A simple application of listening to your body that saved a day…

A couple summers ago, our family went parasailing in Maui.  Excited to check this long-anticipated item off my bucket list, I was revved and ready to go.  It caught me completely off-guard, then, when, as the boat left the harbor, seeing the sky dotted with people in parachutes, I was flooded with anxiety.

There can be a thin line between anxiety and excitement.  I reminded myself of this, trying to reframe the anxiety and calm and contain it.  It didn’t help.  Anxiety mounted.  No question—I wasn’t excited.  I was increasingly anxious and afraid, verging on terrified.

I struggled with a dilemma.  Here was a chance to do something I’d always wanted to do in a gorgeous location.  And yet I was so flooded with anxiety that if I parasailed, it would be gutting it out, not at all the pleasurable, expansive experience I had always imagined.  My point in parasailing was fun, not an exercise in mastering terror.  So I was stuck squarely in a double-bind:  miss out on a rare opportunity or do the parasailing and feel miserable levels of fear.

What  I needed was some clever third alternative—a way out of the lose-lose proposition that had me frantically obsessing between two “impossible” options.   Remembering body awareness techniques as often helpful with anxiety, I decided to try them on myself. 

I asked and answered the basic questions.  “Where in your body is the anxiety and how intense is it, 1-10?”  It was in my torso, a highly unpleasant #9 intensity.  I stopped fighting the anxiety, just letting it be as I observed it.  When I stopped fighting it, trying to get rid of it, it actually decreased a little but was still way too unpleasant to allow enjoying the parasailing.

Then I asked the basic, “Is there any place in your body that isn’t as anxious as the strong feelings in your torso?”  Interesting.  I noticed what I hadn’t noticed before.  (Anxiety, quite compelling, can take over our awareness.)  My seat against the boat’s bench and my feet against the floor actually felt steady and calm.    Shifting awareness from my highly anxious torso to my calm, steady feet and seat, I enjoyed a moment of peace and calm.

Finally, in a technique called “titrating,” I went back and forth between the anxiety in my torso and the calm, steadiness in my feet and seat.  Letting my awareness linger in my torso with its anxiety… then shifting my awareness to my feet and seat, lingering in the calmer feelings.  Back and forth, not trying to manipulate or change the feelings, just letting them be.  Just seeing what would happen.

What happened was my anxiety went way down.  It doesn’t always work this quickly and completely but in that instance on that boat it did work… neatly and completely.  I think I only shifted awareness once or twice between the high anxiety in my torso and the calm, steady sensation in my lower body before I was good to go. Something about realizing that there was more to me in that moment than the intense anxiety—that my experience was more than or bigger than the anxiety that was threatening to overwhelm me… that I could still feel calm and steady even while feeling highly anxious…  allowed me to balance out, contain the anxiety, and calm down.  Anxiety and fear dissipated, I was freed up to enjoy the excitement of parasailing over Maui’s dazzling Pacific Ocean.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of the Morning

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Learning in therapy to be aware of her body, a woman awakened one morning to an arresting tension in her tightly fisted hands.  Intrigued, she let herself simply be aware of her fists.  She didn’t try to get rid of the tension, didn’t try to figure it out… she just let the tension in her hands be.  As she lay there, curious about her fisted hands, images began to emerge… of fists pounding, defending herself from bullying brothers; fists pounding in protest against absent, exhausted immigrant parents, lost in their labors  to make a living in a foreign land;  fists pounding, striking back at an abusive, alcoholic husband; fists pounding to open doors of opportunity for her second-generation kids.  

            A little awed, she sensed the courage and determination, the mastery in those tightly fisted hands.  A spirited “Well done!” welled up from deep within her along with a big breath of sheer relief. And that breath ushered in a new realization:  “I don’t want to keep fighting and I don’t have to keep fighting. The battles are done… well done.”  Still breathing deeply, slowly, another image gently replaced the fighting images…

            Her 5th birthday.  A very little girl in Mexico, she awakens to the singing of Las Mananitas—a traditional song of Mexico, sung to awaken kids first thing in the morning on their birthdays just before they are given a special gift.  Moved to tears, she found herself singing the words of Las Mananitas:

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Wake up my dearest, wake up,
see now that the day has dawned
now the little birds are singing,
the moon has finally set.
How lovely it is in this morning,
when I come to greet for you
we all come with joy and pleasure and to celebrate with you.

She felt the pleasure of the words, of being celebrated, of lively, loving family gathered around her… and her eyes were drawn to her hands.  They were no longer fighting hands. Relaxed, open-palmed, they were hands opened expectantly to receive the gift of the morning.

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Characters and events in this article are fictionalized.  Any resemblance to real people and events is coincidental.

ADDRESSING OUR ANXIETY LIVE

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      In a psychotherapy group I lead, a woman reported miserable surges of anxiety—especially intense upon awakening mornings. She was feeling marked anxiety right then and there, with the group.  We knew the immediate trigger of the anxiety: her husband of 23 years just left her, meanly and abruptly.  But telling the story wasn’t alleviating the anxiety in her belly.

            I invited Claire to let the anxiety be, to simply let her awareness be with it for a moment without straining to figure out how to get rid of it. (Straining to get rid of it obviously increases the anxiety.)  As she sat with it, Claire described her anxiety as #7   (1 – 10) in intensity, centered in her stomach.  Its color and texture were that of a basketball. A former club basketball player, she wished she could just throw the anxiety through a hoop and be done with it.

