Resilience Archives - Embodied Living

What do you do to be less stressed? Before Covid-19, I used to sit around in coffee shops as regularly as possible. I would sit and watch life pass by, think and daydream – and sometimes write. Having thought about why was drawn to do this, I realised it is part of what I call the broad ‘margin’ that I like in my life. To steal a pinch from Thoreau. At its heart, I think it is all about ‘being’. Certainly being less stressed.

Creating margin

So, I ask myself, what do I do now instead to create this kind of margin in my life where I be less stressed? Two things came to mind. During lockdown I found a new hobby. Carving wood. I carve mostly pendants for jewellery and I find it beautifully consuming in a non-thinking way. I have this piece of wood, which I have found (responsibly) storm-fallen in local woods, which I know somewhat intimately. And out of which emerges something miraculous: perhaps an animal, or a symbol.

When I carve, my mind is quiet. Yes, at times the odd difficult thought emerges, but I let it go. The process of being with the natural element, takes me right back to the wood in which I found it. I can smell the trees, hear the sounds of nature and silence around me. Feel engulfed by the wood. I am not stressed in the this place. In walking with no aim in mind in that wood, I sometimes find interesting pieces to work with. In carving, I kind of have an aim, but the carving emerges, and I am not always in control. I enjoy the whole process because I puts me more into a ‘being’ mode than a ‘doing’ mode. This is a less stressful mode.

Too much time doing

I think we spend too much time ‘doing’. In this mode we are active, starting things, under pressure and a bit wired. We are more likely to be stressed. With this in mind, I watched people when I was out and about today. Coming and going, hurrying and queueing. And as I watched them I thought about the yogic concept of the gunas.  I started to notice which guna was predominant in each person. In the West certainly, we have a culture that encourages, rewards, and shapes us for doing. People often have a posture that mirrors a forward moving. go getting, achieving culture: sway back, knees hyperextended, a tense lateral myofascial line that throws the pelvis out of alignment and head hanging forward off the neck.

Existing or being?

People often simply don’t know how to ‘just be’. And their reactions to feeling stressed or overwhelmed is to do more, to keep themselves busy. Almost like if they stopped, they wouldn’t exist anymore. Of course, when they come to therapy, their body and/or their mind have already begun to ‘breakdown’ in some way. So, as I noticed the older lady behind me, who’s impatience I could feel even before she began trying to push in front of me. Or the stressed looks on shoppers faces busily scanning catalogues, or the harassed mum who quickly gulped down her takeaway coffee and was quickly on to the next task at hand. I could see ‘doing’ was written on the somatic structure of peoples’ faces, posture, body.

How can you ‘be’ more?

So I realise that margin and space is so important to me in my life.I can just ‘be’ in that space. So how can you create this type of margin in your own life? Thoreau himself went into the woods. What will you find that works? Let us know by posting in the comments below so that we can all be inspired!

For me this margin IS life. I have space to ‘be’. Of the gunas, Sattvic is light, space, lucidity, harmony. You can’t buy it or earn it by doing more or trying harder. You have to learn to be and let go of some doing and having. Perhaps this is the hardest lesson of all. Animals can be great teachers in this respect. Spend time with a cat, or a dog, or any animal and they will soon start to teach you!

 

Enjoyed reading this? Read more about stress here and happiness here.

In order to help with the symptoms of trauma we need to think of the trauma response as being an accelerator. I often remind my clients that trauma is something our body does. Our body has floored the accelerator pedal (so to speak) and we have forgotten that we even have a brake.

Trauma as undischarged energy

Trauma is our body’s natural response to an unnatural situation. Think of the tiny mouse who gets pounced on by the cat. Suddenly it is trapped in sharp jaws and knows it might die. A huge surge of energy rushes through its body as accelerator hormones are released that pump blood and expand lung capacity. It is like a nuclear bomb went off inside its body. This energy prepares the mouse to flee at the first opportunity (or fight if this was a larger animal). The moment the cat drops the mouse it runs faster than it ever has to survive. And the energy bomb is dissipated. The ‘hyper-arousal’ of trauma has served its purpose.

