How to recover from stress?

When was the last time you were physically unable to sit still, wind down and relax after work? Most stress relief activities are focused on slowing down, meditating or doing yoga. Are you someone who gets stressed out even thinking about the slow pan pipe music they put on? Have you been thinking about looking into stress management, then read on.

The thing about stress is it keeps us going, it helps us achieve our goals and meet our deadlines, biologically it even gets us out of bed in the morning. A coffee to start the day is fine but after lunch it'll keep you up at night.

It’s all about inertia. It takes a lot of effort to get something moving, and overcome the inertia of standing still. 1st gear in your car has a lot of power to get it moving. If you try to start in 5th gear the car will stall, but once it's moving, it feels easier to keep moving, 5th gear is great for cruising along. BUT if you hit the brakes suddenly, your body keeps moving forward and only the seat belt would stop you from going through the windscreen. Inertia keeps you moving in the direction you were going.

After a stressful activity we can’t just stop. Ironically, when we most need to stop we are unable to.  Research has shown that people with high stress levels who are getting close to BURNOUT are the least likely to take breaks, to give themselves time to relax and to eat healthily. Instead they work longer hours, spend their downtime scrolling on their phones and find it impossible to stop their minds from racing along. When we are worn out we can't think straight, let alone look after ourselves.

Life is stressful, if you don't manage your stress it'll manage you. So let's take a look at our relationship with stress, what can we do to hack the nervous systems response to stress?

You don't need to be a bio-hacker to effectively operate
your own nervous system

It may seem counterintuitive but science have proven that the most effective ways of relaxing take a lot of effort, keep you focused and "in the zone". For me it’s chess, at the end of the day, when all is done, I sit back and log into chess.com, sure it stresses me out, but it also focuses my mind on something other than my daily problems and activities, even the emotional rush of winning or losing somehow gives me closure on the day, I feel what I feel and the day is done. 

What does it for you? For some it’s squash or paddle, running around, hitting the ball, win or lose, it’s the same. Sure, even a workout at the gym does a good job at burning off the stress hormones left in your system after a busy day. For others a walk in nature is also very effective. Even driving home from work, or pushing past others on the metro can also give the system the rush and flush that is needed to recover from stress.

But what if you work from home and log out of your computer, have dinner, a beer and watch tv. We’ve all done it, I do wonder though what it does to our bodies in the long run. Most content on tv activates our nervous system, and hey I love a good action, adventure, spy or sci fi movie, but I also feel that it keeps my nervous system stressed out, and makes for low quality sleep afterwards.

I write this for you as much as for me, as I recognise the need for decompression and recovery from everyday stress.

I remember my grandmother telling me how she had learnt a relaxation technique when she was in her 60s. To start tensing her muscles, for example by making a fist, tensing her arms, contracting the muscles in her stomach or her legs one by one, and then releasing. Again it's counter intuitive, the best way to relax a muscle is NOT BY STRETCHING. If the muscle is already tight it will not release by stretching, it will only get tighter. If you make it more tense then you can slowly release and get back to neutral. If this sounds interesting then google - pandiculation exercises.

Another thing that really helps me is taking little breaks. Maybe you’ve heard of the Dutch wellness concept that is taking the world by storm - NIKSEN - doing nothing. Just five minutes of doing nothing can help your body to reset the base level of stress. Interspersed thought the day that means that the overall stress level doesn’t cross over the limit of tolerable, healthy stress. It’s not stress that’s the killer, it’s constant, relentless, chronic stress that wears you down over time.

Lekker Niksen = Delicious Doing Nothing

Many common medical problems are stress related. Take skin allergies, rashes, inflammation, asthma, arthritis for example. Isn’t it curious that the “go to” medications doctors prescribe when you have these complaints are cortisone based. Cortisol is the stress hormone released along with adrenaline when your body needs a rush of energy to confront a dangerous or difficult situation. It gets you ready. 

The problem is that in today's modern lifestyle our stress system is ALWAYS ready to fend off one thing after another.

We get so used to living in a constant state of stress that our bodies start to suffer as a result. When it starts to show medical complaints I just mentioned, which are not really diseases, but symptoms of a stressful life, then cortisone drugs work in a similar way to stress recovery exercises. Cortisone raises the level of stress (cortisol level) in the affected area to a level above normal, i.e. it stresses us out so our bodies can start to wind down again.

Stress is unavoidable, it's part of life, so either we learn to manage our relationship with stress and start to adjust our daily life to factor in recovery time and exercises or sooner or later pay the bill when our health begins to deteriorate. 

May today be the day to make a change, may today count. 

May you be well, may you be free from suffering.

