I’m reading David Epstein’s book “Range” this week– it’s a fantastic book that talks about how generalists, rather than specialists, are primed for success. I love the book because it tells us that those of us who are “frequent quitters” will end up with the most satisfying careers; that failing a test is the best way to learn; and that generalists often find their path later in life. Having sampled other paths, they are creative, agile, and can make mental connections that specialists may not be able to see.
I am therefore now not too proud to say now that I have been a “frequent quitter,” and that I’ve tried many paths that did not work for me. Leaving out the early defeats (Girl Scouts, 4H, softball, etc), we can pick up in my 20’s with my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish; my career as an artist; my customer service/banking career; my culinary degree and subsequent failure to thrive as a personal chef. We should probably also include my two marriages, since they were not ultimately successful.
For years, I felt deeply shamed by all of these– that somehow, by not managing to make these things work, I was a failure myself. Or maybe the character flaw was that I was a bad chooser in the first place; that I was passionate about things that didn’t turn out to be a good fit. There were times where I felt like I couldn’t go on; that my mistakes were too terrible and bad, and there was no good way forward.
“Desirable difficulties,” says Eptsein’s book, are “obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.” While the book’s researchers were studying university students’ ability to learn vocabulary, I think the metaphor works well here. The “wrong turns” I took in my early 20’s turned out to be the learning experiences I needed to grow into the adult that I am: creative, flexible, resourceful.
Even more interesting to me was what the researchers called “the hypercorrection” effect: “The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”
My younger self was often quite (embarrassingly) confident of her choices, which meant that when it came time to admit defeat, it was sometimes a hard pill to swallow. There’s no doubt now those were the best learning opportunities. We remember most deeply the things that pain us the most.
Maya Angelou told us, “When you know better, you do better.” Our younger selves do the best they can so that our more mature selves can reap the benefits. Skills learned from earlier careers, relationships, and other “mistakes” translate into greater success in later life. R&B artist Ciara is a decade younger than I am, but she already knows:
Them old mistakes are gone, I won't do them no more
That's old news, there's new news, I done did that before
I turned nothing to something, my comeback on one hunnid'
Less talking, more action, you just gon' see Ci coming
I just keep elevating, no losses, just upgrading
My lessons, made blessings, I turned that into money
Thank God I never settled, this view is so much better
I'm chilling, I'm winning, like on another level.
This week’s blog is inspired by an Instagram post by one of my favorite gyms-that-I’ve-never-been-to, 13th Flow in Chicago. I’m not sure how I had the luck to find and start following them a few years ago, but their consistent messages of positive empowerment are a bright spot of inspiration in my feed. Let me give you an example of their verbiage: their “About” page on their website says, ” Success isn’t built on shame and guilt, but on self-worth and pride in what you’re doing. You already possess everything you need to be who and what you want to be.” YES TO ALL OF THIS!
Since the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and country-wide social awakening, I’ve been quiet on my own Instagram account, trying to learn more, listen harder, and uplift Black voices. Since lots of other white accounts are doing the same, it’s been an opportunity for growth and education (and, remembering that this is unpaid education for most of us, I try to pay what I can through donations and payments to the content creators– most of them have a link to donate easily on their insta profiles).
Yesterday’s post from 13th Flow included a sentence that really hit me hard:
“If you cannot be vulnerable in your training, you cannot reach your potential.”
To be vulnerable means that we put ourselves at risk; we leave ourselves exposed, defenseless. To be vulnerable in our training– whether that’s in the gym, a group exercise class, or a yoga studio– means that we can be ourselves in utter honesty and authenticity. We can confess our inability to complete a rep or do a pose without pain. We can say, “that hurts,” or, “I can’t do it like that,” or “I don’t think that’s right for me today.” This truth is what helps us to find the right expression of a pose, or the right amount of weight, or the lateralization (not “modification”) of an exercise that will allow us to get stronger on our own terms in a safe and healthy way. Not only is it the only healthy and sane way to train, it’s the only sustainable way to train.
But to be vulnerable in our training means that we are undefended and open. Even as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered human, it is often difficult for me to find an atmosphere that is so accepting, open and accessible that it allows me to feel comfortable in my own vulnerability. And that’s pretty sad.
Our fitness/wellness/health community often gives lip service to the idea of inclusivity and accessibility without actually providing accessible options or a truly welcoming atmosphere. A few of those reasons are lack of diversity in trainers/staff (“there’s nobody here who looks like me,”); diet or weight loss talk that puts a greater perceived value on certain types of bodies; a lack of training in staff around unconscious bias or how to serve diverse populations. Access to services may be restricted financially or literally (not being accessible for wheelchairs, for example).
