Flapping My Wings

body awareness when recovering

“Wing” by Skia

Some mornings when I get up, I walk to the front door to let the dogs out while flapping my wings.  I waft them up and down as if they’re moving me through thermals high in the air, then when I get to the hall I pull them in and flap a bit more fervently as if my bird-self is flying through a narrow pass. By the time I open the door for the dogs I’m just a regular frowsy-haired morning person staring out at the dawn. My wings are arms again.

I act pretty normal most of the time, although I do have moments. I sing made-up songs, balance silly things on my head, quietly misbehave to keep myself amused in restaurants, laugh at the inopportune times, and am chronically too curious for my own good. I’m not sure this qualifies me as officially eccentric but it has been known to tax the patience of people who love me.

My family hasn’t bothered to ask me why, in the privacy of our home, my arms occasionally turn into wings. I haven’t wondered why either until I thought about it this morning while in that Realm of Insight, the shower.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One is a faint memory of an adult telling me to put my arms down and behave myself.  I recall this as happening in a cinder block room that smelled faintly musty, so probably Sunday school. I may have been happily twirling in my Sunday dress with my arms up like a ballerina or been a fairy sprinkling magic dust or been, as now, a bird. I’m guessing I was probably four or five years old since the adult in this memory is visible only as legs and hips. That memory is colored by vast shame. (I must have been a ridiculously sensitive child.) A thousand similar reminders to be a good girl left me with my arms down, flying nowhere. I can assure you, that’s no fun. I’m still in recovery from excessive politeness. I’m progressing well, thank you.

The other thought is how darn good it feels to move this way. My arms and hands move, of course. They reach upper kitchen shelves, lift eggs from nest boxes, greedily stack up library books, hug dear people —- but much of the day my arms and hands are in pretty static positions typing or reading or driving. Basic body boredom. Biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA, says our bodies crave natural movement. Instead of regimented exercise, she advocates moving throughout the day in lively ways that feel nourishing to us. She calls this nutritious movement. Try flapping your arms like wings. Does it feels wonderful to you too?

Our bodies are internal guidance systems with immeasurable storehouses of wisdom to share with us, as long as we actually take the time to pay attention. I understood my baby’s world better when I let his movements choreograph my own. Mirroring my children’s actions took me back to what it was like to be a child.  I even got some surprising insight into my own poor posture when I gave myself a few minutes to go fully into a slumped position, ready to find out what that slump had to tell me.

Maybe bodies are on my mind because I’ve had a bit of a health setback and spent a few days in the hospital recently. I still feel like someone hit me with a shovel, although thankfully now it doesn’t feel like as big a hit with as large a shovel as it did before.

We may think we’ve already learned the lessons difficult times have to teach, but there’s always more to learn. Here are some lessons I’ve revisited lately:

  • The bright light of gratitude has a way of shining fear away (even in the terrifying confines of a closed MRI) and it’s possible to be grateful for the dark stuff too.
  • It always helps to pay attention to where in our bodies we feel good —  right now for me it feels marvelous to breathe deeply, to stretch, to laugh, to sleep.
  • What feels healing is different for different people. For me it’s time in nature, hugs, time to create, stories other people share, good books, new ideas, playfulness, and more hugs. (Pretty much the same joys I’d list any time.)
  • When our arms want to be wings, let them be wings.

Baby Choreography

infant choreography, imitate your baby

This is hard to admit because it sounds entirely weird, but it was such a powerful experience that I now look back at it as a sort of ceremony.  Give baby choreography a try if you too want to step into an infant’s world.

Let me explain.

First time motherhood confounded me in a way I could not, still cannot, put into words. The new life in my arms astonished me. I’d never before looked so many hours at one face, day after day. I’d certainly never been simultaneously exhausted, enthralled, and overwrought for weeks on end. All the ways I knew to understand another human being were muddled, beyond what the heart knows and the eyes show. So I asked my body to teach me how brand new Benjamin perceived his world.

