Sunday, September 10, 2006

It's Not All in Your Head

“It makes no difference to the brain/body system whether something actually happened or not. What we feel about our experience creates our ‘reality,’ our model of the world. Emotion releases hormonal patterns which activate circulation, muscles and organic response as well as etching memory. Again, the brain and body respond in exactly the same way to both real and imagined experience.”

– Gordon Stokes & Daniel Whiteside, Tools of the Trade

“A little bit stressed is like a little bit pregnant. There is no such thing as a small stressor. All stressors go into one pot to assault your body’s resources. In other words, stress accumulates.”

–Sharon Promislow, Making the Brain Body Connection

When I was a teenager, my mother and I frequently watched those “women in peril” made-for-TV movies on Sunday nights, starring Judith Light or Meredith Baxter Birney or some other mainstream TV actress. Usually halfway through the two-hour special, our paranoia kicked in and we began securing all the windows and doors. Was that a sound coming from downstairs? I’m afraid to go to the bathroom by myself! Stand outside the door! By the end of the show, we’d be so hyped up, so full of anxiety, that we’d block all the doors to outside so we’d have an early warning system in case someone tried to break in. And, during those nights, we often had bad dreams and trouble sleeping.

Even today I’m still trying to understand why in the world we watched those shows. They terrified us, and even more, they increased our already-heightened worries about being women in our culture. Certainly, we felt relieved at the end when the woman escaped, overcame a difficult situation, or achieved some kind of triumphant result. But, what was the cost?

I tell this story because it is just one example of the ways in which I have experienced self-created anxiety when there was no real threat. I mostly felt “spooked” after watching those shows, but I have also experienced true panic attacks—anxiety that emerged because of overwhelm, stress, or trauma.
Most of us experience moments when anxiety takes over, even when there are no real threats to our safety or survival. Think of the anxiety you feel before public speaking or prior to a job interview or a test. Regardless of the cause – whether real, imagined, or re-recreated from a past trauma – we experience anxiety in our physical body. Our body reacts whether or not a sabre-toothed tiger is actually chasing us. If we think he is chasing us, then our body believes us.

What does your anxiety feel like? I feel the fight/flight center of my body (or Third Chakra) activating and I feel the blood rush away from my extremities and to my center, my core. Breathing becomes difficult, labored, and I have often had to still myself by conscious breathing techniques. Sometimes I've felt faint, other times very tired and unable to think. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but there are things we can do in the moment to care for ourselves.

One such self-care activity I have used with much success is called Balance Breathing. Balance Breathing, or Alternate-Nostril Breathing, is a technique I learned from a friend, but many people use this technique in different healing modalities. While the theory behind this breathing is to create balance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, I find it incredibly calming, and have lulled myself out of feelings of anxiety—as well as acute panic attacks—using this technique.

Try this: Balance Breathing. You will be using your thumb and index finger to open and close your left and right nostrils. For example, if you are right handed, close your right nostril with your right thumb, take a full breath in and out of your left nostril, then close your left nostril with your right pointer finger and breathe in and out of your right nostril. Because this breathing takes some focus and time (be very slow and deliberate with each inhalation and exhalation), you will soon notice your whole mind-body system calming down. Give this technique some time to work. I’ve done Balance Breathing for five to ten minutes before. Usually, though, after two-three minutes you’ll notice a difference.

Try this: Explore your anxiety through finger painting. Anxiety can reflect some deep-rooted fears that could well be released through the act of painting. Get a piece of paper, wear grubby clothes, set out your paints, and get messy. What does your anxiety look like? Feel like? Is it hot red, screaming yellow, or cold ice blue? Do several paintings if you like, until you feel you’ve expressed your anxiety or until you feel a little shift in your body. For me, I sometimes suddenly feel tired. Then, I know I am done. What is this like for you?

What techniques or approaches work for you? Feel free to share your experiences if you like.


wheylona said...

It's not all in our head--my body and emotional states are proof of this all the time! :-)

Stress is so weirdly damaging. On Sunday, before I left Seattle, I suddenly had a very sore diaphram. It's been hurting constantly since then, but luckily it's slowly getting better as I have been lying down, relaxing, and doing a lot of slow, deep breathing. It's still ouchie, but less so each time.

The problem for me is that I never quite realize how stressed I am until I suffer some severe physical pain or discomfort. The funny thing, though, is that it can manifest itself in radically different ways. I need to complement my reactive stress management with proactive stress management, methinks. I'm intrigued by this balanced breathing deal. Could it be part of a proactive stress management system? Would there be benefit to doing it even when I'm not obviously stressed, like before sleeping or after waking up?

P.S. I still can't get this blog to show up in my bloglines. :-(

Origami Nightingale said...


Excellent point about reactive vs. proactive stress management. Sometimes, as you indicate, a reactive approach is the only approach available because stress has accumulated without your realizing it. For some of us, myself included, stress is hidden—from others and ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I have been told countless times how grounded, supportive, and positive I am, even under stress. Even so, this does not mean that I am not impacted by stress and that this stress may manifest into physical discomfort of some sort. You mention your diaphragm pain here. I tend to get stomachaches and headaches. Stress manifests in each of us differently, but the pain is very real.

As a way to be more proactive about my stress management, I use a few strategies that may be helpful to you.

Identify your top stressors. List your top 10. These could be things like lack of sleep, traveling, work, toxic friends, etc. It’s good to be very conscious of what life situations cause you feelings of anxiety and stress so that if many of these things are impacting you at once you can apply several stress-management exercises to help with stress build-up. And, try not letting this list stress you out! This happened to me the first time.

Once you determine what your triggers are, remind yourself what your physical discomfort is like. Is it primarily muscular, or are your vital organs impacted more? Do you get cold? Does your heart race? Do you become spacey and uncommunicative? When you’re able to pinpoint what your pattern of pain is, you can create a personal proactive plan.

For me, for example, I most often experience muscular contraction, specifically in my neck, which often causes stress headaches. So before a stressful event, or even in the morning as I am getting up, I can do some contract-relax exercises. I tighten my neck muscles and then relax them several times. In this way, I am reminding my body what a relaxed muscle state feels like in my neck. I can also do some self-massage on my jaw and occipital bone, while doing some deep breathing.

Regarding your diaphragm pain in response to stress, it seems as though breath is very important to your stress-management process. The diaphragm is located near your solar plexus, the fight/fight center of your body. Some deep belly breathing may be very good for the diaphragm, as expanding the belly reminds your diaphragm that you are allowing it room to move and expand. Doing some conscious breathing in the morning before you start your day and then in the afternoon when stress has had a chance to accumulate may be of immense benefit to you. I find that my afternoon stress-reduction activity is key, for I am reminding my body how to stay calm before any more daily stressors accumulate.

So, the conscious breathing you are doing now, is just excellent, and I am glad that you are feeling better. For most all of us, stress causes lack of sufficient breathing, no matter what other physical manifestations arise. So, conscious breathing, whether balance breathing or deep belly breathing or some other breathing technique, is imperative.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Wendy.

[insert big, deep breath here]