Fall asleep

Sometimes something else happens. When released from the jaws of hell, the mouse looks like it is dead. The animal feigns death. This is less well known side of the trauma response – ‘to fall asleep’. Many animals do this as a survival mechanism. It lies on the floor completely dead. The cat walks away. But the moment the mouse senses a millimetre of safety, it springs up and races off. However, if you were to watch closer, for longer, at some point you would see the little creature jerk and throw itself around in a strange sort of way. This is the mouse discharging the energy of the trauma response. This discharge means the mouse can get back to its normal life with no lasting after effects from the nuclear bomb which has just gone off inside of it.

Symptoms of undischarged trauma

Humans are often not so fortunate. Our natural instincts can be interrupted by our logic and our higher mind. Practically, this means that we are often left with the symptoms of undischarged trauma in our bodies that stay with us long after the traumatising event. In fact, they may lie dormant, but only until another trauma event triggers this energy again.

Diagram: (Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

This diagram is commonly used to help us understand heightened brain/body reactions during adversity. The dotted lines show a healthy nervous system. This being one which is able to self-regulate and maintain an arousal level (following a difficult event) that is within manageable or normal levels. When we experience trauma, this can induce a heightened energetic response in our system (as described above) and can mean that our ability to self-regulate is compromised. This is more likely to be the case if we have had earlier trauma, including disruptions in our early attachment needs.

 

 

From Hyper to hypo

This response to trauma pushes us into one of two states, which we will inevitably fluctuate between. Hyperarousal (the ‘stuck on’ position) is where our sympathetic nervous system is in charge and is characterised by an excessive energy response. This will present itself in symptoms of anxiety, panic, fear, hypervigilance and emotional flooding. We may feel rage or anger, restless and hyperactive and it will be difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate.

However, human beings cannot maintain this state for too long. Our system takes over and plunges us into the exhausted state of hypo arousal. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and in particular the dorsal vagal complex of the vagus nerve. Effectively this is the equivalent of the animal’s ‘feign death’ mode. Here we will feel depressed and tired, have more feelings of negativity and worthlessness, feel disoriented and disconnected. A sense of flatness or numbness will take over and we won’t feel like doing anything, we may also sleep a lot. Indeed we may even feel we don’t have a future. We are, in effect, emotionally dead.

Fluctuating between extremes

Again, our bodies won’t let us stay here too long. So we may be driven to risky (even suicidal) behaviour to feel alive again.

What I often find is that people often find one state more intolerable than the other, and therefore have more of a default position of ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’. It goes without saying that both of these extremes are confusing and disturbing to us, and to those around us. People say ‘I feel like I am going mad’, they feel messed up and long to be normal. It is a chaotic state. Of course, this layer of shame doesn’t help.

Understanding the energetic response

Nevertheless, understanding the science behind this response helps to understand the disturbing nature of these symptoms. It is vital to learn to build resources in our self that will help us to manage the chaotic nature of undischarged trauma. This will help to protect us (and others) from further harm.

Risky behaviour increases with the trauma response

Without learning how to ‘self-regulate’ we will be at risk from taking actions that somehow help us manage these states but cause us more problems. We may take an overdose if we are so frightened by the thought of carrying on with these symptoms. We may smoke or drink more to help alleviate some of the distress, or become addicted to some other process or substance. These are more risky ways of managing the post-traumatic symptoms that lead to more shame, which will only feed the cycle.

Taking refuge in our self

Our body, and unconscious mind, already have all the resources within them to help us self-regulate the trauma response and find safety. By learning, or being reminded about, the resources we have within we can find and apply the brake on trauma. We can learn when to apply the accelerator and when to use the brake to steer our self into safety.

Applying the brake and the accelerator

Whilst there are different techniques to use for the hyper state and the hypo state, there is one that can work well for either. There is a muscle inside the middle of our body, which attaches to the heart via a central tendon, and also links up with the ventral vagal complex of the vagus nerve. In short, this muscle helps to engage the newest branch of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘smart vagus’ – the self-regulation centre. This muscle is the diaphragm, the primary muscle of respiration.