Adam

The Window of the Soul

You know those mornings when you just want to celebrate life, put on some loud music and open up your windows, so anyone walking down the street will hear the songs that light up your moment. Whatever you are feeling there is just the right song to express your mood. Whatever you are feeling your face express what is going on within. Just as the surface of water ripples as the wind brushes over it and great ocean currents move it from below, our faces are the point that our inner and outer worlds meet.

A photo captures a moment, rather than stopping the music imagine that pressing pause continued the sound of the moment leaving a single note hanging in the air. That single expression is a micro expression. But a song is collection of individual notes that together make phrases, mixed with words and melody, and those parts in turn make up the structure of verse, chorus and bridge. Music is infused with rhythm, repeatable enough for even the untrained to recognise it yet random too to pleasantly surprise you. 

Life is like that there are micro moments, there are patterns, phases, phrases and rythms. It is a typical modern misunderstanding to think time is linear, nature moves in cylces. Life’s experiences and our inner emotions are process rising and falling like the waves in water or sound waves of music.

Micro expressions ripple across the face within a fraction of a second, if you are observant there you may catch a glimpse of a person's true emotions. Then there are moods or background emotional states that may last for hours, days or weeks. 

Remember what your parents used to say, "don't make faces, if the wind changes your face will stay like that”. Well over time it does. 

laughter lines

We are like an open book, if you know the language, the lines of our faces can be read. Emotions are habits, like grooves in the mind or valleys carved by millennia of rainfall as the water follows its path to the sea. You are probably already familiar with laughter lines (at the corners of the eyes), sadness lines (around the mouth) and frown lines from concentration (between the eyebrows).

But did you know that when the nervous system is in flight and flight mode, and a person is feeling anxious, worried or stressed the bottom half of the face is paralyzed and the eyebrows are raised and the brow is tensed up. If you draw an imaginary line on the face that  connects the vertical middle of each eye and crosses the bridge of the nose - then above the line you will see patterns of stress and below you will see the expressions of human connection.

the raised eyebrows of worry

By advancing so much we’ve left a lot behind, we pay a great human cost to amass fortune and so called material “wellbeing”. I do believe there is a balance to be had, where I live in Spain I see a country that is more or less developed, but people still have time for each other and three generations of a family often live under one roof. 

Human relationships are the thread that life is woven from. Spending time with other people and losing ourselves in conversation is actually where we find ourselves as we speak ourselves into existence. 

How can we set aside time each day to honestly and openly connect? 

What difference would that make to your life today?

The anatomy of human emotion is modeled by PolyVagal Theory. It gives us a rich understanding of how emotion is linked to the functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System. As the nervous system switches from fight and flight to rest and digest modes there is a sweet stop in between primed for SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT. 

cranial nerves v and vii connect to the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve is linked to the Cranial Nerves that innervate the region of the face from the eyes down to the chin. Next time you're having a heart to heart remember it is also a face to face; and as we soften ourselves on the inside to let someone else in - the way in is to climb through the window of the soul.

Understanding our emotional anatomy is a big part of #personaldevelopment because it brings self-knowledge. #mindfulness is not just about meditation, we can and should practice in all streams of moments throughout the day to remember to feel into our bodies and stay rooted in body awareness or bodyfulness.  

Recognising our habits and embracing them for what makes us the person we are is the basis of the paradox of transformation. We can't simply think ourselves into being a different person, but we can accept ourselves fully, release resistance, soften ourselves and out of the tenderness begin to grow, again.


Photo by Jaclyn Moy, Metin Ozer, Glen Hodson, Donald Teel on Unsplash Cranial Nerve Diagram © Kate White ppncenter. com

Living with Uncertainty

Living with uncertainty

Shrodinger’s cat is a quirky thought experiment that implies that a cat locked in a box with a toxic substance may or may not have spilled the venom and so is both dead and alive. Shrodinger didn’t mean that literally there are hordes of undead cats walking around, his idea is that at the deepest level of reality the Universe is uncertain. An atom is not like a billiard ball, electrons don’t orbit like planets around a sun, they are pulsating wave fields of energy that only when you stop time to have a look you’ll find the electron in a specific place. The wave shows all the possible places the electron might be, but to all intents and purposes the electron is the wave. The act of measuring can be described as collapsing the wave.

Until someone comes along and asks a question about what the smallest particles, electrons, quarks etc. are doing, where is the electron in its orbit right now or what direction is that tiny ball of energy spinning - everything is uncertain, undecided - the answer comes the moment you measure it.