When just the two of us were alone, I set him on the carpet and lay down next to him. Then I imitated every single movement and sound my seven-week-old baby made.

  • Pursed lips.
  • Open lips.
  • Wrinkled brow.
  • Wide-eyed gaze.
  • Arms sweeping across the air.
  • Arms held tight to the body.
  • Feet and toes turning, flexing, flailing.
  • Arms and legs jerking.
  • Coos and bubbles.
  • Hands in fists.
  • Hands open, waving,
  • Side-to-side wiggles.
  • Long pauses of full-body stillness, with a wondrously calm facial expression.

I thought I’d indulge in this for only a minute or two, but I kept it up longer. Something about it transported me to my own bodily memory of infancy. I felt, from the inside, a sort of freedom from the physical template created by years of upright posture and acceptable facial expressions. I felt helpless, yes, but also expansively connected — as if my being didn’t end at the boundaries of my skin.

I got a message clear as spoken words that our bodies, mine older and his brand new, were temporal gifts. Our souls were the same size.

I got up from the floor humbled.

 

Originally published by Mothering.com. 

The Ache to Make

My daughter needs a new pair of pants hemmed. I dig through a jumbled box of vintage thread for the right color. I find it, gray the color of a mourning dove, wrapped on a wooden spool. I cut a length, thread a needle, and stitch at a backslash angle. I hope I’m also sewing some love into the hem.

I eagerly take refuge in tasks like hemming pants or pulling weeds or chopping onions, probably because what I do to earn money requires no movement other than typing and no strain other than the effort to keep my wandering mind on the screen.

My life would be unimaginable to most of our planet’s previous generations. Our ancestors lived by the work of their hands. They hunted and hoed. They cut stone to line wells, make fences, and build cathedrals. They turned trees into wagon wheels, bridges, and ships. Nearly everything they wore and ate came from their hands and the hands of people known to them.

Our hands do much less than theirs. I’m typing this on a comfortable chair in a warm house in the middle of a life much easier than my forbears could have dreamed for themselves. Yet I know my worst insomnia happens on deadline nights after I’ve made myself stay at the screen hour after hour. And sitting too long at the computer doing nothing more strenuous than moving ideas to documents makes me feel like a suitcase crammed with stuff, straining at the hinges and ready to burst. I want to MAKE something.

So, even though I’ve got another deadline looming and a community action meeting tonight, I’m going to get up from this desk to go do something with my hands.

As fiber artist Renate Hiller says, “our destiny is written in the hand.” I like what she has to say about the ache to make.

What hands-on work are you drawn to do?

Understanding Children Through Imitation

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Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children weren’t home. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

Heart Intelligence

” The heart hath its own memory, like the mind.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The deepest truths are felt by the heart. Humanity has known this since prehistory. We keep this knowledge alive in repositories of original wisdom—our stories, our art, and our bodies.

Our hearts brim with the same neurons as our brains, so we experience the world first not through our thoughts but bodily intelligence, both heart intelligence and gut intelligence. We make decisions, learn, and remember with our bodies as well as our brains. Our hearts perceive and respond to the meaning encoded in experiences, building an intrinsic memory of emotion. Sometimes we feel a response directly in our hearts, although we don’t have words big enough to describe this.

In ancient Greek medicine it was known that noble sentiments such as honesty, compassion, and courage strengthened the heart while the most dire emotions weakened it. We now recognize they were on to something. Cardiologists say there’s such a thing as a broken heart, found in people with no blood clots in their arteries, no evidence of coronary heart disease. Instead, stress cardiomyopathy can be caused by intense grief or trauma. We can indeed die of a broken heart.

Heartbeats are a language affecting the way we perceive and react to the world around us. It’s known that strong negative emotion can cause heart rhythms to become irregular and disordered, disordering other body systems as well. In contrast, positive feelings of love, gratitude and compassion create coherent heart rhythms. These coherent heartbeats put the body in sync. As a result, the two branches of the nervous system coordinate with enhanced efficiency, immune responses are boosted, protective and regenerative hormones are released, even brain function improves in alignment with the heart. It’s no wonder that positive emotions summon a full-body sense of well-being. We are biologically guided toward feelings such as compassion and appreciation, since our bodies function most effectively in this state.

