Truth: Powerful techniques can be learned and mastered quickly

chicken-timers2The media has exposed us to all sorts of exotic, hard-to-learn, long-time to master methods of stress management. Zen masters, biofeedback pros, hypnosis experts, and yoga gurus have their place and make great copy but they don’t have the corner on all things related to stress.  Learning a few simple and powerful techniques can change your life.  Got two minutes? Learn the following techniques.  Spend some time to master them and  you will have three friends for life.

Find Yourself by Finding Your Body

When we are in the thick of things our attention is cast outward and frequently carries our projections of what we think we are seeing in the people and events of the moment. When we are caught inwardly, we are away from our basic and simple selves and are in the past, future, or in some sort of analysis. When we need a break from either or both, all we need to do is find ourselves by finding our bodies. When we find our bodies, we pull back our projections and outward bound attention and we stop our mental time-travel.

1. Withdrawal your attention from the outside events and from your inside mind chatter and direct it towards finding your body.

2. Scan your body from head to toe, not looking for anything too special but just feeling your body

3. Repeat the scan but this time focus on scanning in the middle of your body. For instance, start at the top of your head and assume that you are focused in the middle of your head, the middle of your throat, the middle of your chest, middle of your stomach, and the middle of your pelvis.  Next, feel yourself scanning down the middle of one arm and hand and next the other.  Next move to each leg.  The goal is feel the solidity of your body.

4. Repeat these scans as many times as you wish to bring your attention more and more to your body.

Flow Along With Your Breath

Your breath takes care of itself and it works sort of like the sea. Waves of air are drawn in and the tides of air go out. Watching the smooth rhythm of your air waves takes your attention, mind and heart along on this easy journey.

1. Come back to your body and find your breath.

2. You don’t have to change its speed or depth.  Just start to follow it by focusing on the in and out of your breathing at the tip of your nose, at the up and down movement of your chest/belly, anywhere you can see the changes of inhalation, pause, exhalation.

3. Follow the flow.

Contacting the World

We contact the world in many ways but the most basic is the small area where we place our body against the surface of a chair, couch, bed, or ground. This is truly contacting the world.  It is point that has some tactile and gravity pressure sensations and it is a good way to anchor us within simple reality for a moment or two.

1. If you are seated, be aware of where your butt, hips, and back touch the chair. If you are lying down, feel the larger area that is in contact with the surface of what you are touching.

2. Note all sensations of this intersection across the entire area that is in contact.

3. Hang out there as long as you want.


Technique Ratings and Notes:

Speed to relaxation onset: Quick
Level of relaxation experienced in first 2 minutes: Mild to moderate
Where can it be used: Anywhere
How noticeable when being practiced: Invisible
Best use (pre-stressful event, during stressful event, post-stressful event; general relaxation): All uses
Difficulty/speed to learn: Easy and fast
Equipment required: Perhaps a watch but a watch is not really necessary; go on feel.

The Three Fires of Stress

Stress is like fire. Our attitudes, thinking, feeling, and the sensations in our body, can  feel like a fire out of control.  The analogy gets more solid when we think about what is happening under stress: our fight or flight system gets cooking; our emotions crank up; our body dumps stress-related hormones into our blood and our brain releases alerting neurochemicals. Everything feels sped up or at least tense.

We know from experience that fires range in intensity, size, and speed of growth, among other factors. Our stress levels follow the same terms.

A Fiery Explosion – Stressful conditions can come at us like a: Boom! Something happens and in a split second we are under stress; someone pushes one of our major “hot buttons”; we are forced to stand up and introduce ourselves; someone robs us. Our limbic system takes over the show and has us reacting much faster than our conscious mind can piece together what is happening. We instantly become loaded with stress hormones and off the fire goes.

A Three-Alarm Fire – This one comes at us more slowly (i.e. we know we have a meeting with problematic people coming up at 3 PM) but soon the fire of stress is raging. This is a more powerful fire and is growing quickly pushing our ability to handle it. If this was a real fire, we would be signalling for more fire-fighting help by using the multiple alarm system. Here we use the popular level of alarm, three-alarm, but the system can go all the way up to ten alarms. Send more help now! Got to get this thing under control.

A Simmering Fire  – Simmering is slow cooking: steady heat applied for a long time. We still get burned but it just doesn’t happen all at once. A perfect example of this is rumination or having some issue hanging around that we can resolve or even look at. The fire is there, sometimes off to the side of our vision as we work or try to relax but other times it flares up and blocks our sight for anything else. Always there, cooking us.

Firefighting – Using the Right Stress Management Technique for the Job – Just as firefighters use different tactics and tools based upon the type of fire, we must know which tools and tactics we need for our three fires. A real disservice provided by the medical, stress management, and psychology communities is the marketing of stress techniques as one size fits all situations. This is simply not the case. A slow method that requires months of practice (i.e. mediation) is going to be of no or very limited help to some in a crisis situation that is a total shock. What is needed there is something very fast, simple, and powerful.

