Early this week, I received a message from an old friend from Theatre School.
A native Staten Islander, she was in New York during the September 11th terror attacks. For years afterwards, she suffered from paralyzing anxiety flashbacks related to trauma from the event. She wrote me because, though she thought she had left them behind long ago, the events of the Paris attacks last Friday had brought them roaring back. She had found some success in conquering them using AT in college and wanted to ask my advise on how AT could help her current situation.
Emotions are tricky. Despite all of our scientific sophistication, we still don't have a concrete, full picture of how they work. In terms of the emotion my friend was experiencing, fear, I do have some insights to share on how our Use interacts with it. Judging by my Facebook stream over the week since the attacks, there is an awful lot of fear in various forms going around right now, so, with my friend's permission, I thought I would share a little of what we discussed.
Fear always manifests as physical tension in the body. We often think of tension as something static('I have stiff shoulders'), but it is anything but. Tension is muscles firing in a continuous stream, causing constant, not fixed, contraction. In terms of fear, tension manifests in a specific reaction called a 'startle pattern'. It starts with a contraction of the neck,pushing the head forward, traveling to the shoulders, which jump up, and down the spine. If you don't have a reference for what I am talking about, think about the feeling you get when you hear an unexpected car horn behind you(you might have experienced a pang of fear just thinking about the memory and a touch of the pattern in your body--sorry). This reaction is thought by some to be an evolutionary response, meant to give us a quick burst of adrenaline and a muscular jump to escape predators or dangerous situations. It is useful in the short term, but is stressful on our system as a whole and has a tendency to stay in the body after the fear event which caused it is long gone.
Even in small doses, this tension, if not released, can accrue and create chronic stress. In extreme situations, the reaction in the body can be quite intense, and correspondingly difficult to let go. Additionally, in truly traumatic events such as the one my friend went through, experiencing a physical reaction similar to ones that occurred previously(such as hearing about the Paris attacks) can instantly call ones memories back to the event, reinforcing the pattern of fear, warping reality, and effecting breathing, energy, and quality of life.
So what is the solution when one notices a startle reaction happening in one's system?
1. Don't fight it. Struggling against a startle pattern tends to reinforce its energy and cause it to deepen. A wonderful mentor I once had used to say to me "The root of the word 'emotion' is 'to move'". So rather than feeding your panic, I recommend a process called tracking to allow the reaction to move through. Non judgmentally, watch your physical reaction to the stress, and make yourself available to listening to it. Don't do anything, don't try to make it feel better, just 'be with it'(as one of my teachers Betsy says). Make some space around it. And often, like a child trying to get attention, once the emotion knows you have noticed it, it will disappear of its own accord.
2. There are a number of strategies a qualified A.T. teacher can show you to help counter the physical reaction in your body.This is one of the greatest benefits of the Alexander Technique I have found--it actually counters these stuck muscular patterns and can help the emotion trapped in the muscles move on, creating a freer, more responsive, more open and less stressed person. Simple versions of this include practices such as constructive rest, directing, feeling breath in your back, and feeling support underneath your feet, many of which have been detailed in previous blogs. Sometimes, just allowing an extended breath rhythm can be the answer. Try lengthening your exhales until all of the breath is out of your body and letting an inhale fly in to slow down your breathing and counter the breath pattern of a panic attack.
3. Make regular space to create the optimum wellness conditions in your life. Most chronic tension won't go away overnight--the tough but true fact is that if you really want to free yourself from these reactions it will take as much time to undo them as it took to create them in the first place. Tension is cumulative--no one moment of release is going to solve your problem. In terms of trauma, reducing your regular stress level can sometimes create enough space around the 'big reactions' to allow it to move through. Small, subtle, profound change is the key to happiness. And once it has, the practice becomes preventative--the more space you make for wellness when you aren't experiencing problems, the more likely you are to prevent future recurrence. It becomes a pleasant practice integrated into your everyday life.
I counseled my friend via a phone session, and she was able to put some of the strategies I gave her into practice and felt some ease in her anxiety and the worst of her startle pattern unwind after about a day.
This practice is not going to solve all of the world's problems, but it can help individuals see more clearly and be less reactive in a macro-connected world. And that could add up to a lot.
Don't let this unseasonably warm week in Chicago fool you. Whether you believe in La Nina or Snowmageddon(we usually get at least one of each forecast a year), there is only one thing besides death or taxes which is for certain.
Winter is coming.
Chicago has one of the highest rates of seasonal depression in the country. Sunlight is confined to a few hours a day, temperatures plunge, and we are reduced to squabbling over parking spots we have dug out for ourselves or stolen(I look forward to learning your position in the comments below).
I think depression in the city has another, more insidious contributing cause. And it is pulling down against the cold.
'Pulling Down' in the Alexander world refers to the act of compressing the body to meet a stimulus. This reaction is often linked to fear--we instinctively pull away from unpleasant things in order to protect ourselves. You can study this reaction in yourself in instances ranging from hearing a car horn behind you to shaking hands with an unfamiliar person. It most often starts with a compression of the head and neck, and it is this reaction which A.T. largely seeks to teach you how to resist.
We certainly do this in response to the cold, especially as the weather changes and our bodies haven't adjusted to the temperature yet. Notice your response next time you feel a cold gust of wind. Do you remain open or clench up? And though we eventually come inside and get warm, we carry this compression with us, causing discomfort, injury, and depression. The word 'depression' itself is a word that has literal connections to pulling down, as does our slang of describing 'feeling down'. I believe our physical state has a profound effect on our emotions, and the less space you have in your body the less room you have emotionally. This doesn't help a city which faces at least three months of winter horror every year and doesn't have a lot to enjoy once you get past the holidays. So not carrying that tension with you might help you to recover from an emotionally draining and challenging time.
There is more to this, An additional reason we pull down against the cold is to try and keep ourselves warm by compressing into our body heat and putting pressure on areas so we can't feel our own discomfort. And this makes sense and provides temporary relief. However, it might not actually be helping us. Compressing our bodies actually slows circulation of blood, and as a result our body heat goes down. So with exposure of more than a minute or two, we actually lose comfort and warmth in the exchange. When my Teacher, Daria Okugawa, first recommended expanding into the cold rather than compressing to me, I had a 'yeah right' response. However, when I tried it, I soon found she was right. So what I suggest is instead of fearing the cold when the weather starts cooling off again Friday, open yourself, embrace it, keep your blood flowing--and get some really nice thermal gear, which will keep your body heat from escaping.
Don't get me wrong. This won't turn Chicago in February into Miami Beach--and that's a good thing, because....eww. But it might help you a bit with the only circumstance in life you can ever control--your own reactions. And in a tough Chicago winter, that little bit of wiggle room might make all the difference.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.