However we cannot just breathe our way out of trauma we have to do it in a very specific way. If we can learn to breathe using the full range (25-30 cm ) of our diaphragm, through our nostrils at a rate of around five breaths a minute (that is a 12 sec breath in and out) we can find a balance point between the brake and the accelerator. For this balance, certainly to begin with, there should be no pauses at the end of the inhalation or exhalation, just a smooth flowing of in-breath into out-breath. Like an undulating wave. It is from here that we can reach coherence and begin to find ‘normal’ again.

A simple practice to achieve coherence and balance

I usually teach my clients to reach this state in a number of steps. But I usually start by teaching them to find and engage with their diaphragm.

The following is a simple practice and the best way to do this:

Listen to a podcast of the practice here.

  1. Lie on the floor on your front with your body in a straight line. (it is important that you lie on a hard surface rather than a bed).
  2. Bend your arms at your elbows and rest your forehead or side of your face on your hands.
  3. Make sure you allow a few moments to get as comfortable as possible here.
  4. Make sure your mouth is closed, lips together, and you are breathing through your nostrils.
  5. Be aware of your body lying on the floor and the contact between your body and the floor.
  6. Become aware of your breathing, and notice your abdomen pushing into the floor as you breathe in. It releases as you breathe out.
  7. Keep your awareness on this feeling of your belly pushing into the floor as you breathe.
  8. After a few minutes, you can start to exaggerate this movement and push your belly even more into the floor by drawing deeper breaths. (if at any point you feel uncomfortable or have dizziness stop for a moment and come back to the practice later).
  9. Continue this practice for as long you can. And repeat every day if possible for a while.

 

Changing default habits

Remember that the trauma response is a habit that our body has gotten into when it is triggered. You can begin to change any pattern if you practice the new resourceful behaviour for a minimum 20 minutes for a minimum of 21 days (I usually say a month, continuously, with Sunday off!). This is like restoring your mobile phone to its factory default settings. You remember to breathe how you were born to breathe. You take the first step at re-connecting with the resources within that are your human heritage as an embodied being.

This article was first published on Counselling Directory.

In yoga we use breathing as a fundamental tool in both posture work and more overtly through the practice of pranyama (breathing practices). There is a way to breathe – known as coherent breathing – where we can synchronise heart rate and even blood flow, with respiration. This process happens when we are breathing slowly and deeply. Specifically, this needs to happen at a rate of 5 breaths/minute (yes that is a 12-second long breath!!). The average person breathes at 15-20 breaths/min (some are at 30 or more!!). This rate of 5 breaths/min brings about emotional and physiological coherence. However, it can only happen if we breathe using our diaphragm.

Unproductive breathing is the human condition

When we don’t breathe coherently we become incoherent (in thought, behavior etc).  For many of us incoherent, unproductive breathing is a lifetime habit, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes dominant. We’re in the realm of fearing, fleeing or fighting. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes redundant. The PNS is the side of our nervous system that induces the ‘relaxation response’. Without a doubt we all have inherent access to this deep internal calm state. However, through unproductive breathing habits our system becomes dysfunctional and is no longer able to counteract the stressed nervous system. This leads to a pretty negative and unpleasant way of being in the world.

Our terrible experience

With sympathetic nervous system dominance, caused by unproductive breathing, we experience:

  • poor circulation (cold hands, feet, tingling, numbness)
  • muscle tightness (particularly trapezius in neck and shoulders)
  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • pain (can lead to chronic pain)
  • increased rate of ageing

And a myriad of other symptoms!

