We discussed how our evolution sometimes gets in our way as described in the primer to >>The Polyvagal Theory<<.
If you missed Part I, make sure to read it >>here<<.
We discussed a bunch of things I learned from Dr. Seth Oberst, like how emotions can get stuck in your tissues, how that can affect your posture, walking patterns, and even your face.
Now, we’re about to dig deeper into stress, support, and what we can do to better live our lives and avoid getting “stuck.”
7. Stress-Reduction is a MISTAKE
I go to countless conferences and seminars for fitness, yoga, nutrition, meditation, rehab, physical therapy, medicine, and totally weird stuff that escapes category.
Even across disciplines, they can all agree on one thing:
The biggest factor common to untold chronic diseases, disorders, and a general lack of well-being is STRESS.
If that’s the case, the solution looks simple enough – REDUCE STRESS. Duh.
But what does that even mean?
ENGAGE IN STRESS-REDUCING ACTIVITIES
Like meditation, light exercise, journaling, practicing gratitude, time with friends and family, prayer, restful sleep, etc.
AVOID STRESS-INDUCING BEHAVIORS
Like smoking, drinking, sleep deprivation, confrontations, maintaining toxic relationships, being late and sitting in traffic or a crowded subway
…But it’s too bad that reducing stress is as short-sighted solution as prescription medication.
Reducing stress can calm the system in the short-term, just as prescription medication can calm symptoms and keep the fire from getting out of control.
Imagine your stress is a bucket of water, collecting drips from a leaky ceiling.
Drops of water = stress.
Bucket = how much stress you can handle before going insane.
Conventional wisdom tells us you’ll be fine if you just scoop out some water before your bucket overflows.
Otherwise you freak out, and your body resorts to an emergency survival strategy like going berserk or shutting down (polyvagal theory).
The unfortunate reality is most stress is beyond our control.
Whether you like it or not, life keeps going – with or without you.
So good luck ever having an empty bucket. That’s called a vacation, and it’s not real. You can only suspend your life for so long before you gotta get back under that drip.
The problem is this:
Stress REDUCTION does nothing to improve your RESILIENCE to handle MORE stress.
But what if… you could somehow increase how much water (stress) you could hold?
Size of bucket = Resilience
With a bigger, more resilient bucket, you could collect all the involuntary stressors of daily life (like sitting in rush hour traffic with a broken air conditioner) and still have 70% of the bucket left open!
You’re dealing with the same stress, but you’re handling it WAY better so you barely even notice it. AND you can still minimize voluntary stress by breathing deeply and using all your other stress-reduction techniques.
Now, I’m not suggesting you jump off cliffs and take up drag racing to increase stress and somehow become healthier. I’m saying that training your body (strength and conditioning) to handle more stress (without getting overwhelmed / overtraining) will improve your life and health.
As your body gets stronger, the things that used to stress you out start to appear trivial. Your head stays clear, and you can handle more.
>>Have you ever heard the story of the eggs, carrots, and coffee beans?<<
Essentially, you’ll respond to stress in one of three ways:
- You’ll break down and get soft
- You’ll toughen up to resist it
- You’ll change the situation to make something new
It’s pretty hard to make decisions when you’re freaking out and your bucket is overflowing, so it’s best to have a nice big bucket with enough room for clear thinking.
“Do what is easy and life will be hard. Do what is hard and your life will become easy.”
– Les Brown
8. Adopt a language of curiosity and understanding
Google has all the information we will ever need.
But what if you don’t know what question to plug in?
You’re not unlocking that vault.
Knowledge is worthless.
(at least if you didn’t know how you got there)
The real money is in the QUESTIONS. They’re the true keys to knowledge.
By simply asking the right question from the right perspective, the answer changes completely.
What we know about trauma tells us that in that moment of threat and helplessness, the individual ran out of available options for getting out of physical/emotional danger.
The strategies he chose to deal with them were the absolute best ones available to him at the time – even if they clearly don’t serve him now.
Here’s a great example from this weekend:
INSTEAD OF: “What’s wrong with this person?”
TRY: “What’s happened to this person?”
By taking this into account, you’re suspending judgment and criticism AND creating a safe place for open discussion by alleviating perceived threat.
Well done, sir!
This simple adjustment goes a long way to make for more productive relationships. This mentality can help us break down walls and better understand each other, allowing us to connect more deeply.