I believe that one of the reasons well-intentioned efforts fail (including my own) is that we have not fully addressed our own internalized bias. Since birth, our culture has taught us that some bodies are better than others. It has made thin and white and able-bodied the default, and any variation on that is “other.” The dolls I played with as a child; the history I was taught in school; the magazines I loved as a teenager; movies, media, all messages showed me that there is one best way to be. It takes a lot (and I mean a LOT A LOT) of conscious, targeted work to root out these untruths. These myths continue to be prevalent in our wellness spaces.
“If you cannot be vulnerable in your training, you cannot reach your full potential.”
As a yoga teacher, mobility specialist, and personal trainer, it’s up to me to make space for my clients to feel vulnerable. That includes not just the poses or exercises we do, but how I speak to my clients, the space we train or practice in, and the messages they see me sending publicly through social media, in verbal communication with them, and in our nonverbal communication. I’m committed to doing more work to change what what an equitable wellness, fitness and health culture would look like.
Real wellness– real freedom– is freedom to be vulnerable. It’s freedom to reach your full potential. How does this resonate with you? What is your experience of vulnerability in your yoga practice, or gym, or with your personal trainer? What, if anything, has prevented you from being authentically vulnerable?
“I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action.” -Writer and activist Rachel Elizabeth Cargle
In the wake of the past week’s events in the United States following the murder of Mr. George Floyd, I struggled with whether or not to write a blog or a newsletter this week– as a white woman, it’s time to step aside and give the marginalized folks a chance to grieve, mourn, and be heard.
It also feels important to use this (small) platform to speak up, not least of all because the yoga community is often a place where white silence thrives. There is work to be done and there are things we can do today to make change.
So today I’m going to share the words and work of a few brilliant black activists whose work I support. If any of this resonates with you, please support them financially by purchasing their printed work or donating to them directly (I’ll provide links as we go). This post is written for my fellow white yoga and dharma students. It’s time for us to do more.
“Why can’t we just love each other?” “I don’t see color.” “If everyone would just do yoga, the world would be a different place.” “I don’t talk about illness or poverty, I only want to manifest abundance and health.” These are all examples of something called spiritual bypassing. This the ugly underbelly of the “love and light” yoga community. As you can see in the image below from yoga teacher and dismantling racism trainer Michelle Cassandra Johnson (be sure to click the arrows on the right side of the picture to read the full post), spiritual bypassing means “using the spiritual practice to escape from or avoid the reality of the misalignment, imbalance and abuse of power in our culture…(it) posits that we can pray, move, breathe, practice asana and meditate oppression away. We cannot.”
This is an excerpt from Michelle’s Skill in Action Workbook (available to download on her website right now), which includes prompts and questions to help us to unpack our own internalized ideas and beliefs about race and privilege. Along with her first book, Skill in Action, this is a resource for yoga students and teachers to deepen spiritual growth and their understanding of yoga philosophy. I have found it personally powerful and impactful.
Spiritual bypassing is a form of white silence. Layla F Saad’s essential handbook, Me and White Supremacy (the hard copy is sold out as of today, but you can download it immediately as an e-book) tells us: “White silence seems benign. And, if not benign, then it could at least be believed to be a stance of neutrality, like the old adage, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.’ But white silence is anything but neutral. Rather, it is a method of self-protection and therefore also the protection of the dynamics of white supremacy.”
Yoga teachers and yoga students (myself included) often think that our positive intentions are enough– that, for example, by meditating on lovingkindness for all beings, we’re doing our part. Intent is not enough. Our silence harms others, and ourselves.
Yoga and meditation are practices of liberation. Our very own liberation and well-being is tied to others’. “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” as Fannie Lou Hamer told us. We are all harmed by the idea that some bodies are superior to others.
This brings us to one last resource for you: Reverend angel Kyodo williams, or @zenchangeangel, as she’s known on instagram.
In her book Radical Dharma, Reverend williams writes with Lama Rod Owens and Dr. Jasmine Syedullah about the possibility of a new spirituality that encompasses a whole-hearted approach to love and equity. I want to share one final passage with you today from this work:
Not only has white supremacy robbed red, Black, brown, and yellow people of the spirit-given human right to life and liberty, it has also so thoroughly programmed and policed white people as to who and how they could love– determining entire groups of people unworthy– that the entirety of our descended culture suffers from a severely atrophied relationship to the most animating, enlivening, equalizing force gifted to the human experience.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams
Do you remember when you first learned how to practice yoga, or meditate? You made mistakes; you got frustrated. You turned to teachers to help, or you found online resources. You tried new ways of doing things and discovered that some of your preconceptions were wrong. You may have felt defensive or even ashamed. Doing the work of learning about racism is much the same. It’s messy; we’re going to make mistakes. Just as we did on our yoga mat, we need to keep going. We have years (truly, generations) of old patterns to examine and restructure. That’s why it’s so important to be kind, and patient, and to understand that we don’t need to know it all right away. Me and White Supremacy offers an easy-to-follow way to learn so that we can not only change our own minds but learn how to take action in the world.
