It is a question of finding the ‘stress-expressive’ parts of the body and interrupting that loop, that message. Learn the body language of stress and cancel it.
How to do this? I don’t have a set routine and I do a different series of movement each morning depending on what feels it needs to be released.
However a typical one might be to start with a strong stretch up. Arms above the head. Then out to the side. If reference to yoga helps – then this is like the Urdhva Hastasana , upward hand pose, or the Hero poses. Really feel strong and triumphant. See Note 1 below.
Hold all these poses for 10 or 20 seconds or longer if that feels right. For me one of the realisations is that attending a Yoga Session with others means I have to do what the teacher says and that may or may not be what my body or body/mind – needs. Doing it privately I can listen to my body and if I need to shake my head for two or three minutes or hold the forward bend for a long time – I can – and do.
The head. Bowing the head down. Stretching it up. Side to side. And this often turns into a head shaking which seems to resonate and be quite powerful as if the impulse to say ‘No’ is coming out – having been suppressed for so long. See note 2 below.
The face – loosen the jaw and move from side to side. This gives me an antidote to my usual clenched jaw state. Open mouth wide. Then pull faces. Crunch up. Really silly faces. The face expresses emotions. We suppress emotions by keeping a poker face. Undo that system by pulling faces and loosen up emotions. Scream face. Part of Yoga Lion Pose: Simhasana
Then shoulders – they tend to rise up round our ears when we are tense – and freeze at that point. So I lift them higher and then slowly down – or quickly down. Then roll them forwards and backwards. Then swimming practice, the crawl or the butterfly stroke. Windmilling. The reaches up to the sky on each side.
Then the spine: “You are as young as your spine”. Obviously the forward bend. For me a helpful realisation was that the classic ‘keep the knees straight and touch the toes’ exercise really limited back bending because the hamstrings were the limiting factor. And I don’t think stretching hamstrings is very important. So I am happy to bend the knees to get the best stretch in the back. That also leads to a completely collapsed position of surrender which I explore later. Bending forward – as always – remember to breathe out fully.
Standing position – slowly swinging the top half of my body with the arms swinging is great. Looking behind you. Slow and graceful. Then more vigorously, turning it into a punching movement. Side to side, the upper arm reaching to the ceiling.
Backward bend it a bit harder. It is the only one where a floor exercise – Cobra – is really helpful. But I usually don’t bother, backward bend in standing position is enough and good practice on balancing. .
Then hips and pelvis. Rotate / hula hoop. Belly dancing. One way and then the other. Pelvic thrusts. Shaking that ass. Not obvious? Uncomfortable? See note 3 below.
Breathing and doing the stretching.
It would be a sad paradox if we did the open throat breathing and then went back to breath holding when doing the stretching.
It is useful to notice this tendency – that when we concentrate we hold our breath. And if we can break that habit each morning or evening by breathing while stretching it creates a healthy new habit.
In fact the visualisation I use is that as the tension comes out of the joints and muscles, into the blood and then into the lungs and then I breathe it away by my open throat breathing. Haaaaah!
MINDFULNESS. Yes I know it is uber-fashionable so possibly mockable but…to offer some actual scientific explanation:
The racing mind mentioned above refers to the part of the mind that is highly focused on future planning – (dorsolateral frontal cortex) – and possibly chewing over and regretting the past. Traditional meditation tries to clear the mind, turn down the activity of that centre. It is hard. And it does not seem directly to feed into a calming effect on the limbic system, the deeper, older emotional centres of the brain where anxiety, anger etc live.
Mindfulness attempts to increase the activity of the medial frontal cortex which is the part of the brain responsible to keeping tabs on the body – “interoception”. (Internal perception if you like.) And that seems to be the best way to calm the limbic system. So the essence of mindfulness is focusing on the present, the here and now, most obviously the bodily experience – and that seems to be effective in calming the limbic system and the anxiety.
One of the best forms of mindfulness therefore is a close focus on the self – your breathing. Really be aware of the flow of air, how open your throat is, the sound of your breathing, the rise of the belly and chest. Then focus on the rest of the body. How you are sitting, your weight on the seat or the floor. Check through the body carefully.
