Tag Archives: Stress Physiology

Blog 44: Love & Anxiety, Pleasure matters- Part 2.

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Hello all, and happy July! I received a few comments after the previous Pleasure blog expressing a desire for more content about how to get more Enjoyment from healthy Pleasure. So as requested, part 2!

My first suggestion comes personal experience. Learn how to SLLOOWWW DOWN! We race through our lives, cramming in experiences, relationships, long to-do lists, and job/career pressures. We are so busy, (I was so busy) it is hard to have any space to deeply feel anything, much less Pleasure.The pace by which we live our lives impacts our ability to feel our lives. The slower we move through life, the more time and space we have to FEEL our lives. Of course, this stance is challenging when it comes to unpleasant sensations. One reason many of us compulsively ‘water ski across the surface of our lives’. But the benefits of slowing become more evident when it comes to increasing enjoyment of our healthy Pleasure. Being Present is so much harder when we are racing about.

The best way to get more enjoyment out of Pleasure is to be “Fully Present” and solely in that period of time the Pleasure is occurring. In this way, allowing the Pleasure to deeply register in mind and body. This is important because what we FOCUS upon we potentiate, increasing its power. Rick Hanson’s research Rick Hanson suggests that we must focus upon, keep in our awareness, a positive experience for at least 30 seconds. This enables the brain to register the positive experience as stimuli that matters. Our brains are biased toward negative stimuli so it takes extra effort to register positive stimuli. In the past, by barely noticing when something pleasant occurred, I have skimmed over (missed) the Pleasure within that experience in my hurry to move onto what came next. And, consequently I missed enjoying that Pleasure.

Many of you have heard about  Mindfulness. But for those that are less familiar with the concept, here is a simple definition of mindfulness, or being “Fully Present”. Being Present occurs when you are aware and conscious of what is occurring, and keeping mind & body fully in the experience. This sounds easy but it is not. Many of us have an experience but do not register the impact or notice what is occurring within our own body. This can occur due to living in our head/thoughts, or in a different time zone. We think about the contents of our to-do lists, or worry about tomorrow, or obsess about an earlier situation, i.e. the past. Another words, we are not actually living in the Present, but in the past, or the future, or in caught in worry or compulsive mental loops.

Healthy Pleasure restores safety physiology, as I have previously stated. But did you know that experiencing the physiological impact of Pleasure (the Enjoyment) also improves heart health, deepens bonds in relationships, and balances out the pain and stress that can very easily overwhelm our everyday lives?  An additional benefit of Pleasure is that it increases gratitude, which has its own health benefits. When I feel the Pleasure of a loving encounter with friends, or the rush that comes while surfing (every day surfing is a good day even if I never catch a wave), not only does my heart rate slow and harmonize, my physiology settles and my sense of well-being and feelings of gratitude soar.

Our usual behavior creates our sense of Normal!” A very simple statement but a profound truth! What you and I do on an everyday basis, our habits, attitudes, and behaviors, create a way of life that feels normal to us. Though it may be far from normal when compared to that of  the general population. For example, when I was an inveterate workaholic, putting in 12-14 hour days and working while on vacation, to me this seemed perfectly rational and normal behavior. However, now, after years of personal work in therapy, spiritual direction, and Somatic Experiencing, I am shocked at how out of balance I was and saddened by all the life and Pleasure I missed while enslaved by my old “Normal behavior”. Life feels so much better now! I am far from achieving expert status, but I continually focus on attaining a healthy work/life balance and have made Pleasure and Enjoyment primary values and this has made all the difference.

I will close by suggesting we use the truism, “ your usual becomes your normal” for our benefit!  Experiment by changing your usual behavior gradually but consistently to include more healthy Pleasure, Mindful awareness, and Presence, in order to enjoy life’s Pleasurable experiences. Make a new habit of adding more self-care and Pleasure into your life, and/or more deeply noticing and enjoying your Pleasure until that becomes your new normal.

In the next Blog I will share a simple but profound exercise I learned at a Tara Brach conference. It is easy, enjoyable and Pleasure focused.  As always, I invite you to write in and let me know how the experiments go.

GOING DEEPER

  1. What does the term ‘Being Present’ mean to you? Does it have a positive or negative connotation? Where do you spend most of your time, in your body/being or in your head/thoughts?
  2. What keeps you from living fully Present to your life and relationships? Do you need to let go of some past pain, or surrender a future concern in order to really feel the overall goodness of your life?
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Blog 36: Love & anxiety: Get off the Beaten Path!