Our hearts are not only a primary form of perception. They also communicate with others at a level below our conscious awareness. According to research by the HeartMath Institute, the electrical field emitted by a human heart is 60 times greater in amplitude than brain activity. Its electromagnetic field is 5,000 greater. The heart’s field radiates through every cell in the body, extending well beyond the skin. In other words, we broadcast the electromagnetic signal of our own hearts. This can be measured several feet away from our bodies. Energy activity in the heart of one individual affect and can be measured in the brain waves of another person (or pet!) in close proximity.

As HeartMath Institute studies continue to show, the most powerfully coherent heartbeat is that of the caring heart. Love and compassion are not only emotional experiences, they are sent outward in signals that can calm the heart rates of people nearby. A loving heart at close proximity can calm an angry heart, a sorrowful heart, and yes, a lonely heart.

With feelings of love or gratitude, you reach for your child’s hand in a crowded stadium or subway. Your loving heart rhythm affects your child, and more, it also affects the stranger at your side. All three of you are blessed by those harmonious beats emanating from your chest. Poets had it right all along.

heart intelligence, your heartbeat affects others, heart coherence, broken heart syndrome,

wikimedia commons

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)   -e.e. cummings

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Decision To Make? Ask Your Body

I tend to fuss over decisions, considering all possible options while weighing the benefits and risks for everyone involved. Sometimes I choose the most difficult path even when it clashes with my admittedly Hobbit-like nature, in part because I have the annoying idea that growth comes from taking on new challenges.

Unfortunately the process of logical decision-making tends to wedge us into what we intellectually determine is best even if it doesn’t feel right. (I’ve gotten myself into plenty of tough situations doing exactly that.) Many of us tap into our intuition as well, but we usually give much more weight to what reason has to say.

These days I’m trying to rely less on my head and more on gut feelings for decisions large and small. It doesn’t take much to realize the glad expansiveness in my chest is a “yes” while a heavy clenched feeling in my throat is a “no.”

I don’t always succeed at this. Recently I agreed to give a series of talks and already dread them. The process of trying to be more aware of what’s authentically right for me is gradual. (NOT public speaking, my body retorts.) I suspect many of us push ourselves until our bodies force us to start paying attention….

Let’s remember, each one of us is a whole person with intelligence coming from our hearts, our guts, maybe all of our cells. But our culture teaches us from our earliest years to be in our heads while ignoring, even shutting off inner knowing. When inner promptings are so strong they override the left hemisphere of the brain, children are often labeled something else entirely—-lazy, reluctant, stubborn, headstrong, picky, anxious, timid, fussy. In reality, our bodies are telling us we need:

1. time to process or time do things at a pace natural to us

2. to step away from a particular person/situation/food/obligation

3. to honor the voice inside that already knows the answer

This is the kind of awareness that people have used since the beginning of humankind to make decisions fully, in ways we rarely access in today’s world.

Here’s a recent example of what can happen through listening to body wisdom. I have poor posture. I fight it, when I think about it, by holding my head up straight for as long as I can remember and more recently, by learning to practice natural posture. But when I’m working at the computer my head tends to sink forward until I’m hunched like a half-conscious orangutan. I know that listening to the body means, in part, paying attention to the body’s messages. So one afternoon I stopped resisting, just for a few minutes.

I listened to what my slumped posture had to tell me. It didn’t say “sit up straight!” It said go with the slump. Feeling a little silly, I let my head sink forward to a ridiculously exaggerated degree. Instantly I recognized in my body the way my father slouched when he was sad, the way my mother’s head jutted forward and down with disappointment. Their postures are in me, speaking to me. I didn’t analyze this, I just sat with it, paying attention to my body in that posture. Strangely I felt relief, even comfort, as my upper body curled like a fetus.