Learn how to breath coherently

We can learn how to breathe coherently. This involves the following:

  1. Diaphragmatic action – the diaphragm is a strong sheet of muscle that sits in the torso separating the abdominal organs from the thoracic cage. It is the most important breathing muscle. It can move in a range of 10 cm. Yet in many people its range may be 1 cm or less. When the diaphragm is used to at least 60% of its capacity in breathing it brings mind and body into balance.
  2. Effect on the Heart – the diaphragm is connected to the heart and its action massages the heart. As much as 65% of heart cells are neural cells, identical to those found in the brain, your heart has thoughts and a ‘mind’! In addition, the heart is a powerful EMF energy generator (the electromagnetic energy that a coherent heart kicks out can be measured up to 15 feet outside of the body!!), and can affect the energy of brainwaves (a process called entrainment) and also of other people.
  3. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system – the diaphragm is connected to the vagus nerve, part of the PNS, and its action serves to increase the functionality of the PNS
  4. Entrainment – through coherent breathing we can entrain the heart into coherence (high HRV), and the brainwaves into alpha or even theta.

Powerful changes

These four points mean that when we learn how to breathe coherently, we notice changes in both body and mind. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that for some, to begin with we may simply feel MORE pain, more tiredness or exhaustion. This won’t last, it will pass quickly. Indeed this only happens because we are actually really exhausted and/or in pain. But this experience has been ‘hidden’ by the over active SNS. Stress hormones such as cortisol are at permanently elevated levels and serve to mask this. Without a doubt, in the long run this state of elevation will reduce our immune response.

Constant and consistent effort

But if we practice consistently and regularly these problems will diminish and we will start to feel the many benefits of coherent breathing:

  • reduced pain
  • more energy
  • improved sleep
  • reduced blood pressure
  • reduced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety
  • increased performance
  • improved emotional control
  • increased resilience and less stress
  • better decision making

 

Coherent breathing is the key to increasing our immunity. building our confidence, and achieving happiness and bliss.

You can find even more resources for accessing your most resourceful self on my Embodied Living podcast site.

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

When I was a 19 year old student with ‘know thyself’ in huge letters on my chemistry lever arch file, I was drawn to this quote. Now in my 40s, I am embodying it more and more, and felt inspired to write a blog post on non duality. For many people, black and white thinking is a key thinking error. We see things as dualities, this or that. We can be too quick to judge something or someone as ‘this’ or ‘that’ – good or bad, odd or normal, right or wrong, an idiot or wise, arrogant or compassionate. Our minds have a need to categorise, understand, control. By coming to a conclusion, making a decision or judgement about someone, we have a sense of control. Order is restored, we can relax. Or can we?

This type of thinking means that we feel anxious about shades of grey because that means we have to stay open to possibility or doubt, and we feel safer with a decision, one way or the other. This type of rigid thinking, causes people great stress; because the world is grey, not black and white. And, like it or not, we cannot control it. The desire for (and failure to) control, leads to illnesses such as autoimmune disease.

When Fitzgerald talks about ‘holding two opposing ideas in the mind’ – his is talking about non duality, letting go of opposites, moving towards ‘neither this or that’. When we do this it feels uncomfortable, we can ‘(lose) the ability to function’. This wise writer sensed this. If we work on tolerating opposites it feels uncomfortable – two opposing ideas held as both being ‘true’ takes a ‘bigger’ person – in that we need to get bigger, more expansive to hold that space. And, conversely, in holding that space, and the often highly uncomfortable feelings that go with it, increases our capacity, expands our resilience.

I will tell you a story. Last weekend I was on a workshop. It was a wonderful workshop but the teacher had a tendency to be a bit opinionated, strong, directive. And he was quick to make some dismissive judgements on big topics – yoga being one: ‘Yoga is good if you want a tight butt and a good body’. I felt angry: he was so wrong (and I was right!!). So, I spoke up and said so. He seemed irritated and suggested that I was too attached to my system of yoga, thereby ensued an exchange between us in front of the whole group of 30 plus people – all highly trained psychotherapists who knew all about projection, transference, countertransference and there we were playing out our ‘stuff’!

I felt anger/annoyance, a bit of fear (the entire room had stopped breathing!!) and curiosity. I sat there holding these powerful and uncomfortable emotions and felt a deep calmness too, and a gratitude of how differently I was dealing with this man (compared to similar situations in the past) and some opposing thoughts (‘is this guy a complete arse?’, should I be training with him?? or ‘is he ok, there is so much wisdom in what he is teaching, but what an arse! what just happened?’).