“May all beings have happiness. May all beings be free from suffering.” This prayer resonates with us so much in our yoga practices because we are good people and we want to do good work. Anti-racism work is a very tangible, practical and crucial way that we can put this aspiration into practice. Our yoga and meditation practices have taught us so much. Now, it’s time to continue to grow. It’s time to move beyond love and light and stand, as Rachel Cargle asks us to, in solidarity and action with those who have not shared our privilege.
Scrolling through my fitness-heavy Instagram feed, I sometimes see “motivational” quotes like these:
“Never miss a Monday!”
“No excuses… work out at home using a throw pillow and a can of soup!”
“The meal plan you need to finally lose those 10 pounds”
This kind of “get your shit together” inspo has never worked for me. I guess it’s working for somebody, or these businesses would be failing, but it has the opposite effect on me.
When you tell me, “no excuses,” I feel defensive.
When you tell me, “never miss a Monday,” I want to tell you that you don’t know how my body feels.
When you tell me that something is wrong with my body, my life, my way of living, I am angry not just for myself but for all of the other people who don’t conform with that sales pitch.
And yet, I’m a fitness professional, and I have services to sell, too. I’m just not going to market to anyone’s fears or insecurities. Maybe I won’t ever be as successful as the fear-based “no pain, no gain” instacelebrities, but I’m okay with that.
My marketing strategy is simple– I talk to you the way I want to be talked to.
Let’s give ourselves permission.
take care of your body, mind and spirit in whatever way you think is best
remember that accessibility to health and wellness services is a privilege
think critically about what you’re reading and watching
ask questions about things that don’t make sense
unfollow accounts that make you feel guilty, shameful, or less-than
know that you and only you are the expert on your lived experience
try new things and see how they feel
learn for yourself what works best for you
find movement practices that feel good to you
find ways to enjoy life in the body you have
stick to disciplines that improve the quality of your life
take a rest day/week/month when you need one
change your mind as often as you need to. we’re allowed to grow
disagree with popular culture
know that food can nourish your body, but also your heart & soul too; it’s okay to eat what you’re craving
all bodies are equally valuable, regardless of health or outer appearance
trust your intuition
ask for help when you need it
connect with and learn from people that resonate with you
seek teachers and coaches that you like, trust and believe in
find what inspires you from within, and
be fiercely loyal to what matters most
share messages that speak to your heart/soul/spirit
do your best and let that be enough
How would it feel for you to give yourself this permission? What else would you add to the list?
Now that we’ve learned about the way our bodies respond to stress, you’ve probably had some time to think about how stress feels in your own body. Maybe it’s a tightness in your neck, shoulders, chest or jaw (tooth-grinders, anyone?); or maybe you tend to tense up in your hip flexors. Some people feel stress in their digestive system– from butterflies to straight-up GI distress. You might feel an excess of energy– an inability to sit still, or irritability, a feeling that you need to do something. This is the fight-or-flight response.
Or, you might feel tired, sluggish, depressed, sleepy, numb, disconnected– the freeze response.
One of the best tools we have at our disposal for working with our body and mind to handle stress is learning to recognize what we’re experiencing, and to remember that your body is here to take care of you. This isn’t always easy when we’re feeling caught up in a stress response, but there are some accessible, safe ways to do this that we can train ourselves to do. Let’s try one now.
Coming Home To Your Resources Practice: Read the instructions first, and then give this a try. Look away from your screen and let your eyes track around the space that you’re in. What do you see? Can you notice anything that feels pleasant to look at? Try naming it to yourself: white door, red pillow, blue mat. For many of us, this will have an immediately calming effect. Keep your eyes open, and see if you can feel the surface that you are sitting on. Where are you in contact with it? Can you feel your hips or your legs, and how they are supported? Finally, notice your breathing. Feel that your body is breathing. Simply bringing your awareness to your breath can help you to notice what is happening, and is a reminder of your own internal resources. You might simply stay with these three resources: visual objects to see with your eyes, sensation of support under the body, and the breath. Or, if you like, now you can start to notice any other sensations in the body. Where do you feel tension, or tightness? Where is your body breathing? Is it high in your chest? If you feel overwhelmed or you don’t want to do this type of inquiry, return to one of your three resources and feel that as you breathe.
Whether you are experiencing acute stress (something really difficult is happening to you right now), or you’re under the effects of chronic stress (a pandemic, for example), your body is going to do its best to provide you with the resources you need to handle the stress you’re under. Our neuroception (ability to perceive threat) has told our system that there’s a problem, and now it’s up to our body to do something with the energy so that we can move through the response, discharge the energy, and return to our rest-and-digest state.
Of course, the problem is that the stress may not always be something that we can respond to by fighting or fleeing. If we have a fight with a co-worker, we probably won’t resort to fisticuffs. Nor can we run away from some stress, especially when it’s unrelenting and recurring.