Then I tried the opposite. I pulled my head up into rigid “good posture”and was surprised when tears came to my eyes. My throat felt vulnerable and exposed, as it did when I was a little girl and couldn’t sleep unless my throat was covered. Again, I didn’t analyze right away, I just sat with it.

The whole process took about three minutes. Yet afterward I felt a wonderful strength up my spine. My posture felt buoyantly upright. The feeling lasted all afternoon. It was astonishing to get so much benefit from such a short body-awareness experience.

What I am saying is that your internal guidance system is there, ready to be accessed. You possess logic, which is invaluable as you consider variables and imagine outcomes. You have remarkably instructive emotions—you may feel excited, a little scared, a little eager, and pretty relieved when you imagine yourself going forward with one decision while you may feel let down, hesitant, and resistant when you imagine going forward with a different decision. Just past logic and emotion are actual body sensations. You may feel tightness in your jaw or churning in your stomach or tension in your back. You might feel the urge to stretch or dance or take a deep breath.

Simply remember, when you have a decision to make, consult your thoughts and emotions and body wisdom. The answer is there, waiting for you to pay attention.

For more on this, check out:

7 Ways To Access Your Body’s Unique “Knowing”

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

The Little Trick To Make Any Moment Better

body wisdom, gut feeling, body intelligence,

Inner Cosmos by memzu.deviantart.com

Don’t Sit Up Straight: Why Natural Posture May Be Better

natural posture, don't sit up straight, stress relief, trauma relief, body wisdom,

Pondering the skeleton within (Image CC by 2.0 Dreaming in the deep south)

I come from a family of slouchers and after a typical day at the computer I have ample reason to worry I’ll develop the dowager’s hump my grandmother had by the time she was in her late 50s. Worse, my husband recently required back surgery due to longstanding problems after a car accident.

That’s why I’m on a quest to find out all I can about our spines and our posture. It has taken me in some unexpected directions. Here are some crumbs along this trail.

First off, don’t sit or stand up straight. At least not the way we think is correct, with our shoulders back and chins held high. That, my friends, is not remotely natural no matter what your mother or your gym teacher or your fitness coach told you. I learned this from a book with gorgeous photographs of people all over the world engaged in often strenuous tasks, yet moving with posture that is graceful and perfectly supported. The title, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back: Natural Posture Solutions for Pain in the Back, Neck, Shoulder, Hip, Knee, and Foot. The title doesn’t hint at how important this book is for those of us who don’t have back pain, but nonetheless plan to continue using our spines. The author, Esther Gokhale, teaches what she calls “primal posture.” Her book is packed with more than inspiring images. It explains how we can sit, stand, walk, and lie down in ways that contribute to our overall health and well-being. For example, by using a postural method she calls “stretch sitting.” She gives a brief intro in the following video, instruction starts about 4:20.

Next, all the fuss about building muscle doesn’t get to the core of the issue. Toned abs can’t replace strong, well-aligned bones. I learned more about this from another amazing book Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment
by Kathleen Porter Ms. Porter explains that children in the non-industrialized world naturally sit and stand with aligned posture they maintain their entire lives without the neck, spine, and leg problems that plague people in the developed world. She also contends that a child’s naturally good posture supports learning.

Why do we have so many slumped kids and achy adults in industrialized countries? Our fixation on TV and computer screens may be part of the problem. But Ms. Porter thinks it starts earlier. She notes that the design of car seats, strollers, and baby seats work against an infant’s developing posture. (She offers one solution, called a Baby Wedgie.)

I suspect it has something to do with how little free play today’s kids enjoy, a time when they can engage in brain-boosting and spine stretching movement. A recent study of 4 million U.S. preschool-aged children found that almost half were not taken outdoors to play on a daily basis, probably because we’re busy carting those kids around in car seats that incorrectly position their spines. Ms. Porter explains how to raise kids with healthy posture in her book Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It. The following video does a good job of showing how to grow up with naturally aligned posture.

And finally, it’s worth considering how our bodies react to strong emotion.