– Fiery Explosions require fast-action and fast-acting stress management. We have to have a well-practiced routine we can jump right into. Something like this routine would work: 1. Say “Stop!” forcefully to ourselves the moment the stressor occurs (this starts to put our mind into the situation and holds off automatic reactions such as anger for at least a few seconds) 2. Center in your body by doing a head to toe scanning with the purpose of drawing attention into the solidity and certainty of one’s body in this hectic moment; 3. Take several abdominal breaths to induce a calming into the body to bring stress arousal down a few notches; 4.  Listen for the three sounds (mindfulness); 5. Say “Stay Centered” to remind oneself that we have the ability to control ourselves. 5. Repeat steps 1 through 5 as many times as needed to create some distance between what is happening

– Simmering Fires respond well to slow methods applied consistently (everyday or nearly everyday) such as: mediation, guided imagery, breath training, biofeedback. These methods bring about a cumulative effect to counter the simmering negative experience and negative side-effects.

– Three-Alarm Fires require fast methods (not as fast as Fiery Explosion methods) but ones that can be applied to moderate depth. Especially helpful is: abdominal breathing, referring to already practice imagery of places of comfortable and stability; mindfulness (simple observations of the sounds, sights, etc. in the area); and passive muscle relaxation.

Quieting Inner Chatter and Dimming Inner Visions – Which Muscles to Relax

Edmund Jacobson gave us Progressive Relaxation to calm our minds through quieting our muscles. In his life-long process of refining Progressive Relaxation he found a profound, rapid, and easy way for getting control of two disturbing activities that we all have: inner chatter and troubling inner visions.  These two processes keep us up at night, locks us in negative ruminations, and blasting ourselves with visions of past events or worries about the future. If we can get free or at least reduce their influence, our stress levels will plunge and we will naturally move into rest and into positivity.

How to Quiet Inner Chatter

When we chat to ourselves in our heads, we actually use many of the same muscles we use to speak out loud. Talking is so well practiced that we tighten throat, tongue, and facial ways that  are unconscious until we learn to spot their movement. Try this: take a minute or more to completely relax your jaw and your tongue. Really relax them. Now introduce some strong thoughts. If you take enough time relaxing the tongue, engaging inner chatter, relaxing, etc. it will become apparent that Jacobson was onto something. Next try relaxing the tongue and then bring in milder thoughts. This is more subtle, but small movement or tightness can be felt on a portion of the tongue.

Jacobson found he could quiet the mind by reversing the brain-muscle process. If he could get muscles to quiet (relax), this would cause the brain to notice and would respond by quieting. So, when being bugged by pesky inner critics or endless self-chatter, rather than engaging with that chatter to try to get it be quiet, go through the following relaxation process. Quiet muscles will lead to a quiet(er) mind.

1. Relax your tongue; relax your lips; relax your jaw; relax the front of your throat outside and work your way inside; relax the muscles that link your throat down to the top of your chest. Repeat the process as many times as you can to quiet the mind. Once you get to a good quiet condition, enjoy and rest.

2. Repeat this whole process several times until you find inner chatter has decreased or even disappeared.

3. Do keep some awareness on your tongue. Tension in your tongue will give you the first clue that inner chatter is starting to creep back in.

How to Dim Troubling Inner Visions

Using the same, reverse brain-muscle relationship process, when troubled by too many or disturbing visualizations, do this:

1. Relax the muscles of your forehead; relax the muscles around your eyes including your eyelids; relax the muscles of your eyes.

2. Repeat this whole process several times until you find your inner visions have decreased or even disappeared.

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Practice, practice, practice this very simple but powerful technique so it is always available to you when you need it. Especially give it a try each night as you prepare for sleep. Also try for breaks at work.

Thank you, again, Dr. Edmund Jacobson.

Muscle Man, Edmund Jacobson

Edmund Jacobson devoted his life to muscles. This journey started when he was in a fire at the age of 10. He made it through the fire unscathed but he was marked deeply by it anyway. He observed previously calm adults switch into full emergency mode in seconds.  How was this possible, he wondered.  What was panic, anxiety, and courageous decisiveness in the midst of crisis?

As Jacobson moved through his schooling, eventually ending up as a professor, he didn’t find many answers to his questions about stress, tension, and emergency response. Early 20th century science just couldn’t provide this understanding so, he would have to do the research himself. He quickly ended up studying bodily reactions to stimuli and from there, muscles.  He carefully noted adults and children as the moved, sat, relaxed, and in sleep (he discovered rapid eye movement dream sleep decades before researchers who get all the credit for it picked up on it). When that wasn’t good enough, he persuaded Bell Telephone Labs to create very sensitive meters to detect small electrical movements in muscle fibers as low as a millionth of a volt.

All of this work did not lead Jacobson to his goal: the heart of emergency response as he had expected, but in the opposite direction, to the world of total relaxation.

In Pursuit of Scientific Relaxation

Applying what he had learned to himself and to some of his patients, he found he had discovered a method that allowed anyone, without any special hypnotic suggestion, medicine, or other external measures, to deeply relax at will. What a person had to do was learn about the brain-muscle relationship that is literally hard-wired into our bodies and take deliberate actions to shift what is happening within that relationship.