So, how do we deal with this pent-up energy? We can use physical movement to discharge the energy. We can easily see this in animals. The other day I was walking with my dog, Ava. Parked on the street was a Truly Nolan truck– the one with the big mouse ears on top. She stopped and growled at it. After a moment, she backed up, walked away, and shook herself all over. It was as though it had never happened. We can do this, too:
Shaking Practice: I often include this as part of my yoga classes. It’s easy: you just begin to lightly shake out the hands and wrists. Let the movement increase naturally, shaking out the arms, leaning forward or back if seated, or rocking side to side. If the arms want to move away from the body or overhead, see how that feels. If standing you can shake out the legs and feed, too, and move around naturally as you do. When you feel like you’ve had enough, stop. Notice how you’re breathing, and whether or not you feel anything different in the body. Are you breathing more easily? Does any tension in your body feel different? Do you feel as though you have more energy, or less? Do you have any impulse to move in a different way? Do you want to connect with others, or smile, or laugh? All of these are signs that your ventral vagal complex is coming back online– you’re dropping out of fight or flight.
Of course, shaking is not the only way to move through a fight-or-flight response. Some people go for a run, or move through a physical yoga practice, or find a different practice that works for them. But shaking is a quick, easy way to move some energy when you don’t have time, room, or the ability to do something else.
What if you are stuck in a freeze response? For many years, this was my go-to response to stress. I would fall asleep at the first sign of conflict (no, I’m not joking!). As we’ve learned, these responses can look different on everyone, but if you find yourself feeling a little bit sleepy, spacey, numb, or lethargic, you might try being a little bit playful with yourself.
Challenge Your Balance Practice: Depending on your ability to balance, you will need to make this more or less challenging for yourself. Personally, I like to do this one with a yoga block. It’s easy– take off your shoes, if you’re able, and step onto a yoga block with one foot. Lift your other foot away from the ground so the knee is bent in front of you. If you find balance easy here, you may need to challenge yourself a little bit more by moving your floating leg around in the air, or by looking around the room. Treat it as a playful exercise– it is! If standing is not an option, you can challenge yourself by tossing a small ball in the air and catching it. Let it be easy enough that you can be successful (don’t deliberately make the ball hard to catch!), but challenging enough that you require some alertness.
Challenging your balance is a way of “waking up” your body from the freeze response. Priority number one for your body is not to let you fall over (or to get hit in the face with a ball), so it will bring your senses back online to help you stay safe. After either of these challenge exercises, as with the shaking exercise, take a moment or two to see how you feel. Can you notice your pulse moving differently, or your breath? Do you feel a different level of energy?
My invitation to you is that you try playing with these different exercises, and come up with your own variations. Or, let me know what’s already working for you! Once we understand the basic physiology of stress, and especially, how your unique body responds to it, we can become really skillful at managing our own stress response.
One of the defining moments in my yoga career happened in a far-away town, where I was visiting and attending a yin class. It was an evening class, and the room was full of people. The light was dim, the incense was thick, and there was an air of hushed reverence to better hear the teacher, a popular one who was known to offer deep spiritual insights along with the long-held poses.
I was new to yoga and wanted to try it all. That first magical year of your yoga honeymoon– do you remember it? When you first wake up to the experience of being in your body in a completely new way, when every whispered “Namaste” is like a balm to your heart and there is nothing, nothing like lying on your mat in the quiet blessing of Savasana.
That Yin class ticked all of the boxes for the spiritual experience. Candles, incense, meditation and the feeling of being guided by someone who had more of a clue than I did about how to live a happy or fulfilled life. But the physical experience… that was another story.
I don’t know what other poses we did, but my memory comes to life here: we were instructed to lie back over a bolster lengthwise on the mat, hips on the floor, creating a backbend somewhere around the T-L junction– low to mid back. I’m pretty sure the instructions were as simple as, “Put your bolster on the mat and lie back over it.” I dutifully arranged myself and closed my eyes, waiting for the magic of yoga to wash over me.
The pose just didn’t work in my body. It was too extreme of a backbend for my spine, and I felt an ache grow into the kind of pain that takes over your whole experience. Yoga is about breathing, I thought, I should breathe and practice patience, so I breathed and waited– it felt like eternity, but was probably about 30 seconds– opened my eyes and looked around– everyone else was reclined in glorious ease (or so it seemed), small half-smiles of bliss on their faces.
“This should feel good,” the teacher said in a soothing tone. What is wrong with me? I thought. This feels terrible.I suck at this.
I’ve never forgotten how that moment felt. That yoga wasn’t right for me. That my body was wrong for yoga. That I wasn’t part of the group.
Years later, after becoming a teacher myself, I wanted to learn how to make people not feel the way I felt in that class- isolated and alone. Nobody was talking yet about inclusivity or accessibility (at least not in my circles), but I found Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga and became one of her certified Curvy Yoga teachers. I learned how to talk to people in a way that allowed their bodies to feel accepted and welcomed as they are; to teach variations (not “modifications”) of poses so that people can explore for themselves; and to teach the skills of proprioception and interception so that students can be their own teachers.