During frightening, painful, or otherwise highly stressful experiences our bodies are flooded with chemicals preparing us to react physically. Most often our response, in today’s world, is not physical. We aren’t running away from or fighting off predators as our ancient ancestors did, although our bodies respond in the same way (the “fight or flight” response). We staunch our physical impulses and sit still during all sorts of stressors, remaining immobile during a painful medical procedure, while the boss politely tells us we’re going to be laid off, or when our car is nearly hit on the highway. Experts in trauma tell us that mentally processing a frightening or powerfully upsetting experience doesn’t always resolve it. The bodily movements we wanted to take, but didn’t, are still locked within. There they can cause all sorts of long-term problems, including back pain. (Check out what movement can help alleviate this stress.)

I’m still learning about this as I read remarkable books by Peter A. Levine. The first one I waded through is geared more toward physical therapists and psychotherapists, but still highly relevant for the layperson. I stumbled on it initially because I loved the title’s implication, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. It’s one of those books to read with a highlighter in hand. Now I’m reading one of his far more accessible books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, which I heartily recommend. It casts a bright light on experiences adults may consider average, but which can turn into long-term trouble for kids (masquerading as behavior problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression) unless we know how to help them deal with it.

I love the way seeking out information tends to lead us in new, unanticipated directions. I’m still on the lookout for what I can learn about natural posture. And I’m working on sitting as if I had a tail, one that is behind and not under me. I swear this effort makes me look taller than my almost five foot three inch height. See, another unexpected perk!

stress relief, trauma relief, don't sit up straight, natural posture,

Originally published in Wired.

Common Sense Laziness

lazy benefits, meaningful exercise, laziness genes,

Image: d0uze.deviantart.com

When we first moved to the country a farmer gave us some good advice. “Make it easy on yourself.” His organic, widely diversified farm was (and still is) an example of ingenuity. He and the generations before him who ran the family farm figured out ways to make necessary tasks go smoothly with less effort. This didn’t mean going into debt to buy expensive equipment. It meant thinking for themselves as they designed alternative methods of manure removal, tinkered with ways to reduce the strain of loading hay into lofts, and built beehives into an eight-sided shed. Their methods made the job more efficient, sometimes more elegant, and always easier.

This is an example of human ingenuity, a trait that has been characteristic of our species since we first grunted in self-awareness. Let’s face it, we prefer to avoid wasting unnecessary effort on unpleasant tasks. Let’s call it common sense laziness.

This approach worked pretty well for us back in the earliest days when saber-toothed tigers lurked. Evolution favored individuals who didn’t wear themselves out. They had more energy to flee from danger. More energy to anticipate and guard against potential threats. Some of this saved energy could be devoted to developing story, song, dance, you know, culture. We humans like expending energy that way.

Our forebears passed along the genes for innovation as well as the genes for common sense laziness. We like the innovative genes. But we judge ourselves pretty harshly for the lazy ones. Until very recently people got plenty of exercise from the work necessary to house, clothe, and feed ourselves. Researchers in an Australian study checked the activity levels of men who worked in a historical re-enactment village. Each subject wore a device that measured body movements. The results were compared to activity levels of men in current day occupations. Over the course of a week the 18th century pretenders showed 60 percent higher activity levels than the modern group. And it’s worth noting that re-enactment is surely less strenuous than actually living as people did back then.  Other studies have found significant differences in calories burned when we wash dishes by hand rather than use a dishwasher, climb stairs rather than use an elevator, and walk to work rather than drive.

We try to compensate through something we call exercise. It’s a strange concept, really. We run nowhere, lift weights only to put them down, stretch without trying to reach anything.

At the very core of our being we’re motivated to exert energy when there’s a purpose. Accomplishing real tasks in the real world builds muscles, burns calories, and as a side perk, gets things done. By real, of course, I mean tasks that people several hundred years ago would recognize. (Not the sort of work I do for a living, using the tools of a swivel chair and computer.)