Does a tree in the forest make a noise if no one is there to hear it - maybe or maybe not. Heisenberg, no not the character from breaking bad, but one of the founding fathers of quantum theory, in 1927 added his insight that it is impossible for us to know where a particle is and how fast it is traveling. We can know one but not the other. In other words there are some things we are incapable of knowing, things the Universe has no specific answer to. Reality, at a fundamental quantum level, is blurred and hazy.

All things are waves of energy in the Ocean of Existence

Einstein famously objected to these insights by saying, “God does not play dice with the Universe'' Apart from the theological date about whether or not God exists and whether or not he plays dice. I find it interesting to note that even a great mind such as Einstein’s is triggered and unsettled by the concept of uncertainty.

Personally I like the way the Taoists say, “if you can put it into words and express it then it is not the tao.” That aside, whether the Universe is fundamentally uncertain and hazy or whether it is just our fallible human nature that is limited in what we can KNOW, the result is the same. Our knowledge is just a little gap in our ignorance. And even what we think we know is probably wrong, that one takes a lot of guts to admit. Remember the words of Socrates, there is wisdom in knowing that you do not know.

If we are doomed to uncertainty, why does it matter so much to us TO KNOW?

You know that project you are working on that may or may not come through, will it or won’t it? That person you really like who may or may not like you back, do they or don’t they? That thing that may or may not have happened to you when you were a small child but you can’t quite remember - it’s hazy right? Maybe that person over there is laughing at you, or maybe they are just laughing at something funny they remembered, why does it matter to you? What difference does it make if you know or don’t know. Why do our minds always get involved with things going on out there?

We have made KNOWING our way of life, RSS feeds flood us with data, we constantly check the analytics that matter to us and our favorite news channels feed us information for breakfast. Each channel has its own flavor, the one you like tells you the facts the way you like them, BUT don’t forget things get hazy when you blur the lines, there is always another (or many) different points of view. It would be confusing to think that way, that’s why we like hard facts in black or white. Even The BBC that prides itself from being impartial and non-partisan still sees reality through a contemporary lens with innate socioeconomic bias that subscribes to the morals that society at large has converged on as RIGHT. 

However, those words I’ve just written would be incomprehensible to forest dwellers living deep in the Amazon. They would probably be more concerned about how to track their prey in the jungle - and less concerned about whether the monkey they are tracking is alive or dead or both.

Ok so ignorance is bliss, I get it, but once you cross the line there is no going back. As a Philosopher one of the first things you have to learn to live with is ambiguity, things are neither right nor wrong, just thoughts and ideas grasping at the nature of reality. Truth is more an internal feeling, and as everyone is wired up differently different things feel true to different people. Or as my Dad likes to say, “please don’t confuse me with facts, I’ve made up my emotions”. 

Nevertheless we want to know, we desire the security that certainty brings. I recognise this in myself, my mind grasping, clutching at straws - to know is to get satisfaction, if only for a moment. Just like a full belly, knowing is ephemeral, soon the hunger will return again. Is there another way? Can we break the cycle of knowing? 

In the East I’ve often heard spiritual teachers refer to the monkey mind, jumping from branch to branch, clinging to ideas about the world, memories of experiences and thoughts about people. In meditation you notice it instantly and yet it is hard to turn down. Little moments free from thought are like patches of blue sky breaking though on a cloudy day. If the yearning for knowing keeps the monkey jumping then letting go means falling down into the seas of uncertainty.

Is that a scary place for you? Does it shake the foundations of your being? Does it crumble the rigid walls of the castle of the known? Does leaving the safety of certainty mean that you’ll be vulnerable once more? Or like a child can we encounter the mysterious, once more, and remember what it was like to look out at the world in wonder? Can we allow things to be the ambiguous, undefined, pulsating fields of energy that physics tells us they are?

Is that what it truly means to have an open mind?

Against the backdrop of the permacrisis, costs of living increases, banks failing and companies going through tough times we can easily be washed away with economic uncertainty. I’m not saying it’s not ok to worry, I worry too. I’m suggesting that we allow the worry to be part of our being and rather than fight it - let go and fall back into the ocean of uncertainty. Uncertainty it is said is one of the major causes of stress in this day and age, uncertainty for the future, for your economic wellbeing, uncertainty over your current employment or the world that your children will grow up into. It’s not the uncertainty that is stressful, it is our relationship to it. Uncertainty exists, so we can either get with it and find a way to live with it or get stressed out and washed away, which would you rather? Ah yes, you have a choice!

Let me leave you with a tonic, the words of Stanley Keleman, a chiropractic doctor come somatic educator. Here he encourages us to make the leap from impossible yearning for knowing to the ease of living, lightly with uncertainty.