Give this a try next time you’re working with people or even having a sensitive conversation with a loved one.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”– Stephen Covey
9. Less “Fixing” and More “Supporting”
One of my favorite takeaways from the weekend:
What if we spent less time trying to “fix” and “correct,” and instead spent more time supporting?
Our society struggles with being disconnected – from nature, from others, and especially from ourselves.
I’m just now learning how to choose phone calls over text messages (thanks Teo).
Whether it’s over-exposure to social media, being overly distracted with work, or just losing track of time and your body.
I mean really, when’s the last time you sat and played with your toes?
When you feel lost, like you’re missing that inner sense of direction and assurance, it’s only natural to turn to the pros and experts for guidance.
But be honest, do you ever get sick of being told what is RIGHT, and what you’re doing WRONG?
You’re a high-functioning individual.
Good looking too!
The problem with an expert (or anyone else) telling you what’s right, correct, or how to FIX you is that it’s inherently narcissistic. Their correction comes from their world view and could be at total odds with yours.
Do you really think you need someone telling you how to live?
How would they even know what’s right for you?
I mean, how did your hairy uncivilized uncles and cousins figure this stuff out over ten thousand years ago before the internet?
Let me tell you a secret…
Sitting between your ears are the blueprints of millions of years of successful evolution.
Everything you need is ALREADY inside of you.
But what you might really be missing is support – someone by your side as you walk that journey of yours.
A friend to lean on so you can try things out and make mistakes.
Support to find what it is you’re uniquely searching for.
Could it be so simple that the root of so many of our problems and worries is that we’re disconnected?
The FEELING of being alone is the REALITY of being alone.
And to be alone, without that sense of support, means you’re far less likely to stick your neck out and take risks. It would be too dangerous.
That includes engaging with other people, your fellow humans.
And so begins a vicious cycle where you take fewer risks, keep your thoughts to yourself, hide from new experiences, and ultimately have fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with others, making you feel even MORE disconnected.
But if you’ve got a tight-knit and supportive community (or family), you know that whatever you do, someone’s always got your back.
How much easier is it to take a leap of faith when there’s a safety net underneath you?
When your EXCITEMENT exceeds your FEAR, you’ll jump.
Neither the excitement nor the jump changed, you just felt supported. The safety net lowered the stakes, giving you the support to alleviate your paralyzing fear.
That’s what we ALL need, SUPPORT.
Not just answers, solutions, corrections, or advice.
Support – from your friends, your family, your health care professionals, and anyone else in yo’ squad.
Support and encouragement to keep going despite all the doubts in your head.
Support to relieve you from all the burdens you accept (because nobody else is going to do it). Without that support crew, it’s only a matter of time before you run yourself ragged, burn out, and feel the weight of being disconnected.
If you don’t already have that support, seek it out.
You deserve it.
And if you’re part of the support crew, consider this:
Sometimes people don’t need your help, and you’re helping too much. Be there for support, but do NOT rob them of their pains, their feelings, their lessons, or their experience.
“Otherwise he is in danger of behaving like a friend who brings a good meal to a prisoner in his cell, at the PRECISE moment when that prisoner has the chance to escape — perhaps to spend his first night hungry and without shelter, but in freedom nevertheless.
Since this first step into unknown territory would require a great deal of courage, the prisoner may comfort himself with his food and shelter and thus miss his chance and stay in prison.”
The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller (p59)
10. Prosody, Protection, and Permission
I’d never heard this word before, nor had I realized its significance.
Prosody is what gives a mother her delightful sing-song tone that her baby adores.
Compare the high prosody in this fitness instructor’s voice* compared to the low prosody in the CNN-like voice of Ben Stein
*(I tried to find a video of mom offering kids fresh-baked cookies in the classic sweet mom voice. Apparently, the mom voice is a popular prank to play on real mothers when their kids get a bit too rowdy on Xbox Live haha)
Prosody becomes more dynamic when you feel safe and supported, activating the ventral vagal complex (the social one).
Why? Well flat, monotone voices just aren’t very engaging.
Imagine speaking to someone you just met.
If he’s engaged and excited, as you might expect with stimulating social conversation, his voice will reflect that. It’ll be fast, slow, high, and low, and generally more dynamic.