And I just sat with myself and held that space – with the difficult emotions and opposing ideas. I felt expansive, and calm too. And I held a possibility that if he was only 1 per cent or 5 per cent right, perhaps I have something to learn about myself.

At the end of that day, I wanted to connect with him and went over and we talked about the incident – and then he really listened as I told him what a big integrated system of yoga Satyananda yoga is – he said he would look into it. I felt heard. That was all I needed. He may not agree with me about the system, it doesn’t matter, this person had at least opened to listening. We worked together beautifully the next day! An old me, might have been so upset and angry I would have left the training. What a difference tolerating opposites makes!!

I think both him and I learnt a lot about ourselves that day. It is only in relationship with another, particularly a difficult or testing relationship, that we truly learn about ourselves, release our ‘programming’ from past events and traumas and move forwards on the path of freedom. But this only happens if we can learn to tolerate that space of non duality – or ‘neti neti’ as the Indians call it (not this, not that) – then we get bigger and consciousness expands, and we feel calmer and more resilient.

Did you ever see in yourself, or another, a fear of power? Power has such negative connotations: anger, rage, aggression, controlling, authoritarian. Yet when we are genuinely powerful we are confident, both in our abilities and in our interpersonal relationships; we feel in control of the world around us, our lives and we are more in control of our emotional state. We have high levels of self esteem, we can be spontaneous, we are assertive: we are resilient.

Our fear of our own power stops us from owning our power. When we own our power we are more able to own our vulnerability. We can drop the mask and be fully ourselves. We can both give and receive, we can please ourselves instead of just pleasing others all the time. When we own our power we have healthy boundaries: we can say ‘no!’ so that others cannot transgress our boundaries and bully, abuse or manipulate us.

High self esteem, healthy boundaries, a strong sense of self are dependent on our relationship with anger. Anger is another word that often comes with negative associations. We think of anger as bad: as aggression, violence, explosive rage. We may have picked up messages about anger from seeing too much – violence or aggression or fighting (lack of protection) – or from parents who did not approve of anger, whether that be the child’s (lack of support or acceptance) or their own (we don’t do anger in our family). Whatever the reason, we learn to be ashamed or fearful of our own anger, or believe ‘I just don’t do anger’. Yet anger is a healthy emotion. Healthy anger defends self against threat, physical or metaphorical; it enables the child to set healthy boundaries of self and another. Anger is key in helping us to become an individual, autonomous self; differentiated from the ‘other’.

So our fear of our power is related to our fear of our anger. As Ms Williamson says, it is a fear of limits. Not a fear that we are inadequate, perhaps more a fear that we are limitless. Perhaps we were too ‘limited’ in childhood, there was too much control or restraint, too many rules or expectations. Perhaps we didn’t have enough limits, perhaps our boundaries were too loose and we ‘got away with murder’. The tiny container of the child, needs the larger container of the adult to teach him or her limits. Imagine a 2 year old (the terrible two’s) having a raging temper tantrum, and a mother who is ‘powerful’ enough to hold the child in her embrace or gaze, to be with him in his anger, until he calms down. This ‘good enough’ mother in that moment, is teaching the child many important things: that anger is ok, it can be contained, it is not limitless; that he is ok, his anger can be allowed, he can express himself; she is teaching him to own his power. Just one example.

Our lack of power, our low self esteem stems from not having our basic needs met as children. Whether physical or symbolic, our basic needs are for nurture, support, protection, place, and limits. There are many examples, for many of us, where parents didn’t adequately provide for these needs. There’s no such thing as an ideal parent, it’s simply not achievable. It’s never about blame, parents do the best they can. Human development is unique in that we spend at least 20 per cent of our childhood dependent on others to meet our basic needs (versus around 1-3 per cent in the animal kingdom). It’s our responsibility, as adults, to change that, to take control. By becoming aware of our lack of resilience, of where we aren’t yet owning our power, we can begin to understand what we need to do to heal and become more fully ourself.