I’ve continued to learn and am still finding ways to make people feel more welcome. I know I’ve made mistakes– accessibility and inclusivity are messy and sometimes we are going to get it wrong. One thing that I consistently practice is Anna’s stellar advice never to tell a student how something should feel in their body.
When we tell someone, “this should feel good,” we make an enormous number of assumptions about their body and their experience in it. We don’t know what type of injury or trauma the person may have lived through. We don’t know whether or not they got enough sleep the night before, or they’re in a good mood, or they’re going through a divorce or their dog just died. Do they have a herniated disc, or a spinal fusion? We often have no clue.
Suggesting how something should feel also disempowers the other person. It takes away their ability to discern for themselves what sensations or experience they’re having, which is an essential part of injury prevention (and spiritual growth). It can create the idea that they’re doing something wrong, or that something is wrong with them, or even that they’re not welcome. Finally, we also close ourselves off to learning from that person’s experience, and create a potential barrier for understanding.
The teacher in my story wasn’t a bad teacher (the class was packed with fans!), but it wasn’t the right teacher for me. I needed a teacher who could create space to have the experience I was already having; who reminded me that not all poses are going to work the same way for every body; who helped me to understand and appreciate the value of my body’s wisdom.
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. -Meng Tzu,China,3rd Cent. BCE
As a whole, our culture tends to characterize stress as something that is inherently harmful and should be reduced, avoided, or managed in some way. We’re given messages that it is toxic; that it makes us sick, causes heart disease, depression, addiction, and ages us more quickly.
A 1998 study asked thirty thousand adults in the United States how much stress they experienced in the last year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years later, the researchers used public records to determine how many of the participants had died. As you might expect, high levels of stress increased the risk of death by 41%. However— that risk only applied to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die! In fact, they had the lowest risk of anyone in the study, even those who reported experiencing very little stress. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people; it was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. They estimated that during the eight years during which they conducted this study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely simply because they believed that stress was harming their health. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal (in her excellent book “The Upside of Stress”— I think everyone should read this book) says, according to statistics from the CDC, that would make “believing stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the US, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.
So, your mindset matters– and, as Dr. Alia Crum and her colleagues demonstrated in a series of studies, it goes both ways. Here’s a little background: you’ve probably heard about cortisol, right? Released as a function of your sympathetic nervous system, it helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves your body’s ability to utilize that energy. It also suppresses some functions like digestion, reproduction, and health (which is why it gets all the bad press). Its partner is DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is also released as part of the stress response. DHEA is a neurosteroid that helps your brain grow stronger from stressful events– it speeds up wound repair and enhances your immune system’s function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, and all the other things that make us think “stress is terrible for us.” We need both of these hormones, but the ratio of your cortisol to your DHEA is important– this is called your growth index. The growth index is associated with better focus, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms after the event. It predicts resilience in extreme circumstances. If you’re going to have stress or a traumatic event, you want a high growth index.
Dr. Crum’s study was simple. She subjected participants to a stressful mock job interview and measured their growth index afterward. All of the subjects had heightened stress hormones. However, one group of participants had a higher growth index. The difference? Those participants were shown a three-minute video about the positive nature of stress. That’s right– just a three minute video was enough to change the biological reality of the stressful event for them. They did not suffer the negative effects of stress in the same way the others did.
This is pretty great news, isn’t it? If we can learn, and remember that our stress response is designed to help us to handle life’s challenges, then we may actually benefit from the adverse situation. We can call this a challenge response– and it is your superpower.
So, let’s do a little superhero training. Can you remember a time where you felt some acute stress? It could be an incident in traffic, or a problem at work, or even a scary moment in a movie.
Can you remember what your body felt like in that moment? What sensations did you notice?
Did your pulse or breath rate change?
Did you feel hot or sweaty?
Did you feel like you suddenly had more energy?
Did you feel motivated to protect, or defend?
How does it feel to rethink these symptoms of stress? Instead of seeing our stress symptoms as signs that we’re not handling it well, can you see them as signs that our body is trying to help you to cope?
Let’s do a quick recap. Remember the triune brain model? We’ve got three layers to our brain: reptilian, mammalian, and human. When we are presented with a stressful trigger, our “lid flips” and the higher brain is no longer available to help us. Instead, our bodies are being run by our autonomic nervous system as our polyvagal response takes over. Once we’ve reframed our relationship to stress to understand that it can actually be beneficial, our bodies can behave differently during stress, and we’ll be healthier and more resilient. In other words, we can use our big smart human brain (when it’s available to us) to affect our animal responses.
