Stress Mastery : Acquiring Body Wisdom - Cultivating Body Wisdom & Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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Cultivating Body Wisdom

For many it is a measure of how many facts they know or how intelligent they are. Body wisdom, however, is not about how thoughts affect your body but about how your body affects your thoughts. We maintain that the body is intelligent, wise if you will, and that this wisdom can be tapped to improve your health, well-being, and performance.

Midway through graduate school one of the authors made a personal discovery that has guided his work as a therapist, trainer, and student ever since.

It was the most difficult emotional period I had ever experienced in my life. I was a novice psychotherapist facing the pressures of a new job, a new relationship, physical illness, and the most difficult examinations of my academic life. My symptoms were classic: difficulty eating and sleeping, obsessive thoughts, a lack of energy, and feelings of hopelessness. Since I had never experienced anything like this before, I had no clear idea how to get better. The difficulties lingered for months, even after many of the problems had been resolved. It certainly didn't make sense to me that it just kept going on and on. It was as if my emotional life was going downhill and all I could do was watch. I was alternately frightened, sad, and bewildered by my inability to feel the way I used to feel—joyful and engaged in life.

Finally, one afternoon as I sat alone in my office, particularly exasperated, I asked myself the key question, How did I act when I felt better? I was, as they say, sick and tired of being sick and tired. Thinking alone had not really changed anything for me. I knew I used to be different and I began to focus on acting that way again. Quite literally I decided to change my posture, the speed of my walk, the tilt of my head, the expression on my face. I walked out of my office in character, whistling a happier tune in my head, and asked the first person I saw how she was feeling. I played this part the remainder of the day and I noticed that I felt better.

I decided to continue playing the role for a while longer and soon forgot that I was playing the role. I simply began to be the way I was, with one important difference: I now knew there was a way out of the darkness. I knew I would never be quite that lost again. This was the beginning of a series of physical and mental practices that have served me very well over the years. My body had led me out of the wilderness the way a horse carries an injured rider back to the stable.

The Warrior's Stance

Shakespeare once wrote, “If you lack the virtue, act the virtue.” Today we say, “Fake it till you make it.” What we are suggesting is that there is a stressed stance as well. If you act stressed, holding your body in the manner characteristic of the fight-or-flight response, you will feel stressed—even if there is no particular reason to be stressed. Luckily, there is an antidote for this: to discover what we call the warrior's stance.

At first blush, the notion of a warrior's stance leading to a more peaceful, less stressed existence may seem like an oxymoron. Why not a monk's stance or a gardener's stance? However, since life, business, and relationships are often presented in terms of struggles, battles, conflicts, and competitions, we might find it useful to examine this metaphor more carefully.

Contrary to popular belief, successful warriors are ultimately peaceful individuals whose primary battles are fought internally (Milman, 1991). They display a relaxed and balanced posture. This enables them to have exceptional reaction times and full freedom of movement. This capacity for relaxed balance also begets a fluidity of response that allows them to pull an opponent who pushes them or push one who pulls. It is a capacity to literally flow around obstacles. If you have gone white-water rafting, you have been given the wise counsel to let the river carry you to a safe place when you have been thrown from the boat. To resist overpowering force is to risk being thrown into the rocks. A warrior knows that it is best to stay relaxed and alert and float feet first, in order to be aware of genuine routes of escape.

A warrior cultivates fearlessness. This does not mean recklessness. It simply speaks to the survival value of being able to notice the body's response to a threat and, by the force of the regular practice of a discipline, maintain the ability to choose a course of action. This grace under fire is often the difference between life and death in survival situations. Fear is a process that necessitates that we step out of the moment and contemplate the past or future. An intense focus in the here and now is the best way to keep fear at bay. The easiest way to maintain this focus is to cultivate the breathing and relaxed posture of the warrior. Warriors do not seek out or create conflict. Their preference is to walk away. But once engaged in battle, they are fully committed to their chosen course of action.

This is truly a critical piece of information for individuals who have attempted to change their lives by changing the content of their thoughts through endless affirmations. In our experience, “nice thoughts” have very little impact on someone's long-term well-being if his or her body is wracked with tension and stress-related hormones. You must actively change your physiology if you hope to contend successfully with stress. Consider a parallel from the study of communication. The best estimates that we have suggest that only 7 percent of the meaning of any communication is actually in the words themselves. The remaining 93 percent is communicated by our body language and the tone and tempo of our speech. In a similar vein, if we wish to communicate to ourselves the value of a more relaxed stance, we will need more than words. We need to speak to our bodies in a way that they will understand.

However, in the realm of relationships, the behavior that most of us need to cultivate is listening. This is no less true of our relationship with our body. The disorders that are brought on by chronic, excessive muscle tension begin as mere brief episodes of tension. We may grit our teeth in anger and still maintain some residual tension even after the cause of our anger is gone. Over time this can develop into bruxism, the grinding and gnashing of the teeth while sleeping. We may tighten our neck and shoulder muscles in response to fear or anxiety and again retain excess tension even after the threat has disappeared. This is how tension headaches begin. Why exactly does this occur?

Once again we return to the issue of awareness. To listen to the whispers of tension, we must be aware of what it means to be truly relaxed. Most people simply do not know what it means to be relaxed. We have seen many clients claim that they are relaxed, only to be shown otherwise when they are monitored by biofeedback equipment. As noted earlier, breathing is the starting point of your relaxation practice. But to go deeper into relaxation requires an additional practice, and we would like to introduce that to you next.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

While we will present a formal protocol that you can follow to implement progressive relaxation, it is most important that you understand the principles and guidelines that will allow you to succeed as long as you commit to regular practice for several weeks. The reward for this short-term commitment is that you will be able to reduce the time needed to reach a relaxed state from twenty-five minutes down to five to seven minutes.