Way off the beaten path. Children's village, Uganda Africa
Way off the beaten path. Children’s village, Uganda Africa

It may seem odd that I blog about benefits of traveling, right after one praising stillness and becoming internally peaceful. But I have noticed an interesting correlation. After experiencing times of external and internal stillness, being with, and befriending all of my being, including those parts I find harder to love, this practice fills me with renewed energy and desire to risk engaging with Life and novelty. Travel is a wonderful way to do this.

These thoughts are fresh in my mind as I just returned from traveling for the past few weeks. It was  work travel but I still found it engaging and stimulating. I know some personality types find travel and novelty much more enjoyable and stimulating than other personalities. However, we can all occasionally get off the beaten path even if it’s in our own home town.

Humans seem to struggle with the tendency to fall into ruts. At least those of us living in the developed world. We go to the same coffee shop, take the same road to work, sit in the same seats at the conference table or meeting. The familiar is comfortable to our brains. There is a sense of predictability in sameness that can feel like safety. However, there is a cost to being in a rut. Boredom can set in, and it is so much harder to be fully present when we do the same routine daily. Sleepwalking, or just phoning it in, is so easy when we are on autopilot. Living this way for years at a time can cause some people to make unhealthy choices just to feel something new or to offset the deadening sensation of boredom.

Barbara Brown Taylor http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com talks about this in her wonderful book, “An Altar in the World”, in a chapter on the spiritual practice getting lost. She compares our behavioral ruts to those of dairy cows who walk the same small path back a forth from the barn to the pasture every day. She enthuses about what you can learn about yourself when you are lost, or out of your typical element, and how this can connect us in a sense of shared humanity and Oneness with all things. While it’s easy to notice when we are physically lost, what about when we are emotionally lost? Like after a big unexpected problem, such as an illness, job loss, divorce, etc. From her perspective, the same skills are needed for either kind of lostness. First we must manage our fear and panic, then we locate our existing resources or look for help and support. And, finally we see what this unexpected detour might have to offer. She suggests the loss of control we experience when lost, is well worth the possible gains of greater presence and more self awareness.

I agree with her assessment. That’s one reason I love travel. I find engaging in travel to provide a similar experience to getting lost. Going to a whole new place feels like being lost. We are not sure of all the turns to our destination. (Our GPS, knows but we do not). We need to find new places to fuel our bodies —restaurants or grocery stores — we see things we have never seen before, especially when leaving our own country and entering someone else’s. Here you get to have the experience of being the one butchering their language (unless you are like my friend Margaret who studies the host country’s language before she travels). You are the one who may need to stop and ask for directions, or the one who does not know the local customs or who hands over the wrong brightly colored paper money.

This whole experience of traveling can increase our anxiety levels and for some people this is why they don’t travel. The not-knowing and the possibility of looking foolish is too much for their Nervous System and comfort levels. But even with the increased anxiety, which will usually dissipate quickly if you can just go with the flow, there are so many gifts available in this process. These include; increased resilience, cognitive gains, reversing the coagulation of life caused by chronic sameness (boredom), a better sense of how connected we all are as a human race, and hopefully a dash of humility which tastes bad going down, but is so good for our souls in the long run.

To close I will focus briefly on travel’s gift of increased resilience. What we exercise and work gets stronger, what we don’t atrophies. While most of you have realized this is true of your muscles, from your own experience of exercising, or not exercising. This is also true physiologically. It’s true of our ability to gain increased self-confidence and a greater sense of self-efficacy, which translates to feeling safe in our bodies. Physiological resilience operates just like our muscles, use it or lose it!  Anxiety by its very nature causes most people to narrow their lives and limit their experiences. The more anxious we feel, the more we lose a sense of self-efficacy and safety, and the more we limit and attempt to control our lives. This is moving the wrong direction, away from resiliency and closer to collapse or depression.

Travel is a great way to build the muscle of your physiology and Autonomic Nervous System regulation. The more you “risk” new experiences, not knowing, not being fully in control, and you discover you are fine and in fact feeling more alert and alive than normal, the more your ability to regulate your physiology grows. This translates to increased resiliency. Developmental psychologists have long known that if a child is handed everything he or she desires and never experiences frustration or any minor hardships, that child really struggles to succeed and thrive in adulthood. It’s the very act of being appropriately frustrated and learning how to handle that sensation without a major meltdown, that grows increased resiliency in children. That “muscle” is being developed in them. We are not children anymore, but we all still can benefit from exercising the “muscle” of our ability to tolerate novelty, frustration, uncertainty, and not having things go the way we wanted them to.