In the final post of our series, we’ll look at this from another angle. Instead of the brain helping the body (a top-down approach to managing stress), we’ll look at how we can use our amazing animal body to move through the physical effects of stress. I think you’re going to like it. In the meantime, let’s get that superhero mindset in place. Why not check out this great TED talk from Dr. Kelly McGonigal, or purchase her book here? I can’t wait to hear what you think.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” -philosopher and psychologist William James
What does it mean to agree to attend to experience? We have choice around what we will pay attention to; how we pay attention will shape our experience.
The Buddha said,
All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind, And suffering follows As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, And happiness follows, Like a never-departing shadow.
The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdale
Our brains and bodies are responsible for taking in the raw information around us and turning it into meaning.The Buddha’s teachings tell us that we can shape this experience based on the state of our mind; that happiness is ours if we speak and act with “a peaceful mind.”
So how do we get there? Sit down and try to be peaceful? If only it were that easy. The truth is, it’s almost that easy– or, it is at least very simple.
Our brains, left to their own devices, operate in the “default network.” This is the state of mind we find ourselves in when we are daydreaming, ruminating, or otherwise holding together our life’s narrative. It’s what happens when we realize we’ve been reading a book and have no idea what it says, or when we are listening to someone speak but our minds are “a million miles away.” This default network is incredibly important to us– we need it to plan, or set goals, or organize our lives. It is, however, the opposite of mindfulness– and if it’s the only way we’re experiencing the world, we may be causing ourselves some suffering.
A 2010 study might help us to understand why we want to cultivate our sense of presence. Researchers texted participants the following three questions:
“How are you feeling right now?”
“What are you doing right now?
“Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?
The data revealed the following facts:
People’s minds wander frequently, regardless of what they are doing. And, interestingly, “the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered.” In other ways, you can be doing something that you really enjoy, and at the same time be caught up in an unpleasant train of thought (has this ever happened to you?)
People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.
Finally, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.
The researchers concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
What can we do with this information? We can train our minds not to wander. Luckily, our brains are highly trainable. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that we can create new connections in our brain to shape the way that we see the world and respond to it. One of the ways to do this is through basic mindfulness meditation. This is is a simple form of retraining the mind to be aware of what is happening in the present moment.
You can try this for yourself right now. If you lift your eyes from this screen and look around, what do you see? What do your eyes take in? Can you hear any sounds? Are there any smells? Can you feel yourself breathe? Take a moment or two to notice, and then see if you can feel for yourself how you feel mentally and physically. Did your mental or felt experience in your body change at all? Meditation– brain training– is a simple way to increase the joy and satisfaction you feel in your life. Even a few minutes a day of teaching your mind not to wander can make a significant difference.
But should we never think about what is not happening now? Let’s take another look at William James’ quote. “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” When you are worrying about the future or mindlessly flicking through Instagram, what are you agreeing to attend to? The wandering mind misses the joy of being truly present with life itself.
Mindfulness doesn’t ask that we ignore or push away our problems, or disregard the larger issues that affect our communities. Remember the second two takeaways from the 2010 study? We are happier when our minds are not wandering, and what we are thinking is a better predictor than what we are doing. We can find joy– the Buddha’s “peaceful mind”– when we are present with difficult situations, simply by bringing our attention to what we are experiencing in that moment. It’s okay to have a bad mood, or to notice that your mind has been wandering and you’re sad. Learn to notice what’s happening, and you may even feel a tiny bit better.
Your experience is what you agree to attend to. Cultivating present-moment awareness may improve your experience. If you experience regular anxiety or depression, your wandering mind may be partially to blame. You may find these techniques to be very helpful– I know that I have. But reading about them isn’t enough. In order to make them work, you have to put them into practice and do them regularly (even a few minutes a day). I recommend either of these two free resources:
The healthyminds program: https://tryhealthyminds.org is now offering their app for free, thanks to some generous donors. This program was started by Dr. Richard Davison, a neuroscience and meditation pioneer.
Tergar Meditation Community: https://learning.tergar.org offers free online meditation training and can connect you to a virtual meditation community near you.
Looking for more Laura? Guided meditation and accessible yoga practices are available for $10/month.
In my last post, we learned about the triune brain model and how each layer is responsible for different mental and physical functions. We learned that when we are faced with more stress than we can handle, we “flip our lid,” meaning that we are operating from our lower brain. At that point we are no longer able to regulate our emotions or think rationally– we’re outside of our window of capacity.
Clearly, the story doesn’t end there, because if it did, I would not be able to write this article and you wouldn’t be able to read it. We’d all be running with the wolves, or something. Instead, here we are, sometimes-rational human beings interacting via the internet. To understand how this all works, we’re going to talk about polyvagal theory*, which is simpler than it sounds, but will make you sound smart when you discuss it with your friends.
First, we need to understand just a little bit more about the autonomic nervous system. This system regulates your body and its functions according to whatever is happening in your environment. The vagus nerve (check out the cool image) communicates between the brain and the body. It goes both ways– information from the brain tells the body what to do, and the body sends information back to the brain.