Other forms of mindfulness recommend you can focus on an object a flower or candle or a piece of fruit. Touch, smell, taste. There’s no room here for details of lots of techniques – there are plenty online. My advice: Keep it simple. Start with breathing. Let it grow out to the next stage… about the body. And then maybe engage the sensory aspect – and the sensual with music, dance, food etc – really relishing on the present experience.
Now that Important Central Question: why we don’t in fact use the techniques more – techniques that we are aware of and we rationally know would be helpful? (and why are lawyers some of the hardest people to help?)
Going a bit deeper and a bit wider there are two aspects: the social and the personal.
Socially – a perspective is obviously that our society has become one of hyper-stimulation, ambition raising, anxiety generating. Some of the best brains and biggest budgets are dedicated to pumping up success – status consciousness and consumerism. Have a look at another note on this blog:
But less obviously there is an element of stress as status. A sense of value. Workaholic becomes stressaholic “I don’t have time to do all this.” which basically means “I don’t have time (and I am too important?) to look after myself. I am too busy doing the work, meeting my targets and looking after others”. (So to counteract that exaggerated work ethic, the antidote I offer is: “It’s your duty to look after yourself first”.)
“If I relax I will lose my cutting edge.” (Antidote: “you will actually be more effective if you look after yourself”) Are you proud and do you boasting about how busy and stressed you are? Suffer from perfectionism? Feel never good enough? (Antidote: “self valuing” may be becoming “self importance?!” That sounds much less attractive?!)
But add that in our work – we are dealing with genuinely the most important legal cases there are – and the most distressing issues. So there’s a danger we embrace “Noble Stress”!
Is there generally an unhealthy illusion of a high status, high achieving, adrenalised super work ethic? A workaholic, in fact masochistic style of working? Which in fact is not optimally efficient. Indeed it includes self-sabotage. Compare that with (maybe a Scandinavian?) ideal of emotionally intelligent, relaxed efficiency.
Personal: Firstly it is worth considering a potentially stressful situation and noticed that some people will not be stressed by that, others only moderately so and others may have a more extreme reaction.
If you are in the last group, then we are discussing the fact that your brain is very sensitive to stress factors. They may be specific ones or it may be more generalised anxiety.
Going considerably deeper (and you may not wish to follow this) the extent to which – and the way in which – a person is sensitive to stress reflects how their mind was formed during childhood. We are now realising that adverse childhood experiences include even quite normal ones such as parental separation, other bereavements, sibling bullying, parents with psychological problems, parents who offer highly conditional love / ie approval for success. These all influence the developing mind of the child. By their very normality they are unacknowledged, unspoken about, unprocessed, powerful. The concept that you will hear more and more about is cPTSD. Please refer to the note on the website.
Complex (or childhood) PTSD – Adverse childhood experiences
This next point may also be challenging because it is about something unconscious: If tenseness is safety – then relaxation is dangerous; it makes you vulnerable.
In response to stress we may develop a way of coping with the bodily tension which links to being emotionally detached, armoured, covered with a frantic overthinking with a future-focussed anxiety. If so, then loosening the body, slowing down and opening up a crack in the armour is scary. The mind may recoil and hold onto this stress body and lifestyle.
In fact, it becomes not just a habit but an addiction. Stressaholic. A stress state which is uncomfortable but which is familiar and therefore paradoxically comfortable. So it blocks the techniques mentioned above. It is hard to escape – but awareness of this is the first stage. “Ah there I go again – hanging onto my stress”. “I think I hate it but in fact I love it…”
In terms of personal relationships, stress can lead to a hot, frantic, tense head and body and the danger of a rather cold heart. The alternative is to use skilful techniques to slow up, cool the head and the body and therefore to warm the heart?
And to repeat – if the yoga is too much of a hassle – the simplest skilful technique is breathing: It may be good to think: “As I breathe in I am daring to breathe in. I am breathing in courage and confidence and strength. I have the right to be here.” ” When I breathe out, I am daring to relax, to come out of emergency mode. I am safe.” Confident and Relaxed. A nice combination?
And you can do this anywhere – at any time.
