It's important to read this if you suffer from stress which can leave you in pain, with tired muscles, feeling unable to enjoy your life. The purpose of this article is to help you understand how you respond to stress and how you can regain control over this response and be stress - free again!
In a modern urban life we face so many challenges that our senses are constantly being bombarded and overloaded with sensory information. Noisy, busy streets, electronic screens advertising commodities, bills to pay; it is no wonder we have been forced out of touch with ourselves, far from our natural state, desperately clambering back and grasping out for some inner calm.
Having so much going on around us can be very overwhelming as we are constantly reacting to our environment; this creates a busy mind which equates to an overactive body and nervous system. We live in a digital world where our brains don't get much time to switch off. Research suggests that constantly processing enormous amounts of information puts a lot of pressure on the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for decision making and problem solving. This is often reflected in the body, particularly through muscle tension and fatigue, which ultimately makes us feel worse, causing a type of negative loop which feeds back into itself.
Somehow we need to find a way in to stop this cycle between mind and body; this is where the Alexander Technique comes in: Learning the Alexander Technique is fundamentally learning a self-care skill and it's extremely effective for managing stress and how we react to the environment around us; it works on both a mental and physical level, or what I would call a psychophysical basis. This is because your body and mind work in unity with each other and are not separate.
The Alexander Technique teaches you first of all how to become aware of these unhelpful patterns by bringing them to your awareness. Only then can you let go of unwanted tension and regain more control over how you respond to the world around you. Stopping and becoming more aware of habitual tension patterns is the first step in learning how to stop or inhibit them in the first place. Once you have learnt to do this, you are then ready to apply some practical directive thinking; a skill which you learn in an Alexander Technique lesson.
Learning how to stop!
Sources of stress are inevitable, but how you respond to stress is something you can have control over and this all starts with learning how to stop. Stopping is about learning to control your muscles from getting over tight and not letting them run riot which takes a certain quality of mind and thinking. It's a skill and it takes practice but once you've learnt it, it can be applied anywhere and at anytime. By coming to quiet in your mind, you can tour your body in your thinking and learn to undo certain parts which have become chronically stiff. It doesn't matter at first if you can feel anything, the important thing to remember is that thoughts actually equate to neurological impulses and by developing your conscious awareness, you can have more conscious control over how you react to general living.
Free your Neck, free your breath!
We all respond differently to stress, however, we all show varying degrees of the same characteristics such as tight neck muscles or pulling our heads down onto our body and holding our breath. You probably won't even be consciously aware of your tight neck muscles as your brain recognises this feeling as 'normal' or 'right'. Others of you will be very aware of stiff muscles and may even feel the pain and tension that keeps accumulating.
When you are stressed or anxious, starting with your neck is a good place to start as this regulates how your head is balanced on your spine. Your neck actually finishes right up at the occiput which is the back of your head located around the bony ridge structure. Beneath this part of the head are the sub-occipital muscles which delicately regulate how your head balances on top of your spine. You won't be able to feel these muscles but often they can become locked and tight, contributing to a constant pulling of the head onto the spine. The head is heavy (about 5kilos in an average adult) and when it drags on the body it causes compression which basically squashes us and restricts freedom of breath. This pattern is actually part of the startle pattern but not as extreme. By undoing your neck you can restore your natural head balance, free your breath and allow other muscles to undo. When you free your neck the rest of the body actually has more chance to unravel too in a cascade type of reaction. Allowing your neck muscles to let go and do their job properly also helps with un-clenching your jaw.
Some helpful tips to try:
1. Sit comfortably and don't hold your breath
Firstly, sit yourself comfortably with your feet on the floor. Allow the breath to come in and out of your nose without forcing it. Make sure you are balanced on your sitting bones (the bony rockers underneath your pelvis). Many people don't realise they're actually sitting on their tale bone causing a whole collapse of the back. Don't hold yourself rigid, you want a free openness of the back and torso with a sense that the head is moving away from your tailbone. Don't force it, just think it!
2. Give yourself permission to stop...
Try to quieten your mind from racing or anxious thoughts of the day. Actively ask your mind and body to be still and give yourself some space and time to do nothing.
Let your hands openly rest on your legs and un-grasp your fingers. Now ask yourself again, am I holding my breath? Don't try to deep breath, just see if you can allow your breath to come in and out through your nose by itself.
3. Let's think Neck...
Now ask the muscles of your neck to un-grip and be free. Include in your thinking the sides of your neck and the musculature at the front where your throat is. As this area unlocks you may even feel your tongue loosen. Allow your larynx to be freely suspended in the throat and unclench your lower jaw.
Now bring your attention to the back of your head and occiput and ask for freedom and lightness there. Hopefully with all this thinking you haven't held your breath. As the muscles of your neck undo, allow your head to rebalance itself.
What I have covered so far in this article is just one aspect of the Alexander Technique. Do try it out at home or next time you are stuck on an overcrowded train or before a job interview. Learning to stop and to actively release tension is a neuromuscular skill I build on in private lessons which are tailored specifically for you. Under the direct guidance of a skilled teacher's hands your nervous system will calm more quickly and gain longer lasting benefits for coping with stress. Clients of mine often find it beneficial to have a course of lessons which lays the foundations and provides them with essential tools for helping them maintain themselves and regulating stress and tension levels.
So by learning to stop and notice how you are responding to your environment is fundamental in managing stress and stopping this accumulation of tension in the body. As excess tension disappears, you feel better in your body which gives your mind a bit of space too. For more practical ideas, you can read my active rest blog and give the semi supine practice a go!
I do hope you find reading this article useful. If you liked this, and you want to be more stress free and get back to enjoying the activities you love, then click here and send me a message with the words Stress Free in the comment box to arrange your individual appointment.
Enjoy your day!
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