Our ability to perceive threat is called neuroception. Neuroception is a subconscious process. It “reads” other people and situations to let us know whether or not we are safe. However, we are all very different, and what feels safe to one person may not feel safe to someone else. For example, someone with a history of trauma will be more likely to feel unsafe than someone who has not had that type of experience.
Depending on the information received, our nervous system operates one of three different switches in order to prepare our body for a potential threat.
The first switch is our fight-or-flight response, part of the dorsal vagal complex and the sympathetic nervous system– you can think of this as your nervous system’s fire alarm. If this system perceives that you are in danger, it sounds the alarm and triggers adrenaline release. The sympathetic nervous system has got your back. At the first sign of a problem, it is ready to pump you up for the big fight, or get you out of there pronto. While it’s active, your body suspends its everyday activities (digestion, reproduction, etc)– you can check out the infographic below to see a few more of the functions of this system.
The second switch is the ventral vagal complex, which is tied to the parasympathetic nervous system. We sometimes call this the rest-and-digest system or the feed-and-breed system. The ventral vagal complex is like an all clear signal that lets your body resume regular biological functions that were put on hold during the metaphorical fight-or-flight “fire.” It also allows us to be social, engage with others, and self-regulate. When our ventral vagal complex is online, we are back inside our window of capacity again, able to engage with others and feel comfortable and happy.
Finally, we have a third switch. This is also a part of the dorsal vagal complex, but it’s a very old (evolutionarily speaking) part. In an extreme case of danger, or if fight-or-flight fails, this third switch triggers the freeze or feign death response. While the first switch speeds us up, this third switch slows us down so much that we can actually pass out completely. Again, please remember that this is a completely involuntary response– the individual has no control over the experience, and no control over what is happening while the response is triggered. This is why many trauma survivors remember being unable to move, fight, or do anything at all during the traumatic event. They could not.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, this is all well and good for someone who’s experiencing a traumatic or dangerous event. But what does it have to do with me? Remember that neuroception is an individual process. Your sense of danger may be triggered for many different reasons– even what seems on the surface to be everyday stress. Anything that threatens your well-being– a close call with a traffic accident, fear of losing a job –can feel dangerous to your nervous system, causing a minor fight-or-flight state. Social danger (difficulty with friendships, co-workers, etc) is a threat to your well-being because we are designed to live with and support other human beings.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re prehistoric humans. You and I are out hunting and gathering, when suddenly we see a predator– let’s make it a tiger. Immediately, our neuroception triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Our blood pressure rises, the heart rate increases, and we can feel adrenaline in our bodies. I might not be able to communicate with you in that moment because I am so overwhelmed with the immediate, primal danger. My body turns off non-essential functions– insulin activity, digestion, the immune response.
We begin to back away from the tiger– and we run back to our camp. We could also have fought the tiger (our muscles were primed and ready), but I wasn’t willing to go that far even in my pretend story. Hours later, you and I are back at our cave, laughing and joking together about our escape from the tiger. Our ventral vagal system is back online, and our parasympathetic nervous system is running the show again.
Now, let’s pretend that we are modern humans living in the time of a pandemic. Perhaps you have lost your job and don’t know where you will get the money for groceries, or the mortgage. You are worried about your health and your loved ones. Your neuroception has fired the alarm switch– your sympathetic nervous system is screaming at you to get out of danger– but you don’t have a way to do that, so you are literally stuck in the dorsal vagal response. You’re jittery, on edge, you can’t sit down and relax. After a while (weeks?), your body might begin to trigger the “freeze” switch– you are depressed, tired, numb. Either way, your body isn’t able to resume its normal, healthy functions. This is what many of us are living through right now.
Even pre-pandemic, most people I know were already dealing with the effects of a stress response that they didn’t know how to resolve. If we take a look at the graph showing the functions of the sympathetic nervous system, you might start to worry about the long-term effects of living in a fight-or-flight or freeze response.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how reframing our response to stress can help us to benefit from it.Then, we’ll learn some simple strategies to move through the fight-or-flight or freeze response, and how you can learn to return to your window of capacity. In the meantime, if you are experiencing any of these effects, try to remember that it’s totally normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a polyvagal human being! If you can, get up and move a little bit– take a walk if you’re able, toss a ball in the air (or with another human, or a dog). It’ll be a great start to moving back toward your ventral vagal, rest-and-digest system.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the polyvagal response, you might enjoy this video– it’s an informative and entertaining look at your nervous system response.
Should I reorganize that closet or start a new career? Screw it, I’m going to eat these oatmeal creme pies.
Like me, I’m sure you’e seen a lot of suggestions about how to best handle the maelstrom of emotions that come from living through a pandemic. Grief, fear, anger, depression, boredom, guilt– these are all legitimate ways to feel, and certainly there are no wrong emotions. We’re all up against something most of us have never experienced, especially on this kind of scale.