We all know that the brain can command certain muscles in the body to get us out of bed and keep us going until the end of the day. Of course, all manner of activities are done with the help of the muscles under brain control as we move throughout that day. That was well known. What Jacobson saw, was less observed: the muscles could command the brain.  When muscles are active, at some level of tension, messages are being sent to the brain that the muscle indeed is doing something. That something can be an action we are aware of, say brushing our teeth, or the action can be something we are not really aware of: clenching teeth, holding tight neck muscles, locking down forehead muscles, etc. Unconsciously producing and holding muscle tension is a perfect avenue for chronic stress to creep into the body.

What would happen, Jacobson wondered, if a person who experienced long term stress learned to relax their muscles on a regular basis?  A person could do this sort of work at the end of the day to unwind (actually, un-tense).  There would be a double effect: unconscious muscle holding would be stopped and in turn, the mind would be quieted by the lack of muscle communications being sent to the brain from the muscles. Indeed, Jacobson found and proved, released muscles lead to a quieter brain and many people benefit from this work.  Jacobson had developed a scientifically based method (in contrast to hypnosis and other methods being practiced at the time), that could be reliably called upon to help people: reduce the experience of pain, get to sleep, and loosen the grip of stress. Jacobson called his program of scientific relaxation, Progressive Relaxation.

Today’s “progressive relaxation” is not Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation

The snag with Jacobson’s method was not any problem with the scientific validity of the process but the length of time Jacobson would spend with each patient. His full program involved, carefully teaching a patient to more and more fully release tension in muscle groups. Jacobson was serious about this learning and expected patients to spend at least one hour a week with him for up to a year!

Showing up at least once a week for a year is not everyone’s thing. Patients and professionals looked for something shorter and when they didn’t find it, they created it. Out of this press for time has come “progressive relaxation” that is fast but in most cases, not deeply effective in teaching people the differences between tension and full relaxation. Today’s approach still progresses through the major muscle groups but doesn’t spend much time on any of the them. Worse yet, those who are less informed, see “progressive relaxation” sort like using a punching bag to work out frustrations. They tell clients to tense a muscle group or a bunch of muscle groups, tense, hold and then release.  That’s it.  The person instructing the patient assumes the patient has just burned off some tension and is in the glow of relaxation.  I hear Jacobson spinning in his grave now.

Much of Jacobson’s approach is lost to our need to rush. The information is there in his many books but what is missing is taking the time to learn what he spent his life uncovering.  A great loss, indeed. Perhaps the gap is filled some what by the rapidly expanding interest in yoga, but that doesn’t quite catch all that Edmund Jacobson meant us to know. It is our intention to do our best to reintroduce the power and potential of the Muscle Man’s work here, in occasional posts, as this blog goes forward. The Muscle Man may be gone but Edmund Jacobson’s powerful scientific technique remains.

Easy Starts: How to Jump Into Meditation

I’m frequently asked what are the best books for starting mediation. I have settled on a short list of resources. Two of them are listed here:

The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism – Australian Paul Wilson came out with this book some time ago but it remains one of my favorites because it is so clear, simple, and precise in its introduction to breathing and mantra meditation. You will find this highly valuable book priced from 1 cent to about 2 bucks. Amazon link

Unplug for an Hour, a Day, or a Weekend: Create a Home Sanctuary with 32 Contemplation Cards, Companion Guidebook, 2 CDs of Guided Meditations is a complete look at mindfulness meditation. It comes in a fun format of: a booklet, two CDs, and “contemplation cards”. Perhaps I’m a sucker for this sort of packaging but it helps make the whole thing feel like an all encompassing experience. At any rate, this box of meditation is grossly under priced ($10) given what Sharon Salzberg includes in her instruction. Amazon link

The No Excuses Massage

Regular, full-body, massage has built-in barriers that keep many people from getting the benefits of touch. First, the cost. Second the nudity (even when it is strategically covered by towels). Thirdly, the time commitment. Small obstacles for some but major obstacles for many, many people.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, “In July 2008, 45 percent of women and 21 percent of men reported having a massage in the past five years.” There appears to be a gap here in terms of using this form of relaxation technique, especially for men.

Chair massage is a great avenue to getting touch relaxation with extremely minimal cost. Chair massages cost between $15 to $25 with times ranging from 15 to 20 minutes. You get back, neck, arm, hands, and sometimes head coverage. No disrobing, simply sit on the chair by resting your knees forward on a special support and rest your face on an oval-shaped pad. That’s it.

Finding chair massage can be tricky. Massage studios emphasize full-body massage so you frequently can’t find chair massage offered in those locations. Where else? Some chains like Massage Envy offer this service, some chair massage practitioners locate in high business areas, and others are found in smaller salons. If you don’t see anything popping up when you put your city or zip code into a search engine, ask around. Ask at salons and ask at mid-level to higher-end hotels. Keep searching because once you find chair massage near you, it will become one of your regular things to do. Barriers removed.