Monthly Archives: September 2015

Love & Anxiety: M & M’s for Reducing Anxiety

One month I was in Maui meditating on a mound of sand- can’t resist that awesome alliteration. When my mind refused to empty, I began thinking about BEING and overall health and what brings those about for me, and my fellow human beings. Giving up on the meditation, I instead concluded that for health and well being, a balanced body, and reduced anxiety, I needed a steady diet of M & M’s! Yes, you heard me correctly. But before you run out to Costco to buy a huge bag of the chocolate candy coated sugar bombs, that is not the right type of M&M’s. I am talking about Movements and Meditations (Any form of relaxed Stillness), those M and M’s. (My fellow sugar lovers are bumming right now).

In order to live in a body with a regulated and healthy Autonomic Nervous System, and to experience health and well being, the human body needs a combination of Stillness, and Kinetic expulsion of energy, better known as movement.  As always, balance occurs by experiencing  the combination of opposites. Stillness and movement are polar opposites. Let’s begin by talking about movement.

Experts have been insisting for years, consistent exercise is the best predictor of long term health. And not just physical, but physiological and emotional health as well. Exercise/movement even slows down age-related cognitive decline. People who exercise regularly are happier and healthier across the board. Now I know you have heard this many times before but I am going to add an additional motivator that may help you begin a regular habit of movement if you don’t already have one. For that we will talk about our lovely Limbic system.

The Limbic system sits on top of our primitive brain stem and regulates many functions. One of them is movement! When you think Limbic system think of your limbs, arms and legs. Those parts of our bodies so integral for self-protective actions. If you trip, hopefully your arms fly out to catch yourself, if you are attacked -and you do not freeze in terror- your arms fly out automatically to punch or push away, and your feet and legs team up to kick or run away. For our early hunter-gatherer ancestors , the ability to move, and often quite quickly, was the difference between living and extinction. As Perry and Szalavitz state in their wonderful book, “Born for love: why empathy is essential and endangered”, “…even in adults, threat or distress shifts control from the rational abstract thinking areas {sic neo-cortex} to the ‘more decisive, rapidly acting central lower regions’ {sic limbic and brain stem}. Under perceived threat we get dumber but faster, which can help us survive running from a bad guy…” These authors help us understand due to the way our body and brains are wired, the ability to move easily is an instinctive precursor to feeling safe in our bodies. This is especially true at a sub-cortical level.

In my experience, as a human and a therapist, because this connection is subcortical and not found in our conscious understanding, we are often unaware of this deep limbic benefit! This is one reason why some of us can keep ignoring the suggestion to exercise. When we understand all the benefits of movement and its ability to bring on a somatic sensation of safety, perhaps we can find some motivation to begin a new habit of consistent movement.

In our current culture the message that movement is needed for health will probably be more easily accepted than my second suggestion. That stillness, and quite a bit of it, is needed for health as well. This may be a harder sell. There is little praise given out for sitting still, unless you are a Buddhist and/or someone who values meditation. (This can include prayer, breath work, or any form of silent stillness.) Most of us are frantically racing about toward the next “thing”, our next task. The idea to sit still and do NOTHING but BE and let ourselves surrender to the moment and to our essential being, this is not a message you hear on TV or at the movies.  However, in order to settle down after all our running around accomplishing things, our bodies need stillness. We need to stop and let our muscles relax and our nerves to stop sending jumpy messages to our brain. We need our digestion to begin again and for our body to go into rejuvenation mode. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is called the “Rest and Digest” system just for that reason. When we come down out of the Sympathetic Charge (movement and action) it is because the Parasympathetic system has kicked in. This is the time that our bodies go into recovery mode. Most anxious people have stomach problems and digestion issues because they are rarely still, they are rarely in the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous system.
Now, to be accurate, you do not need to be fully still to be in Rest & Digest mode, but stillness and meditation have been linked to relaxation and decreased anxiety for years now. One reason for this is that the inside of our body follows the messages sent by the outside of our body. The bracing or relaxing of our muscle/skeletal system (MSS) tell our bellies and brains whether it is safe to relax and calm down. Or, our MSS can tell our insides to be really scared and that maybe we should run like hell. If you have trouble believing this try the following experiment. Sit slumped over, like you are a rag doll. After 20 seconds check in with your internal body and your energy levels and sense of readiness for action.  Now, sit up straight and tall, or better yet, stand up in parade rest like a soldier, chest out head up, with your arms and legs spread out. Now check internally and see what has changed. Notice how this simple posture change, immediately impacts the sensations in your body and how you feel in the world. In my work as a therapist, I can usually tell how my clients are feeling inside merely by observing how they walk in and how they sit in my office. I can tell how tight and braced or loose and relaxed they are by their body movements and how they sit overall.
In meditation/stillness a deep relaxation is possible because your MSS is not sending messages of tension or action to your brain and belly. Try sitting on the edge of your chair in a tense, braced position while attempting to relax. You most likely cannot do it. The outside of your body needs to be in the right posture/to send internal messages that it is safe to relax.

While I could keep going, I will just add one more benefit to adding more stillness into your life. Often people who make a living by being creative (writers/painters/musicians) have shared how being still for a time can really jump start their creativity. When the mind is not leaping from idea to idea and task to task, perhaps there is more opportunity for it to allow the juicy goodness like music, art and books to come up out of our subconscious minds and our souls.

I encourage you this week to pick the M that you have the most difficult time doing and deliberately add more of it into your life. Let me know how it goes.

Eli, meditating in the sand!
Eli, meditating in the sand!

Going Deeper:

1.) Are you a person who really loves action and movement or someone who values quiet, solitude and stillness?  Does the thought of adding lots of the one that is harder for you bring anxiety or excitement? What messages did you get in your Family of Origin (FOO) about movement? How about stillness/meditation?

2.) For those of you who may struggle with movement, do you know what blocks you from consistent movement/exercise? Try being more active for a few weeks and see how that changes how you feel in your daily life.  This can be as simple as adding in a nice easy walk 3-5 times per week, or putting on 3-5 of your favorite songs in a row and dancing in your living room. The Limbic system does not demand intense exercise, just lots of easy moving.

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