“Once you understand that there is a level of incompleteness in any event which we are participating in experientially, you have a whole different way of looking at how you are in the world, how the world is responding to you. And that uncertainty becomes a recognition about the nature of existence, and not that you could know everything about everything”

Photo credit - Matheus Queiroz and Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

Regulating Stress

Did you know that your heart beat actually gets faster as you breathe in and gets slower as you breathe out? On the in breath your blood pressure increases and it decreases on the out breath. Or at least it should in a healthy and regulated human being. This is known as Heart Rate Variability.

In daily life also there are moments of action and activity, and there are moments of rest and relaxation. Or at least there should be in a healthy human life. The modern world is not very balanced in this respect. How much downtime do you give yourself? Even 5 minute breaks can have positive effects. What activities help you to regulate your nervous system? If you are on the go all the time perhaps its worth asking yourself- What would happen to you if you were breathing in all the time?

You’d burst.

Perhaps it's time for a break?

As parents we are responsible for the life of a developing human being, we are not raising a child we are raising an adult. The way we structure their lives, the ambience in our homes, even our value judgments and subconscious habits will leave a “life-defining” imprint on an impressionable young human being. How many families do you know that pack their children’s lives full of school, extracurricular activities, private tuition, and squeeze into that little bit of free time in the evening: homework, dinner, television and then bed. How many adults do you know that follow similar patterns? Are you one yourself?

I have been living in Spain for 20 years and come to appreciate one of the most advanced human customs in the world, the siesta. In most small towns the shops are closed between 2 and 5 pm, this drives a lot of visitors to the country mad. “What do you mean I have to wait, I need it now!” You may have noticed you feel tired after eating lunch. It is not that you are lazy, although most of us are far too busy to consider having a socially frowned upon midday nap. Many prefer a coffee for desert, a buy now pay later burst of energy, that will see you through the afternoon.

That wave of tiredness is the most healthy expression of a fully functioning nervous system. It is ok to be tired, all working days should include a pause to rest and digest. This is where the body can activate maintenance mode, do the housekeeping, repair and regenerate. If we do not give ourselves time to relax we run the risk of living in a state of chronic stress. This in the long run will lead to burnout, illness or even premature death. Most people today are living in this state without realising it.

Regulation functions of the autonomic nervous system

Our autonomic nervous system has a “dimmer switch” allowing it to move in two directions - UPregulation and DOWNregulation. Let’s say stressed out or chilled out. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot of social engagement, where we are on it, calm, centered and friendly. For example that kind of banter you would get as women washed their clothes in the river or if you’ve ever had thai massage the endless chatter as they give you a massage and talk about their family lives. Active, able to work, but socially engaged at the same time. You don’t see much of this in the modern workplace.

Heart Rate Variability is a key indicator of vagal tone (the ability of the vagus nerve to switch on and calm the body down). This is the clutch that allows your nervous system to shift gears, the grease that allows a smooth transition, the motion of the dimmer switch that turns down stress mode and DOWN-regulates after a crisis, argument, disruption or whatever it was that stressed you out. When this function is impaired after long periods of burning the candle at both ends the body gets stuck in chronic stress mode.

Inflammation = on fire

Inflammation is a key indicator of chronic stress, or poor vagal tone. Just look at the word, the meaning is hidden in plain sight: in-flammed, ON FIRE. When you are “in the red” all the time your body cannot carry out essential repairs and absorb the nutrients from food properly. You would not drive your car with the revolutions “in the red” all the time would you? If your bank account was permanently “in the red” you would probably get a call from your bank manager. How would your body communicate to you that you are living “in the red”?

There are many more signs, too many to mention, every body has its own language. What is yours trying to tell you?

Pain is a message, sent in the language of the body, that something is off

If you have been feeling these or other symptoms of chronic stress, how long have you been ignoring the signs? How long would you leave it before you do something? How loud would your body have to shout for you to get the message?

If this resonates with you and you are ready to reset the system, feel free to reach out for a chat. There are ways we can work together, in person and online, to support the regulation of your nervous system.

There are many ways and techniques you can learn to hack the nervous system that don’t entail a major lifestyle change. If your body is calling out for a change, let's have a chat about how to make that change. After all you only get one body, and it's easier to look after it that it is to fix it later.

Let the change begin today.

May you be well, may you be free from suffering.

Preventing Burnout

Astonishingly over 50% of people have experienced some kind of burnout, mostly work related. Women seem to be more likely to burn out than men. Perhaps because they are more sensitive and actually notice it whereas men ignore what is going on within, push it down and then later develop some other kind of stress induced dis-ease in the body.

The Prime minister of New Zealand has just stepped down, making her the first world leader to openly acknowledge burnout and take the radical, although most logical step of resigning from her job to re-prioritise her health and her family. Perhaps for men it is easier to put work first and give the family what little time they have left, without feeling remorse. Such feelings certainly play a part in overdriving the nervous system. 