I encourage you this week, if you are in a rut, step out of it. Try one of these suggestions. Go to a new coffeeshop, go have a totally new experience, get lost and see how you handle yourself, and/or plan a nice long trip somewhere you have never been. I would love to hear how it goes. 25th comment on this or providing an answer to any of the questions below, gets a Starbucks gift card. 45th comment gets to choose a title and receive credit in blog I create to go with their title.
Going Deeper:

1.) How is your frustration threshold? How do you handle being lost, out of control, or of your usual comfortable element? How does your body respond to novelty? Is there a joy and a sense of vitality, or more of a rush of anxiety and fear? Remember if you can breathe into any uncomfortable situation long enough, it will settle down unless you are in actual danger.

2.) What was your instinctive response to this blog? How much resilience does your ANS have? Are you able to easily bounce back from frustration, disappointment, not getting your way, or not knowing where you are or exactly what to do next? If your resilience is low, never fear, just like your muscles, you can increase it quite quickly if you put in the effort.

Join one of my Real Life Solutions 3 week anxiety reduction workshops held here in San Diego, CA. Mention this blog for a 20% discount.

Blog 26- Part 2: Nike, the serenity prayer, and stress physiology!

Part 2 – The Serenity Prayer

Part 1 of this blog addressed Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It” (JDI), and how it beneficially impacts our physiology. Today’s blog will make more sense if you read part 1.

Now that we know the power of JDI, let’s talk about the Serenity Prayer. I will include the short version of this prayer below, just in case you have been living under a large rock for the past 30 years and have not heard it!

“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference”.

The concepts contained in this prayer are perfect partners with JDI energy to help shift our Nervous Systems out of threat physiology. Knowing when and where to apply our efforts and energy, and where not to, is critical information when it comes to a threat or a perceived danger to our body. Because sometimes there is nothing we can do about certain aspects of a problematic situation. So even if your switch is ON, if it’s an impossible situation to change, you could just get frustrated. Trying to change something over and over without success, makes us feel helpless and impotent.

Knowing what can be changed in a dangerous or stressful situation, is almost as important as having your switch ON. With this knowledge, you will be able to target your JDI correctly and not waste energy or stress on things that are not changeable, such as other people’s choices, your body’s limits, or natural laws, etc. As I said in a previous blog, “sometimes it is less traumatizing to surrender to a situation than to fight it”. So knowing when to let go and when to do something, will determine how successfully you act in a difficult situation. Knowing where to direct your ON energy and JDI, are keys to thriving in life rather than simply surviving it.

Let’s use an example that all Californians can relate to. We have a drastic water shortage here in our lovely state. If each one of us tries to solve the situation all by ourselves, or spends inordinate amounts of time brooding on the problem, we will be stuck in stress physiology for sure. This could also flip our switch to OFF because we feel helpless. However, combining our JDI with the Serenity prayer might look like taking shorter showers, only washing full loads of clothes, watering our golf courses and lawns less often, talking to our friends and neighbors and encouraging them to join us in our efforts, etc. If every Californian made these changes, over time, it would make a big difference, in the problem and inside our bodies.

This week notice how the Serenity prayer beautifully compliments your JDI energy and try applying both concepts to any stressful situations that occur. In what instances does surrender ever feel like serenity to you? Perhaps refusing to get in the same old fight with a spouse or a child, or letting someone cut you off in traffic without losing your mind in rage, etc. Please feel free to share your successes (and attempts) in the comments section.

Fiona connecting with her inner tiger, serenely waiting for the next moment to happen!
Fiona connecting with her inner tiger, serenely waiting for the next moment to happen!

Going Deeper:

1.) Which of the 3 tenets of the Serenity Prayer do you find the most challenging? Do you notice any internal resistances when you read it aloud? Just be with those somatic imprints of resistance this week and see what comes from this practice.

2.) What situations do you find easiest to use your JDI energy, and which situation are easier to surrender to? How does letting go feel to your body and mind? Many of us find that the body handles surrender much differently than the mind does. What is your experience?

3.) Think about the past few weeks. Have you experienced stressful situations? If so, have you been able to JDI? What needs doing depends on the situation, but doing something is much better than collapsing in helplessness, do you agree?