Manage Stress with Mind-Body Communication
By Joan Sloss, Ed.D. LMT
Let’s use the four-color archery bullseye target as a model for stress management options. The outermost black ring represents the situations you have no control over, such as death of a spouse or a catastrophe. The blue zone represents difficult situations that can be improved by acquiring new skill and knowledge. Examples are: training for a new occupation after suffering a disability, or restructuring debt after a bankruptcy.
The red zone represents areas of your life where you have a lot of control over quality of life, state of personal health and success of endeavors. For example, you can learn to communicate more effectively and by this means reduce stress and meet goals more successfully.
The inner yellow bullseye represents the one thing in this world that you potentially have the most control over … yourself. Think of the inner yellow circle as your mind-body connection. As you practice staying aware of your basic life processes, you improve health and performance. Measurable changes in physiological functions correlate to changes in thought, emotion and behavior.
These changes can be maintained without the use of biofeedback equipment.
Muscle tone, heart rate, perception of pain, and even brain wave activity can be improved by using awareness of three personal functions:
- jaw muscle tension
- quality of voice
Conscious breathing gives you control over your autonomic nervous system. Breathing is normally an unconscious activity. For this reason, when breathing is dysfunctional it is habitually so. As stress rises, breath quality drops because stress always includes anxiety. The goal is to make breathing conscious. It takes daily practice. The consequences are powerful.
There is a breathing pattern that is a sure medical sign of high stress. This “stress breath” is shallow, rapid and uses the chest muscles. If this describes your breathing, you are certainly highly stressed. Normal, healthy breathing is slow, rhythmical, deep and pleasurable with long exhales as you breath with your abdominal muscles.
Over eighty published studies correlate a clenched jaw with the other well studied signs of stress including higher resting heart rate, elevated blood pressure, elevated muscle tone and the presence of stress hormones in the bloodstream.
Monitoring jaw activity gives you a second point of control over stress levels. When your jaw and mouth are gently closed, when your lips touch lightly without contact between the upper and lower teeth, and when your mouth opens wide with ease and without pain, your stress levels are likely low. If you feel pressure around the temples, if you are prone to stress headaches, if you grind your teeth, if your neck and shoulders are persistently tight, you most likely clench your jaw.
On the behavioral level, a clenched jaw, just like a clenched fist, is a sign of aggression. The corresponding willful attitude is a fighting attitude, like going to battle with perceived conflict, barriers, and enemies. Relax your jaw and you will automatically relax your vigilance. A relaxed jaw enables you to breath more peacefully. A relaxed jaw corresponds to attitudes and behaviors based on cooperation, trust, patience, gratitude and general perception of good.
Listen closely to the qualities of your voice. Do you sound irritable, demanding, insistent, impatient, or frustrated? If the answer is yes, then you are stressed. Learn to quickly identify stress in your voice. Then immediately take control over your speech. If you are speaking rapidly slow way down. If your voice sounds high-pitched, lower it. Make pauses in your speech and make your breath support your speech. Are you saying a lot? Say less. Say only what is essential and what you most clearly mean to say. A pleasant voice corresponds with a gentle attitude and patient demeanor.
The bottom line is that stressful living is a cultural norm. It is so widespread in the USA that USA could stand for United Stressed Americans. Individuals who want a more peaceful quality of life must learn to go counter-culture. Working moment by moment with your breathing, jaw and voice will slow you down, help you connect with your senses, and help you enjoy life. It will not reduce the quantity or quality of your work. Instead, slowing down can help you to overcome haste and waste, two of the biggest robbers of true creativity and true productivity.
It’s a good idea to limit the use of caffeine, sugar and other stimulants. All stimulants cause the body to release stress hormones into the bloodstream, and thus jumpstart the stress/anxiety response on both the physiological and psychological levels. Make it easy to practice self-awareness and self-regulation by limiting stimulants in your diet.
Ask your spouse, kids, co-workers and friends this question: “Am I fun to be with?” If the answer is “not too often,” pay attention to your stress levels. You have a choice. You can create balance, harmony, organization and sanity. You can hit the bullseye.