There is no such thing as a negative emotion, the very word negative creates aversion, a force of repulsion away from pain and attraction towards the positive or pleasurable. That aside, there are many things we’d rather not feel, that are DIFFICULT or UNCOMFORTABLE. Yet no matter how much we push down feelings of regret, disappointment, self-judgment, inadequacy etc. the body keeps the score and the emotional energy simply gets locked away. We are masters of distraction, but by choosing not to consciously process these feelings they get filed away, generally in a weak spot. Persistent pain in a body part may be trying to tell you more than you think. It could even be a sign of approaching burnout. Moreover it is an invitation to listen to what the body is trying to tell you, how can you learn to speak the language of the body?

Leaders typically experience other emotional stressors, such as:

Although an emotional imbalance in these areas mostly stems from deeper self-worth issues, they are very real emotions under the skin. Probably many people feel these things at an unconscious level as long ago they leant in their childhood, that they must be strong and not show signs of weakness. However, it takes great courage, to open up, to be honest with ourselves and allow ourselves to truly feel all that is going on inside us. In fact, doing so will bring many therapeutic benefits, including improved health, vitality and longevity. 

The body's mechanism to recover from a stressful experience

Obviously external stressors also affect us greatly. But our internal reaction in the long run matters more. Our inability to say no, to establish healthy boundaries, to prioritize our health, and put our families first - inevitably takes its toll later. 80-90% of illnesses in the Western World are stress induced. We all have a baseline level of stress in our bodies. Some stress is actually a biological necessity. The nervous system has a switch that flips between stress activation AND maintenance mode, where the body can carry out essential vital functions. If we don’t factor in down time during and after a day of work sooner or later the system will burn out!.

This is of paramount importance, now more than ever. Yet this truth stands in stark contrast to the example set by our CEOs and politicians. When irresponsible and emotionally damaged people such as Elon Musk drive their people to the absolute limit insisting they sleep in the office, then what hope is there for wellbeing at work to balance out the high stress level? Many companies pay greater care to the maintenance of their machines and installation than to their people, arguably their most important resource.

Learning to speak the language of the body means learning to listen. Then we can spot the signs of burnout before it happens. To prevent means literally to come before. But for that you've got to be aware of what is coming.

"Normal" baseline gets higher as you turn up the temperature, creating chronic stress

Like the proverbial lobster in a pot of water, slowly heated up from room temperature to boiling point, we don’t notice the gradual increase in the baseline stress level. Herein lies the danger of normalization, we learn to function in an environment not conducive to optimal health. We learn to adapt to the hot water and get through the day. We don’t notice that the water is intolerable until it is too late and BOOM. Bye bye lobster. The body says no.

In this, as in all, we have a choice, if we choose to choose, we can act first.

If this feels important to you, I’d love to hear from you, feel free to reach out for a chat about it.

Photo credit Derek Story, Elisa Ventur & nikko macaspac on Unsplash.

The River of Wellbeing

River of Wellbeing

I really like Dan Siegel’s working definition of wellbeing. In contrast to a textbook definition, storytelling with vivid images speaks directly to the subconscious mind. After all our ancestors sat by the fireside to listen to folklore and creation myths to understand who they were and where they came from.

Imagine a river flowing along a valley. Picture yourself traveling down the river in a canoe enjoying the view. After a while you come across some rocks in the center of the river and you must serve to avoid the obstacles in your path. As you swerve to the left you hit the river bank of chaos

Things are out of control, you freak out and get angry at yourself for being so stupid and at the rock for ruining your day. Your thoughts run wild, kicking yourself for even getting on that darn canoe in the first place, your emotions are on fire and you can’t calm down.

Gradually you regain your composure, by taking a few deep breaths, and kick off the bank of chaos to move back into the center of the river, and continue downstream.  Things go well for a while until you come across some white water rapids, coming at you thick and fast. As you try to keep control and avoid going down you swing too far to the right and hit the river bank of rigidity

You become overwhelmed, frozen, unable to respond to the changing terrain. Trapped life a rabbit in the headlights of an approaching car you lose you response-ability to get out of danger. Your body feels distant, dissociated and your mind feels numb, blocked, unable to come up with a solution for your problem. 

By checking back in with your body, beginning to move subtly, smooth floating movements in the air you make space. In this space you regain your response-flexi-bility, your ability to choose, to act rather than react. Again, taking a deep breath you mindfully kick off from the bank and continue to navigate downstream.