A few further notes:
1. Arms high in a triumphant posture.
I was surprised to find to find confirmation about some of this stuff in a TED talk by a Professor at Harvard Business School. Look at TED talks Amy Cuddy:
She claimed that she got one group of students to pose in hunched, defeated postures and another group to pose in expansive postures, extended, or arms held high. They then took mock interviews. The first group were not successful, the second were. More useful for me is that the measured cortisol levels (which is the anxiety hormone) in the triumphant posing students was reduced and their testosterone increased.
This has been challenged in recent research where another scientist was not able to replicate her outcomes – in particular her very ambitious claim that she could in a few minutes alter the hormones level of people. But it seems that the beneficial effect was genuine.
Why not adapt that? – not to do good interviews in business but firstly simply to reduce anxiety. Seriously worth doing for many of us.
And secondly, by adding other less triumphant poses, eg in Yoga and tai chi to generate a state of body / mind that we may feel to be more constructive: confidence yes – but one that leads to a loosening up, a more peaceful, receptive state.
2. So… Triumph but also Surrender
This seems an irony. But for me it’s not just about pumping up confidence – it’s about other emotions. Emotions which are expressed in the body and therefore, by using the body, we can influence.
It is not obvious – but explore this: One of the most important ones is the angle of the neck.
Dogs express their mood of fear and submission or happiness or triumph with their tail angles. Humans do so with their head angles.
The bowed head is a universal expression of surrender. Prayer mode in most religions. And Sorrow. But we are usually conscious and proud and so we override that and we pull our heads back up. We end up with that confused, frightened tortoise pose that we also adopt at a computer screen.
The muscles at the back of the neck therefore hold contradictory impulses. Bow down and pull up. They go into a rigid state. I think this is very bad for body and mind.
But rather than try and simply force ourselves to ‘stand up straight’ I would suggest exploring something paradoxical. If there is an impulse to surrender – go towards it. Explore it. Hang the head. Stretch out those muscles at the back of the neck. Feel how good that is. How much some deep part of us wants to do that. Surrender. Breathe. Feel safe. (It is related to prayer or worship. Which 99.9% of human kind has needed. So if we think we don’t need it? I think there could be a form of non-deistic worship – but that’s a bigger story.)
Then when we emerge and stand up straight, it comes from somewhere much better, much deeper.
Never mind all these words. Please – just try it and see if it connects.
3. Pelvis and sex.
It’s far too big a subject to explore much in this note and many people may object to the subject or the approach here but in fact the response to stress, especially social threat is four fold: Freeze, Fight, Flight and Flirt.
It is dangerous waters but – there is a hardwired instinct in humans that sex is used as a conflict diffuser, a stress response.
Unattractive view? Try Googling: “Bonobos”. They were previously known as the pygmy chimpanzees and as Wikipedia says: “The bonobo is popularly known for its high levels of sexual behaviour. Sex functions in conflict appeasement, affection, social status, excitement, and stress reduction. It occurs in virtually all partner combinations and in a variety of positions. This is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobo when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes. Bonobos are perceived to be matriarchal.”
The other ones are now called the Common Chimpanzee, and a hierarchical and aggressive lot they are.
We are the third chimpanzee. It would be nice to see that we can share the characteristics of either of our cousins. And we can choose to notice that we have both instincts. We seem to prioritise being hierarchical and aggressive. And we censor out many of the bonobo ones.
Flirting is safe in some situations and dangerous and too complicated in many.
But I am not discussing social mores here. I am just talking stretching and bending exercises and using body language to help emotionally.
And I notice that the pelvis holds a powerful charge. Pelvic thrusts ‘say something’ – something that we usually repress. And perhaps for women is a strange piece of body language.
For most men ‘shaking that ass’ is also very unfamiliar – and digs into something flirtatious, alien, powerful, embarrassing maybe and repressed. Good to go towards it.
Never mind all these words. Please – just try it and see if it connects.
4. The need to do this all the time . All of this is about a session of breathing or stretching and bending. That has great benefits. But then I tend to go back to the usual mode of breath holding and tense body – with consequent anxiety, hyperalertness, spotting threats, cranking up the anxiety etc. Quite often and increasingly I notice this and breathe out even in the office. (I get asked “Why are you sighing David? Is something the matter?” ) And I stretch and bend – just occasionally..