Practicing Progressive Relaxation

Before you begin, you may find the following guidelines helpful for your practice:

  • Prepare a convenient time and place, and practice regularly. Remove distractions.

  • Set up a regular practice schedule. Several times weekly is recommended until you have mastered the technique. You can then use it on an as-needed basis.

  • Be comfortable. Wear loose-fitting clothing. Recline on your bed or sofa or in a cozy recliner chair. Some people place a rolled towel under their knees and lower back to maintain a comfortable spinal alignment.

  • Avoid falling asleep, unless you are using this procedure to facilitate sleep.

  • Don't try too hard. Paradoxically, if you try too hard to relax it will only increase your level of tension.

  • Allow yourself to “let go.” Sometimes people fear letting go, for it is equated with losing control. The only thing you have to lose here is unhealthy muscle tension. Learning to relax increases your control, but first you have to let go and allow this to happen.

  • If you find your mind wandering, gently bring your focus back to your breathing and to this technique without scolding yourself or passing judgment.

  • Finish your relaxation practice by coming back slowly. At the end of your practice session, slowly bring your attention back to the here and now, gently stretch your muscles, and open your closed eyes. If you are lying down, roll over slowly onto your side, pause, and then sit up. When your muscles are deeply relaxed, you do not want to contract them suddenly. Coming back slowly allows your relaxed state to linger for hours.

One goal of this procedure is to help you become aware of the difference between feelings of muscle contraction and muscle relaxation. Begin by taking a few moments to scan your body for tension and to focus your attention on any physical sensations. The basic method in progressive relaxation is to first carefully tense a particular muscle or group of muscles. This is to further develop your awareness of that part of your body, specifically when that part is tense. It is important that you contract the muscle only to a low level of tension. Be particularly careful not to overtense any muscle or muscle group where you are prone to experience muscle spasms. Contracting a muscle as hard as you can only leaves you more tense and does not cultivate relaxation. Tense each muscle group for five to seven seconds, and then release the muscle and focus your awareness on how the muscles feel as they relax for the next twenty to thirty seconds. Allow yourself to focus on any sensations of warmth and heaviness. As you continue from muscle to muscle, slowly but surely the sensation of warmth and heaviness will spread throughout your body. It can help to talk to yourself during this process with self-instructions such as the following:

Clench your right hand into a fist. Tighten your fist and study the tension as you do so. Become aware of the tension and discomfort in your hand and forearm as you tense. Now let go of the tension and let your hand go limp. Pay careful attention to the feelings of relaxation spreading in your hand as the tension drains away. Notice the difference between the comfortable sensations of relaxation in your hand now, compared to the uncomfortable feelings of tension. Let go more and more, letting the muscles in your hand and forearm grow more and more deeply and fully relaxed.

The typical sequence of movements would be as shown in Table 1 . After you have become familiar with the sequence of movements in Table 1, you can try a number of techniques for coordinating your breathing, language, and imagination to creatively deepen and enrich your experience.

  • Experiment with coordinating your breathing with the tensing and relaxing of each muscle group. Inhale and briefly hold your breath as you tense the muscle group. Exhale as you let go. Be aware of the sounds of the breath as you relax as well as the feelings of relaxation. Over time the hissing of the slow release of breath will become associated with relaxation and speed up the process of letting go.

    Table 1. The Progressive Relaxation Sequence
     Muscle Group Activity
    1.Hands and forearms
    • Clench fists (left then right)

    • Bend hands backward at wrist (left then right)

    • Flex by bending elbows and bringing hands up to your shoulders

    • Straighten arms and push down against the chair or floor

    • Wrinkle forehead

    • Squeeze tightly shut

    • Press teeth together, then let jaw drop

    • Press into roof of mouth

    • Press together

    9.Head and neck
    • Push head back

    • Bend head forward; touch chin to chest

    • Shrug and try to touch ears

    • Take three deep breaths; hold each several seconds

    • Arch

    • Suck stomach in

    • Make stomach hard, as if it were going to be hit

    • Tense thigh muscles; stretch legs out

    15.Ankles and calves
    • Point toes toward face

    • Point toes downward

  • Some people prefer to visualize their breath as light that carries warmth and relaxation to their muscles. In this scenario, as you tense a muscle and inhale, you are pulling light to the muscle group. As you exhale, you expel darkness and tension from the muscles. Gradually you build an image of your body filled with light. If certain colors feel better to you, feel free to experiment. For instance, some people like to use the color blue to symbolize relaxation and red to indicate tension. Once you have reached a relaxed state you can really embrace your relaxation experience by imagining a scene that is pleasant to you (for example, lying on a beach or walking in the woods).

  • There is also a time-honored method known as autogenic training in which you literally talk yourself into relaxation by repeating certain phrases over and over while focusing your attention on a particular muscle group. For instance, if after going through a progressive relaxation exercise, you still feel residual tension in a body part, then you would repeat to yourself, “My (arms, hands, thighs) feel warm and heavy.” Or you could say to yourself, “My (arms) feel loose and relaxed.” In fact, this method of systematically repeating relaxing phrases over and over again can be used on its own to induce relaxation. It can, however, be terminally boring, so be certain to tailor your program to your needs and interests. Create a routine that interests you, and you will increase the likelihood of following through and mastering this skill.

One main goal of progressive relaxation training is to help you achieve differential relaxation throughout your day. Accomplishing this means that you are able to contract only those muscles that are necessary to accomplish the task at hand, while keeping all other muscles relaxed . For example, there is no need to clench your jaw, stiffen your shoulders, or squeeze the steering wheel while driving. But your arm and leg muscles will certainly need to contract in order to operate a car.

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