On our way downstream we will inevitably encounter some major earthquakes that shake the foundations of our very existence, health issues, burnouts & breakdowns, the loss of a loved one etc.. For sure, these will test our resolve and push our nervous system into overdrive. But as we come out of them we may find a new sense of purpose and deep rooted connecting with self.

Most of our issues are minor in consideration; even so setbacks, disappointments, conflicts and problems can knock us off course or place obstacles in our way. The question is how do you respond? Do you rush through life too busy to stop and allow your feelings to process and integrate? There is no such thing as a bad day, only a stressful moment that spun us out of control into one bank or the other, and we didn’t give ourselves the time to calm down and come back into the river.

Rigidity to the left; wellbeing in the middle; chaos on the right

It may be helpful to ask yourself some questions, to understand yourself better. As we gain self-knowledge, it becomes easier to navigate life’s stormy waters, or at least spend less time on the river banks 🙂 and more in the river.

How wide is your river?

How easily do you hit one bank or the other?

How easy is it for you to find your way back into the middle of the river? 

What techniques work for you to regulate your wellbeing?

We all have conditioning, patterns of action and reaction we learnt from our parents, who learnt from their parents all the way back. Studies have shown that the patterns of our nervous system are imprinted in the womb during the time we spent inside our mothers. Those patterns operate at a very deep level of our mind, but it is possible to re-wire ourselves.

If we get curious and start asking questions, why do I feel this way, what led me to do that, when did I first start to think and act like that, where have I seen these patterns in other family members of childhood friends we can start to unravel the puzzle that is the personality. Doing this inner work helps us to free ourselves from unconscious patterning and make space to enjoy more time in the river of wellbeing. 

This is why we are here. We have been given a grand opportunity to awaken, to become free from the chains that hold us. But it takes work, to learn to breathe with our whole body, to release our blockages and discharge the accumulated tension that inhibits us from breathing deep, to unravel the parts of our personality, to sift through the sands of the subconscious, releasing old ancestral parts that no longer serve us and keep the shiny bits of gold that shimmer in the light of our true selves.

Then we can take a step back, and consciously widen the river of wellbeing. AND increase our resilience as we travel down the valley of tolerance.

N.B. 

The places on this imaginary trip are actually very real modes of functioning of the human nervous system. 

The bank of chaos is Hyperarousal

The bank of rigidity is Hypoarousal 

The river of wellbeing is also described by Dr Stephen Porges, author of “Polyvagal theory”, as the operating mode known as SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT. This is the place where we can enjoy chatting with our friends, and feel safe to express ourselves and let others in. It is the sweet spot of the autonomic nervous system - not too aroused and stressed out or too relaxed that you are sleeping the siesta. More on that to come in a later post.

May you be well, may you be free from suffering.

Photos by Filip Mroz and Tom Spross on Unsplash.

Managing Chronic Pain

A research team from the University of Heidelberg has just published results confirming what movement therapists have known for a long time. Chronic pain can be managed by engaging the mind body connection.

However, the medical establishment would rather sell you a way to treat disease rather than empower you to heal yourself. The modern scientific method functions very well when they are testing the effectiveness of a drug, an intervention or a procedure. Unfortunately it is hard to measure the results of manual therapy or self-care practice as there are many other factors that influence the outcome.

Let’s take a look at the results and then explore what that might mean for people who want to take responsibility for their own healing.

Primary sensory cortex somatosensory cortex
Motor & Sensory Regions Of The Cerebral Cortex

The research team used a non-invasive technique to stimulate the brain with electrodes placed on the head, around and over the area known as the M1 cortex. This is the primary motor cortex responsible for moving the body, it is situated next to the somatosensory cortex, which gives us feeling and sensation in our mental map of the body. Both of these cortices have a deeper emotional element.

For example when a child falls there is first the reaction to noticing the movement and the sudden pain of impact. Then comes the emotional shockwave of what has happened. Often a few seconds after the fall they begin to cry.

The emotional aspect of physical pain

Stimulation of the outer areas has proved to be effective in reducing pain. As the brain increases its awareness of the bodily extremities. The most interesting part of their discovery was that when the deeper emotional parts of the brain are stimulated the results are more effective.

That’s great if you don't mind wiring yourself up to a bunch of cables all day. But if you really want to deal with pain it takes a great commitment to stay the course, as you work through these uncomfortable sensations.

The various levels of neurons in the primary motor cortex

Over the years I have met a number of people that have healed themselves of chronic pain. There are of course limits to medication, when the drugs don’t work anymore the pain is called refractory pain. A doctor friend of mine told me another term which makes a lot of sense when there is no specific, identifiable reason behind the pain, “medically unexplainable symptoms”. Whatever the cause, now they are en route to designing an effective pain relief product.