I’ve got friends who are baking compulsively, others who are binge-watching the tiger show, some who are rage-posting, others who are praying, meditating, doing yoga, training their bodies like they’re competing for the Ms. Quarantine World Title– and, of course, plenty of people in my line of work are racing to get their businesses online. Some people are reaching out to everyone they know, and others are hibernating, marinating in their own emotions. Some of us are judging wildly and others are sewing face masks like it’s a full-time job. I don’t think there’s any right way to be handling this– how can there be, when we are all so different, and have no training for this sort of thing (except for trauma survivors, who may be feeling relatively calm)?
If you only read this far or remember one thing, let it be this: right now, many of us don’t have a lot of rational control over what we are doing, saying and feeling, which means that we don’t need to get caught up in other people’s reactions. We can also cut ourselves some slack and give ourselves a little space to have whatever reactions we need to.
Understanding the physiology of stress is really helpful so that you can 1) recognize that it’s a healthy and normal biological reaction and 2) learn how to use this reaction to your benefit so that you can function a little more normally again, even when we’re not sure what normal is. This series of articles is going to give you some basic information about our brain, body, and nervous system, and how it responds to stress. Then, we’ll look at why “trying to calm down” isn’t going to cut it, and what you can do to work with your body to move back into a more regulated state.
What’s Going on in Your Brain? (Hint: You’re Not Crazy, it’s Totally Normal)
So, let’s take a look at the three layers of our brain (the “triune brain model,” if you like fancy names). I promise, this is relevant.
Reptilian Brain: Brain Stem/Cerebellum: The reptilian or “lower” brain is the part of our brain that evolved first. It is concerned primarily with survival; it works in an instinctive and reflexive way, and control the fight-flight-freeze response. This part of our brain also controls involuntary processes like sleep, digestion, circulation, breathing, heartbeat, and sexuality.
Mammalian Brain: Subcortical Region, Limbic Brain/Midbrain: The mammalian brain is responsible for the primary center of emotions. It includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. This is where we find arousal, attachment, motivation, behavior, memory, sense of smell, and our feelings about the world.
The Human Brain (Neocortex): This part of the brain is the most recent one to evolve. It constitutes 5/6 of the brain and is our rational mind, responsible for higher cognitive functions like language, communication, logical thought, and voluntary movement. This is the last part of our brain to mature as we develop.
Dr. Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain and “Flipping Our Lid”
So, we can think of the brain as having an upstairs and a downstairs. Downstairs is the reptilian, primitive part of the brain, which reacts instinctually. The Upstairs Brain controls higher-level thinking— imagining, planning, decision-making. When the Upstairs Brain is working properly, we can regulate our emotions, think before we react, have empathy and morality.
If we use our hand as a model, folding the thumb inside a fist, the hidden thumb represents the Downstairs Brain and the fingers wrapping over it are the Upstairs Brain. When we are calm and regulated, we can be upset, but still have rational thoughts about our feelings, as long as the Upstairs Brain is still in contact with the Downstairs Brain. If we get very upset– or if we are presented with more than we can handle, or what you might think of as operating outside of our window of tolerance— we “flip our lid:” the fingers come off the thumb and the Downstairs Brain is on its own and we react emotionally or in a more primal way.
At this point, our higher-functioning brain is not able to do anything helpful– we are operating outside of our window of tolerance.
Your Window of Tolerance
The “window of tolerance” is your magic zone where you are able to cope with life’s challenges. When we are inside the window of tolerance, we still feel stress and pressure, but we’re able to think critically and creatively about ways to manage those challenges. Some of us have a naturally bigger window of tolerance, and we can handle most things pretty well. For others, it doesn’t take much to throw us off-balance. For most people, I would speculate that the fears that come with a pandemic are large enough to at least push us toward the edge of our window.
So, let’s put some things together: when we are not inside our window of tolerance, we don’t have access to our human brain. What does the human brain do for us? It regulates emotions, it handles complex reasoning tasks, it connects us to other human beings with feelings of empathy.
This is why it doesn’t work AT ALL when someone tells us to “calm down.” First, we don’t have access to the part of our brain that regulates emotion or is able to think rationally. Second, we’re not able to feel that connection to the other human being who is trying to help us. We’re in our downstairs brain, our lid is flipped, and we’re outside our window of tolerance.
While we can’t override this primal reaction, we can learn to recognize that it’s happening and learn to work with it. In the next article, we’ll take a quick spin through polyvagal theory (I promise it’s way more fun than it sounds), and then we’re ready to start learning just how we can work withour stress response, befriending our primal instincts to get back into our window of tolerance. That’s right– instead of watching the show about the tigers, you can learn to ride your own inner tiger to greater mental health. And isn’t that way cooler, anyway?