When he’s bored, his prosody will flatten. All the words sound the same and you might find it’s difficult to pick up contextual messages or emotional cues. (But this is also the case when under stress, or autonomically stuck.)
This is probably why the CNN voice is so flat – its job is to deliver the news and facts, not to entertain or stimulate emotion.
Any thoughts as to why Ben Stein is flat?
Maybe he had a tough childhood. I don’t know, I never met him.
Speaking of vocal qualities, an oft-cited fear behind working with a trainer is that you’re going to be yelled at like on The Biggest Loser.
This dynamic completely misses the fact that this isn’t the trainer’s journey – it’s yours.
Building positive new habits and establishing a completely fresh and empowered experience of the world can’t be someone else’s agenda. It must come from your own genuine desire to grow and explore.
The fear and intimidation approach will only mask your authentic desires (because they’re not safe). Although sometimes effective, this is a short-term solution that will actually prevent long-term change.
Just think about how tyrannical dictators keep the local systems in line…
…and how effective THAT is.
But if your trainer does more supporting than correcting (or yelling), you’ll feel that safety and protection needed to step right up to the edge of your comfort zone. That’s where happiness and growth live.
Doesn’t it feel nice when someone supports you and engages you in your own experience?
As previously mentioned, most trauma is established when you run out of options – FREEZE.
This is the exact moment you felt helpless: “There was nothing I could do.”
In order to rewrite history, the traumatized individual must get to play an active role in his/her experience.
So when working with such a person, your every movement or change to his environment must be preceded by getting his permission.
Remember, the absence of protest isn’t the same as permission.
The person must feel safe, supported, and protected.
Giving permission sets the frame that this is your experience, not theirs. This offers the freedom to relax, to know that you’re safe.
This is the only way the nervous system (subconsciously) can complete its survival reflex. It must be able to calm its defenses, only then can it discharge that stored energy to reset the mechanism.
Side Note: Sleep
This makes me ponder about sleep…
Do you ever wake up before normal and feel MORE tense than when you went to bed?
Like, your body actually feels better a few hours AFTER you’ve gotten up and moved around?
Sleep should be the time you feel safest, where the subconscious bubbles to the surface (dreams), and you wake up feeling better. It is the daily recurrence of “immobilization without fear.”
This safety allows the activation of the ventral vagus system where emotions and dreams can be dealt with, free of harm, and your body can cry, shiver, and shake it all off.
But if not… they get pushed back in.
It seems to me this is why most nightmares of past traumas resurface while you’re sound asleep.
Your body is as relaxed as it could be, and the body has an opportunity to awaken repressed trauma buried deep down in the subconscious.
But once the conscious mind sees it, it rushes to hide it and protect you before you can properly deal with it.
I don’t know – I’m still putting together these new ideas and concepts. These are just my thoughts, but what do you think?
The most amazing aspect of Dr. Oberst’s course was that it unexpectedly tied together so many loose ends from my past experiences and learnings.
Sure, knowledge is great for understanding the deeper why, but if you really want to apply the wisdom behind our evolution and The Polyvagal Theory, here are my biggest takeaways:
- Strive to be a decent human, and connect with others. (see: Dr. Kristin Neff)
- Train, hard. Increase the SIZE of your bucket to handle more stress.
- Play, explore, and be silly – don’t take yourself so seriously.
Being an adult doesn’t mean losing your childhood essence. (And if you don’t feel safe to do that, you must find better humans to connect with.)
- You MUST find a safe place, a safe time, and a soothing partner.
While sleep is where we often think about being immobilized and able to discharge stressors, it’s possible you’re not fully relaxed at night. If you never let yourself fully relax (the brain that never sleeps), you will never discharge that tension.
The partner technique I mentioned learning earlier in Part I is a powerful way to relax and experience your body with the support of another person.
Because I want more people to be aware of this stuff, I’d love to share the technique with you, completely free.
So if you’re feeling tight in your body, disconnected with your body, disconnected from your emotions (!), suffer from repetitive thoughts (like getting ideas or songs stuck in your head), feel overwhelmed and stressed, suffer from social anxiety, you should give this a try.
Just send me a message, and I’d be happy to chat.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – Sapolsky
The Body Keeps the Score – Van Der Kolk
The Brain That Changes Itself – Doidge
The Brain’s Way of Healing – Doidge
The Drama of The Gifted Child – Miller