Many commercial drugs are synthesized from organic substances. Nature herself is a healer. This procedure also exploits natural processes, it jumps on the back of our innate ability to heal ourselves.

Our ancestors moved around a lot. Hunter-gatherers followed the great migrations of the animals they ate as the seasons changed they moved. When we started farming all the tasks had to be done by hand. If you wanted to go somewhere you walked. Sure they must have been tired by the end of the day, but I suspect there was a lot less unexplainable pain.

We sit down all day. We lead stressful lives. These mental and emotional stresses are rarely expressed and processed in the body. The result is a lot of pent-up energy locked up and stored in the body.

Movement therapy can help to release this energy. Increasing the amount you move every day is also important. Keeping moving at the office desk, using the stairs or walking to work can help.

Fascinatingly you can yield the power of thought to activate the primary movement cortex. Vocalising silently in your mind words like thumb, hand, arm, foot, back will draw attention to those parts of your body and fire off the associated neurons. Action words like jump, run, stand up etc. also work to activate the mind body connection.

Activating the mind body connection through movement and harnessing the power of thought

On a deeper level, where many of us fail to reach, is an exploration of the innermost pain. By that I mean the emotions, the feelings of hurt and betrayal, self-doubt and self-judgment, guilt and shame or many more that may be lying under the surface. It take great courage to look within, to open up Pandora's box and let things out. It is easier to paper over the cracks, to blame others, bear a grudge, or just get on with life. To soldier on, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it’s character building…

Our language is full of ways to avoid diving deep, to explore, to feel, to process and honestly express our innermost pain. There is an order to things, first comes the curiosity to ask ourselves questions to open up to feeling. When we feel ready we can begin to process all the accumulated emotional energy we feel as tension. And move onto expression not necessarily verbally - sometimes things begin to shift with a shudder or a shake or some kind of body movement that allows the energy to move on.

I often say: If you want to let go - you've gotta let it in.

We cannot live a one sided existence. Even though our natural tendency is to move towards pleasure and away from pain, it is entirely healthy to explore our shadows and allow ourselves to feel so called ¨negative emotion¨. In fact that is a term we can loose straight away and rename them difficult or uncomfortable emotions.

We have all sorts of feelings and sensations in our lives, this is what it is to be human. It is ok to be sad sometimes. It is ok to feel weak, tired and vulnerable. It is ok to feel angry and to express it in the moment. We are able to process the more difficult emotions when we allow ourselves to feel them. Otherwise they get locked up inside the body.

The good news is that we can with practice do the inner work.

Or get support from a therapist skilled in somatic experiencing and therapeutic coaching, who can help us get to those hard to reach places.

Deep healing can be profound and long lasting. Without the need for electrodes or technology, all you need is a bit of old fashioned self-exploration.

Self-knowledge through self-exploration

My thanks to micheile dot com and William Randles for the photos from Unsplash and to the Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014 for the diagram.

More info on the original research conducted by Zheng Gan et al. here

Mind Body Connection

To me it seems strange that we talk of the connection between mind and body because it presupposes that they are two separate realities in the first place. 

Yet the Mind Body connection remains one of the biggest questions of all time still perplexes philosophers, spiritualists and scientists alike. 

What do you think? Are you a focal hub of consciousness in an interconnected world, when you perceive something are you connected to it via a two way flow of conscious energy that comes into you and flows out of you? Or do you have a super computer brain that generates a simulation of reality (so you can feel all sensations of your senses) and sends out the signals to control the robot of your body?

Before Descartes most people believed that all bodies, human and animal alike, as well as the trees, rocks and rivers that form the natural world, were imbibed with a spiritual presence or animus. Descartes fractured our understanding into dualism; the separation of mind and body. Over the last 200 years science has encroached on popular belief, atheism and nihilism have taken hold of humanity. Painting a bleak picture of a mechanistic world made up of inert matter that could never feel or be aware of anything.

But in such a world how can consciousness exist? The common belief is that brains make consciousness. However that means that beyond everything you see, touch and smell is the inside of your skull. Do you, like me think this is counter intuitive and that somehow when you look out at the world or touch someone you are actually connecting with the outer reality?

Living inside a brain

Could it be that bodies are self-aware? Is every cell is conscious? Or even that the world and Universe are an interconnected web of some kind of mental energy?

Sure the brain is a complex and marvellous thing. All aspects of us can be housed in the brain; the left side is home to logical thought, language, lineal ideas, laws, math etc. the right hemisphere is emotional and intuitive, holistic and non-verbal, seeing the bigger picture and communicating through body language, tone of voice, facial expression and symbols.

