Feelings Old and New

I recently saw two people bump into each other. One person knocked into the other as they passed on the sidewalk.  The person who was not paying attention immediately started to apologize profusely; but it was obvious the moment their bodies made contact, that the person who had been knocked into was transported back to another place and time. His face and body energy were in no way related to the actual moment because the bump was not that harsh but his face was full of fury and frustration. Poor perceptions, unresolved anger and pain are the cause of many, many misunderstandings and can be so potentially damaging.

It’s safe to say that all of us have had our ability to perceive, compromised in some way. Have you ever found yourself thinking about the past and saying to yourself, “Why did I over-react?” Or, have you ever been in a conflict with someone that seemed irreconcilable? The reason for times such as these is that somewhere, at sometime in the past, important emotions were blocked; it often happens from childhood conditioning. Family patterns of behavior often deem certain emotions ugly, wrong and unwelcome. If in the past, feeling afraid or angry proved to be futile, or worse, had the potential to bring on punitive words or physical punishment; well then, the price of allowing ourselves to feel was just too high.

So what happens, if in the past, we were frightened, angry or sad, and were forced to suppress those feelings? Well, this is what I would call trauma. Traumas are not only horrific moments in life. An emotional trauma is any past incident in which you were forced to bypass your feelings.

The following is an example: A child is running in the playground, falls, and severely scraps a knee; it is frightening and painful. If no one empathizes and validates the fear and sadness; no one offers the hug and the soothing words; or if, worse yet, the child is in any way berated or chastised for having fallen; then the fear, anger and sadness are buried. In fact, it’s commonplace for a child who has had an upsetting experience at school, to immediately play out the emotions once within the safer, more nurturing environment of home. I’m a mother, I know.

The consequence of emotional trauma is that it causes all kinds of problems in the present. I have been working with people long enough to know that any interpersonal, irresolvable conflict, occurring in your present, is a repeat of an unresolved, unprocessed trauma from the past.

The problem with suppressed emotions is that they seriously limit our ability to be fully present. The words psychologist Frank Hannah MS,  give more weight to the theory when he writes, “The feeling brain stores the memories, acquired knowledge and beliefs acquired over a lifetime, holding them in readiness to influence, if not determine all of our thoughts, behaviors, feelings and emotions.” So the feeling brain’s memories can and often do, override the present realities.

When emotions are overwhelming and arguments turn messy and frustrating, it is an indication that one or all parties are not fully in the present. The circumstances and people are new, but the feelings they stir up are old. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Somehow, the old, unresolved conflict shows up again as an opportunity to process and heal.

So, when conflict arises in the present what can we do to rectify? First, you need to get quiet and ask yourself, “When in the past did I feel similarly?” You then, need to go back and replay the scene; only this time, you get to express everything you felt. The whole healing process can be done through visualization. Once the suppressed fear, anger, and sadness have been expressed, it is very important to follow with comfort and relief. Just like the child who fell and needs comfort, I advise my students to visualize someone who can offer empathy. Bring one of more individuals into the scene, and allow yourself to be comforted; immerse yourself in that comfort, and actually feel the relief in your body. Imagining allows the body to feel whatever the mind creates and your muscles, bones, cells and systems are all affected as if it were actually happening.

The principle of mind/body oneness has been studied and documented in the work of Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. In a recent radio interview, as a way of explaining the oneness of the mind/body, Ms. Langer spoke of a study done with actors. An actor playing a character, who is completely and utterly immersed in the role, becomes not only akin to the character in outward appearance but also altered on a physiological level (i.e. blood pressure, heart rate). The actor is not ‘watching himself’ be the character, but rather has merged completely with the role; the visualization technique works in the same, exact way. The mind believes, and the body feels and responds.

Discovering where the emotional conflicts are in our past is the key to resolving our present. The word resolve has its roots in the Latin verb resolvere, meaning to loosen. I find the definition particularly accurate when applied to healing the body. The repressed emotions make us tight and stressed, and by resolving the past, we literally loosen ourselves. It’s a shame to let stressful times from the past contaminate our present opportunities for connection.

Once we process any blocked emotions from the past, our ability to perceive is restored, all of our feelings are available to us, our breath flows freely and, we are finally returned to our senses.

Breathing Tips: Sitting at Your Desk

Did you know that the way you sit has a lot to do with the way you breathe? Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time teaching my students about the relationship between their posture and their breathing. Our posture and our breathing affect each other, and both affect our central nervous system. Staying mindful of how we situate our bones on our chairs can help us to breathe more freely and reduce stress in our day. Our bones and muscles are wired to our central nervous system; they communicate to our brain the state of our being. Proper alignment of our bones and the proper relaxation of our muscles also have an effect on our breathing. When bones are stuck in poor positions due to muscles that are chronically contracted, they can jeopardize the flow of our breathing and cause an overstimulation of the central nervous system. The work of Progressive Muscular Relaxationby Dr. Edmund Jacobson of Harvard University explored how our muscles communicate with our nervous system and how we can and should learn how to actively relax. If we are relaxed in our posture we can keep ourselves breathing deeply and our nervous systems running smoothly.

The pelvis is the foundation for posture, and when it comes to breathing we want to breathe right down to that base. I try to help my students find the “neutral” pelvis. When we are at our desks, the comfort of the lower back, proper spinal alignment and quality of breath are all determined by how we are sitting. A relaxed pelvis can ensure that your diaphragm, the muscle that pumps your breath in and out, is able to have its full range of motion. Yourdiaphragm is attached through a network of muscles to your hips and lower back, and so tension in those muscles can prevent the diaphragm from moving freely. By finding a balanced position for your pelvis you can ensure that your hips and lower back are relaxed and that your diaphragm is free to move. Tilting your pelvis forward will arch your lower back, and tilting it backward will round your lower back. Fortunately, a relaxing position between those two possibilities does exist. It is one that will make it easier for your body to breathe deeply. Finding this balance could take a bit of time, so check a mirror, because people who habitually arch when seated will feel rounded when they relax their lower backs. If after you check a mirror your back is in fact rounded, you may have to prop up by sitting on a book. Next, completely relax your gluteus muscles. This is important, because many people are unaware of how the subtle gripping of these muscles tightens and shortens the breath. If you don’t believe me, try purposely gripping your buttocks while attempting a deep breath.

Once the pelvis is neutral, the back muscles and hip bones should feel free from tension; pay attention to how your inhalations are now able to move your lower belly and gently stretch your lower back.

When the pelvis is in a neutral position there is an element of balance. If you find that you can easily tilt your pelvis forward or backward, you have found the proper alignment. Developing mindfulness of our posture helps us to connect with our bodies and can make us aware of subtle tension. When we use only the muscles necessary to maintain our posture our breathing can become more relaxed and more efficient. When our muscles and bones are in balance, so is our breathing.