            Anxiety can feel overwhelming; it can swamp us, leaving us feeling like helpless victims before it.  Inviting her to be with her anxiety, to be aware of it, is also inviting her to realize that there is a “you” or “I” who can be aware of the anxiety, who is perhaps bigger than the anxiety… who can perhaps come to manage the anxiety. 

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            As she simply let the anxiety be, describing it, imagining her former strength as a basketball star alongside the anxiety, it went down two notches. I then invited her to picture the anxiety as an infant—cupping her arms to hold it, imagining her stance toward the baby. She imagined herself cradling the baby, without words, feeling a soothing, nestling energy toward her.

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            Then I invited each group member to address the baby as Claire held her.  One member murmured soft, tender words, tone trumping meaning; one wanted to sing a favorite lullaby but refrained :-) and gently shared the words; another said in an emotionally forceful whisper, “I will never leave you; NEVER!”  As they entered into Claire’s anxious need for soothing—profoundly empathizing with her—Claire’s burden lightened.  Her anxiety went down further.

            I invited her to just enjoy the soothing, the lessened anxiety for a moment.  What happens?  “It felt hugely relieving at first, but then the anxiety increased—I’m afraid I’ll be swamped by anxiety again tomorrow when I wake up.’

            I affirmed her fear—she probably would feel the same haunting anxiety the next morning.  But I invited a new twist to the anxiety.  Let your awareness be with the anxiety for a moment, like you did here. Notice how intense is it… bearable? unbearable? shape? color? Maybe remember the basketball going through the hoop.  And after you’ve been with the anxiety for a moment, then let your awareness shift into remembering the group’s presence with you tonight, holding the baby—the words they said, their tone, the looks of concern and caring in their eyes.  The anxiety will still be there, but shift your awareness to the genuine soothing concern you felt here. See what happens.  Go back and forth a couple times between the anxiety and the soothing memory a couple times.  See what happens…

            Anxiety is rooted in our emotional brain and in our very nervous system.  Telling our story can help us feel better, but it doesn't uproot the anxiety.  Going back and forth between the anxious experience and a vividly, viscerally soothing experience--especially with community!--can actually soothe us down to our core anxiety.  We don't have to be anxious about our anxiety; we can sit with the anxiety, soothe it, and, with time and intentional awareness, master it--boldly inviting it into the lively range of feelings that make us vibrantly human.

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Characters and events in this article are fictionalized.  Any resemblance to real people and events is coincidental.

 

MOPING WELL ;-) …

When Valentine’s Day Is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be…

           Under “Psychological Tidbits’ I said it’s okay to mope on Valentine’s Day if your day is not a great one.  So… how to mope well   ;-)

            (with one caveat: moping is low-level blues that may be eased by the following exercise; if you are seriously depressed or despairing, skip this exercise and hang out with a soothing friend or get professional help. Holidays really can trigger serious depression.)

         Okay...  Sit in a chair or sofa or on the floor—wherever you’re comfy.  And gently let your awareness be on your moping—just let the moping be.  Notice how it feels.  How intense is it, 1-10?  Where in your body do you especially feel the moping?  Is it overwhelming?  Manageable?  (Go with these questions even if they seem silly.)  Does it have a color?  Texture? Shape?  What is the body sensation that goes along with the moping:  heaviness? tingling? empty? paralyzed? agitated? dragging your feet? … As you continue being aware of the moping for a moment, don’t think about it.  Thoughts will come—just let them go by, gently maintaining awareness of your moping.  Don’t judge it and try to figure it out; just observe it and let it be.

            Sometimes when we just observe an unpleasant feeling, without frantically or forcefully trying to get rid of it, the feeling dissipates, or even flows into a more pleasant feeling.  If the moping is still there, see if there’s anything it would like to say.  What’s the first thing that comes to mind, without censoring?  Say it.  Say it again, louder.  (It’s okay if nothing came to mind.) 

            If the moping lingers on, praise its tenacity ;-).  Imagine it as a colicky infant.  Holding the baby gently, nurture and soothe him or her. (Which gender does it seem to be?) Tone is more important than words with an infant—but let her know you’re sorry she’s so miserable, and it’s not her fault, and this too will pass… Is the moping still there?  Increased?  Decreased? Or, the same?   Whatever is is okay... there is no wrong outcome as you practice awareness of your moping.    

  Now shift awareness to a grounded or settled or safe feeling in your body if you can find one… or to pleasant images (nature? fun with a friend? a cherished child?)… for a long moment.  And then stand up and jiggle your limbs and fingers and look slowly around the room to re-orient.  If moping well leaves you feeling lost in the blues, call a friend or relative who’s safe and talk openly with him or her about what Valentine’s Day is meaning to you.

            You have just moped well.  You have let the moping be, not tried to force it out of awareness.  You have respected it and let it speak and embraced it.  Moping is an ancient, honorable feeling.  It is a part of our broad range of affect, feelings that we need to feel, that are a part of our aliveness.  If we only feel the good feelings, shutting out the so-called bad feelings, eventually all feelings shut down into numbness or boredom.  We lose our liveliness.  Learning to sit gently with all our feelings--without judgment--as the feelings arise in our bodies helps us be lively, interesting people who also have readier access to the enjoyable feelings.  Sitting with our feelings is different from acting, perhaps impulsively and wrongly, on those feelings.  In fact, sitting with our feelings helps us learn that we can contain our feelings; we don’t need to act them out or dump them on anyone.  They’re ours to be enjoyed or soothed or, frankly, managed, just like a sometimes colicky infant.  If you’re Valentine’s Day is not happy—then may it be full and rich, which is sometimes better than "happy", as you honestly face its unhappiness.