But the reality is more complex and interconnected. Just like we can never move just one muscle, any action involves a chain of parts moving together in unison, we never use just one part of the brain. Any movement or expression involves coordination of different parts. Most of us think a little before speaking and opening our mouth to expel air from the lungs, which vibrates our vocal chords, then we use our lips and tongue to shape the air and make sound.

The left and right hemispheres must communicate and coordinate for us to express ourselves with grace. 

Left & Right hemispheres of the brain

Yesterday in a cranial osteopathy workshop I learnt to release the reciprocal tension membrane, the myofascial fibres that encase and define the brain and its regions. The vital body we inhabit is not the same as the cold dead body of anatomy textbooks and dissections. What we feel in the innerspace we inhabit is a dynamic and vibrant living, self-aware body. 

Our language is limited to describe such sensations, and our minds are too preoccupied to pay much attention to them. But in practice we have a remarkable ability to focus our attention and feel particular aspects of our being. 

The Reciprocal Tension Membrane

In the workshop we learnt to synchronize the left and right hemisphere of the brain, you hold the cranium in both hands, steady the breath and listen with curious, noninvasive attention. The sensations are amazing. The brain has its own fluctuating inner rhythm of movement. The left and right sides often dance by themselves. By listening you practice the deepest form of communication and the hemispheres begin to connect. They shunt around a little, shy almost to begin with until they meet in the middle. Here I felt the biodynamic rhythm of the breath of life change into the long tide for a phase of expansion followed by rest. 

When I received the same treatment I felt some nervous activity and mental chatter as the two poles tuned into each other. Then came a profound peace as I entered into expansion. Followed by a feeling of wholeness and presence in space. Hard to describe in words but incredible to experience within.

The Dynamics of the brain and the interconnecting fascia are palpable with the hands

The thing is that you do nothing.

There is nothing to do.

By focusing your awareness things begin to change.

This kind of bodywork awakens the inner intelligence of the body. The transformation begins with a meeting of minds and the communication of two living bodies. The recipient’s body expresses itself and communicates to the hands of the giver, through subtle somatic movements, how to support its transformation.

May you be well.

May you be free from suffering.

Recognising Trauma

Gabor Maté makes an interesting distinction between Big T traumas and Little t traumas. We might have the idea that trauma only applies to those Big t - intense shocking experiences - whether they be suffered through abuse or by accident.

However, we suffer many little t traumas over the course of our lives. Little t traumas such as: being sent to bed without dinner or smacked as a child, laughed at by your peers or rejected by your friends; have probably affected you more than you thought - at a deep psychological level.

Little t traumas could also be other subtle ways that we suffered in silence during childhood, such as:

-Our emotional needs are not met, in terms of attention and affection

-The feeling that we were not loved

-Not feeling seen or heard

-Not feeling wanted

-Not being allowed to express full range of emotion

-Being told off for getting angry, being too loud, being too energetic

We quickly learn to adapt our behaviour as children in order to sustain the affection of our parents and primary care givers. We quickly learn to behave in socially acceptable ways (at the expense of authentic and spontaneous self-expression). Or if that does not work we learn that bad behaviour is the only way to get the attention a child craves.

self-protect mechanisms
Self-protect mechanisms

Trauma from Greek literally means wound. The effect of these experiences is like an open wound. When someone presses our buttons and we (over) react, the wound is activated. Many character traits, behavioural patterns such as stress reactions fight, flight, freeze and please are the ways we have learnt to divert energy from the wound.

Just like a physical wound, scar tissue forms as a barrier, to prevent the wound from being damaged in the future. These behaviours are the ways we protect ourselves.

enneagram types 1-9 trauma personality self-protect
The Enneagram maps the characteristics of our subconscious programming we develop to protect ourselves from future harm.

A good friend of mine Dr. Luis Márquez told me this week that the character types 1-9 of the enneagram are the psychological manifestation of this scar tissue. The charter we form, our programming, our subconscious reactions are ways we have to protect ourselves and divert energy from the wounds we bear. I loved his comment that the character itself is a generator of trauma.

As we seek to defend our fragile sense of ego against the attacks we face (whether they be real or imaginary). Or even to maintain a constant SENSE OF SELF against the impermanence of nature. By resisting change or imposing the way we think things should be we make life more difficult than it need be.

The body is the store room and database of all these memories. The body keeps the score. Conscious touch forms of manual therapies and hands that practice deep listening can start to unravel these energetic knots from the fibres of the body. Such hands can hold space for a profound release and reset as the receiver shuts down their defence mechanisms and lets go of the need to control. This is why I call my work - transformational bodywork. This is why my brand is called Innersense.

Thank you for caring enough to read to the end.

May you be well. May you be free from suffering.

My thanks to jcomp on Freepik for providing the photos.