But as far as I know it is only the Alexander Technique which emphasises the fact that a new way of holding yourself has to be a strong, new, all day habit. Sadly Alexander is a bit of a cult but underneath all that, many of the ideas seem very helpful. They are also very concerned with the importance of the angle of the neck – see Note 2 above.
5. Have a look at another TED talk – Google TED Kelly McGonigal Stress
Her message – it’s not stress that damages your health. It is stress + the belief that stress damages your health – which damages your health! Change your attitude – change the reality.
She refers to research by Health Psychol. 2012 Sep; 31(5): 677–684. Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality
Conclusion: High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.
6. A new thought in February 2018 was that I truly in my head believe all that I have written here – but I do not have the motivation to act on it at any great length. I have to force myself to do the 10 or 15 minutes each morning. I also notice that I am actually surprised at how effective it is in reducing my anxiety.
Why is that? Perhaps I do not believe it at a deeper level? Is my mind still influenced by early messages? – that bodies and physical exercise is all well and good but not really important and certainly not connected to the mind. The mind – thoughts and words – are what is important and real. This sort of almost intellectual snobbery and cut-offness between body and mind is learnt very young and very thoroughly – and takes an effort to offset. But I am finding that becoming aware of this automatic thinking is a powerful first step.
One thing that it has taken me a long time to realise is that change is very hard to spot ‘from the inside’. I can move from feeling anxious to not feeling anxious in 10 minutes but it requires an effort to notice that. It’s as if – whatever we are feeling – that’s it.
Even more so then – real progress is also hard to see. We are addressing unconscious issues here – either deeply unconscious or at least habitual, automatic, unnoticed. So progress is likely to be to some degree unconscious, slow, unobvious.
I have clients who have changed a great deal over a few months who are surprised when I point this out. I have to quote back to them things they were saying at the beginning of our work – and then they seem curiously reluctant to believe in their own progress. Maybe both of these are true of me. And maybe of many people.
I have put a summary below on one page. Some clients tell me they have put a copy of this up on the fridge door and use it to encourage a morning and / or evening routine.
So how to get this state of open throat breathing and relaxed body language into our daily lives? I look forward to hearing your ideas!.
||Because in stress…
||Yawn, huff up glass, pretend to smoke
||We close our throats to hold our breath. Squeaky voice
|Breath from belly
||Stick it out. Pull it in.
||We only use top of lungs
|Really empty lungs
||Breathe out. Hah. Then more. Hahhhhh
||We hold back
|Hold it there
||Still small point of calm
||We are usually in a hurry
||We are often distracted
|Then use top of lungs
||Shoulder back. Proud.
||We are too frightened to
|Put them all together
||We have damaging habits
|Then explore powerful body language
||We are too proud to do so
|Tilt, rotate head
||Loosen up, stretch
||We are tight and stiff
|Open mouth wide
||Yoga Lion face
||We are tight lipped, controlled
|Loosen, flex jaw
||Loosen up, wiggle
||We clench our teeth
||Puzzled, angry etc
||We overcontrol our faces
|Raise then lower shoulders
||Exaggerate. Fast then slow
||We both display and suppress our fear in our shoulders
||Windmill, swim, punch
||Ditto. And anger
||Look behind you
||We are rigid
|Touch the ground
||With bent knees and then straight
||We get very bad lower back problems
||Dirty dancing – Pelvic thrusts, shake that ass
||We are too embarrassed about sexual display
|Do it slow and long: First for 5 minutes, later for 10 minutes.
Keep breathing all the time.
I.e. put the two things together: breathing and movement.
|Think of Nelson Mandela who did 20 mins every day.
Note how hard to keep motivation.
Left brain snobbery.
Use a clock.
|In stress we produce hormones and our bodies express emotions/impulses: Freeze, Fight, Flight, Flirt, Surrender. But we are ashamed and suppress them. We lock the emotions/impulses in. Our bodies then feed back stress to our minds.
This is a vicious circle. It can be reversed and made into a virtuous circle: Release stress. Clean up the blood.
New messages to the mind. Quick, free, safe anti-anxiety treatment.