In our society we eagerly embrace labor-saving devices and often pay people to do the physically demanding work of maintaining our homes, yards, and vehicles. To afford this ease, we work longer hours. Then we “discipline” ourselves to engage in strenuous exercise despite the evolutionary pull toward common sense laziness.

We need a middle ground. I totally agree with our farmer friend. Making it easier on ourselves is smart if we’re doing the hard work of traditional farming or any other physically taxing pursuit. For most of us, that’s not an issue. What is the issue? Recognizing that our bodies need and our minds want full engagement. I know purposeful work is waiting for me: helping a friend move, digging in the garden, painting a room, organizing a closet, and plenty of other movement-based activities. It feels good to get something done, with a plus—exercise is built in.

To fully benefit, a change in attitude is important too. Scolding ourselves for laziness has a powerfully negative effect. Consider a study done with hotel maids as subjects. All day long these women performed physically taxing labors as they hauled heavy carts, bent, scrubbed, and pushed vacuums. Yet when asked, the majority said they didn’t get any exercise. Even more strangely, although these women got more than the daily recommended quota of physical activity, their bodies didn’t seem to benefit. Indicators including body fat, blood pressure, and waist-to-hip ration matched their perceived level of exercise, not their actual level of exercise.  It gets even more interesting. Half of the maids were educated about how many calories their daily tasks burned and told their work qualified them as physically active. The other half were not. Within a month, the attitude change group showed a reduction in blood pressure, waist-to-hip ration, and weight. So how you perceive the chores you do each day or the basement you cleaned over the weekend is important.

One caveat. Common sense laziness is irrelevant when it comes to fun. Playing and dancing and otherwise moving for sheer pleasure may provide exercise but more importantly, exuberant activities fully engage our whole being. They remind us how good it feels to be alive.

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Image: liveasyouwill.deviantart.com

Vagus Overusers Anonymous

 

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moonglowlilly.deviantart.com

sigh

There I go again, sighing. Most of the time I don’t know I’m doing it but thanks to my family I’m aware that I emit plenty of audible exhales.

My grandmother was a chronic sigher.  Each time she sat down, air rushed out of her mouth. It just seemed like an intrinsic part of her mechanism. A decade or two later my mother became a sigher as well. I should have realized the same fate would eventually strike me. I persist in thinking it’s a phase. Surely the women in my line sighed for the same reasons everyone else does—blowing off stress, expressing relief, giving in to exhaustion. Maybe they just had more than their fair share of sigh-worthy burdens.

There are good body-based reasons to sigh. When we’re stressed or fatigued our breathing is less variable. That’s not healthy. Our lungs, like the rest of our bodies, operate best dynamically. Our respiratory function becomes less efficient if we breathe in one state too long. A deep sigh resets breathing, loosening the lung’s air sacs and providing a feeling of relief.

More importantly, a deep sigh also stimulates the vagus nerve. We know all about the flight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. In that state our stress hormones are turned way up. We’re jittery, impulsive, and cued to react to stress. When we are relaxed, the opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system is active. The vagus nerve is a primary stimulator of this feel-good nervous system, operating via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being. That’s why good deep breaths are linked to the stress-quelling results found with the Relaxation Response as well as more traditional meditation. Acetylcholine also has to do with learning, memory, even reduced inflammation. So stimulating your vagus nerve is great for brain AND body.

Not ready to sigh just yet?

Well, Dacher Keltner, psychology professor and Director of the Greater Good Science Center says that the vagus nerve is responsible for much more. Biggies like empathy and who we are as a species. In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life* he explains that the vagus nerve,

…resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.  The vagus nerve…originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.

…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.

Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate.  Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.

Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.

Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals…as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.

I’m sticking with what the body knows. I’ll be activating my vagus nerve, feeling calm and relaxed. Vagus Overusers Anonymous here I come. sigh

*Portions quoted from pages 228-230 of Keltner’s wonderful book. Read the whole thing!

 

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

walking cures trauma, right way to walk, walk for inspiration, body-based trauma recovery, trauma recovery, depression recovery,

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Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?

resources

Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick