Recently I have been going through a difficult transition with my career. The stress of trying to fit myself into a box that I don’t desire, don’t feel comfortable in and don’t particularly see as a path towards growth and development has been one of the most psychologically difficult things I have had to deal with.
A few days ago I had a peculiar experience. Returning from work I could feel tightness throughout my back and shoulders, creeping up at the base of my neck and the back of my skull. It is normal for me to have stiffness, especially in the shoulders, often in the neck, but not like this. This was like being gripped. Instead of the usual awareness of being tight, this was an awareness of that tightness actually occurring and taking root in the moment.
There are a couple of techniques I have to handle physical stiffness. One of them is a simple conscious loosening of targeted muscles. When I was on my bike ride home and waiting at a stop sign I took a moment, tried to find some stability and began to consciously target and unwind the areas of tightness, hoping to off set the damage before it occurred this time.
To my great surprise the process of allowing my muscles to relax unleashed an immediate wave of emotion, sadness, the urge to cry. Surprised and ready to start biking again I stopped my meditation and the sadness went away, replaced once again and immediately with the same spreading tightness, though somewhat sharper this time.
I had heard about the relationship between stress and the body, about how emotions reside within us and are carried around by us in ways that are not normally considered when we think about emotions. All of us understand that tightness and stiffness, headaches and other such symptoms come hand in hand with too much stress. It isn’t as common to think about what anger, or sadness, fear or loneliness do to us physically.
When I had finished my commute I was in a pretty bad mood. I didn’t want to let the sadness overtake me on the way home because there was a lot to do in the time I had before the kids went to bed. I didn’t want to miss out on the part of the day I had been looking forward to, and I also didn’t want to have to explain what had been going on emotionally. So the tightness remained, a roadblock to my ability to function properly. It was perhaps a migraine, or very like one, and every moderately loud noise or bright light was piercing. I found myself unable to focus on more than on things at a time, especially noises, and had a difficult time concentrating.
Sleeping didn’t help either. I woke up the next morning with the same tightness, more settled in this time. The same general cloud of distraction had settled around me, and though I was less triggered by my environment, my overall energy, ability to think and focus were all diminished. It was a long day at work and I knew that this wasn’t going to be sustainable.
This time, on my commute home, when I was feeling like there was some space to be alone with myself, I concentrated on letting it all go.
I ended up sitting at the stop sign for much longer on that ride. As soon as I started to concentrate on letting my shoulders relax I felt the same wave of sadness, like the tipping out of a bucket. It wasn’t easy to start. The tears came, which is what my body told me it needed, but they came in waves, and I had to be intentional about maintaining focus on my muscles. After several minutes, however, it started to flow on its own.
Chinese medicine has for thousands of years described most of the ills that befall humans as blockages of energy flows. This is named as Qi, or Chi, and is broadly the circulation of vital energy throughout the body and the world around us. Qi has much in common with the circulation of blood, the circulation of air through the lungs, and all the bodily cycles which are occurring within us moment by moment. Naturally the inability to breathe, or the cessation of blood coursing through our veins will cause significant issues very quickly. Qi, however, encompasses energy which flows through us in ways that western medicine does not accept, or at least does not know how to get a handle on. Though the Chinese describe the cycle of Qi as flowing through bodily organs like the lungs, liver and heart, these are also metaphors describing the nature of the flow rather than a blueprint. At least not for someone who hasn’t been trained.
Problems arise when Qi stops flowing. When there is a knot, or a blockage or an impairment of the usual order. To be healthy is to be in balance and have all of one’s energy flowing properly.
My experience with sadness existing as muscle stiffness was exactly this, a blockage of my emotion. My sense of being trapped, my resentment, my frustration and my hopelessness were all valid feelings which I was not allowing myself to express. Instead of flowing out and through me, they had no path, no option, and so they dug themselves deep into my muscles and nerves. The energy from emotions cannot simply disappear. Blockages don’t simply evaporate. Sometimes they flood, sometimes they trickle, and sometimes time does heal a wound, but more often than not it is because we find outlets along the way. A true blockage will not leave until it is allowed to.
After allowing myself time to cry, and time to express some of the thoughts that I had been having, I found myself in a much better place. My external situation has not changed. The aspects which had triggered these emotions were still part of my life. I am still sticking to this path because of the logical and logistical reasons for which it makes sense at this time in my life, for my family, for stability and other reasons. These elements were also something I had named and discussed ahead of time. What I hadn’t yet done was allow myself the space to experience the emotions that went into those decisions. Just because I have a rational plan doesn’t mean that I need to be happy about it, or that choosing this path wasn’t painful. Carrying that emotion around with me compared to after letting it wash through me is dramatically different. Now, in a space where my head is able to reason, those decisions make more sense and carry more influence.
Feeling my emotions as they worked their way through my body was quite new, and has solidified my respect for the mind/body relationship. So much of what we carry around with us on a daily basis must be emotional and cognitive weight. I am not qualified to talk much about the psychological aspects, but it is clear to me that listening to the signals we receive moment by moment from our bodies can be a critical tool for identifying and addressing aspects of our mental lives of which we are not fully aware.
That emotions are able to affect us physically might seem distressing on one level, but on the other side of the coin it is greatly to our advantage. Whereas psychological issues may be obscure, subconscious and difficult to identify and untangle, physical issues can often be more directly identified and worked upon.
Since so much of our stress and other emotional weight ends up in our muscles it makes sense that stretching exercises like yoga can be so impactful. Massage is also an excellent tool, as well as the anecdotal evidence I have from others about how well acupuncture has helped. Many of these take time, space or money. I highly recommend having at least one of these in one’s life on a regular basis. Clearly they aren’t very helpful when one is in the moment or unable to make the time. I have a couple of simple “take-along” tools that serve me well. The first thing I have at my disposal are breathing exercises that help with focus, reenergizing and relaxing. I have heard them go by a few names, but I learned it from Yogabody as “Water, Whisky and Coffee Breathing“. Whisky breathing in particular is very effective to help relax the body. It helps set the ground for muscles to loosen up and is very effective when used in support of long-hold stretching exercise as well. Doing this breathing technique while mentally targeting tight muscles helps me to loosen up my shoulders during meetings, waiting in line or during any other small break in the day. The second technique I use regularly is a standing meditation called Zhan Zhuang. At its core this is a standing mediation in which one stands legs slightly apart, knees slightly bent, and tried to align the spine so that it sits comfortably stacked atop the hips. If done right the entire upper body hangs off of the spine effortlessly, while the legs remain firmly rooted in place. This builds muscles and stamina in the legs, but also provides an amazing opportunity to allows all of the muscle groups of the torso, shoulders, neck and head to relax completely. This is something that is very effective over a number of minutes, but even doing it while waiting at the checkout line, or any time one has a few minutes to stand , can help to mitigate tension. When used together with whiskey breathing it can quickly turn down the tightness in acute areas.
Embodied emotions are another clear signal that our minds and bodies are more unified than they are separate operations, as much of western philosophy has come to believe. As I continue to explore aesthetic knowledge, muscle memory and the ways in which we can experience the world other than through words, the more I am coming to see the intelligence and understanding which comes through all portions of our existence. Instead of us having a mind and a body, what we really have is a thinking body, a body-mind, of which our brain is only one part.
Learning how to identify and release these blockages of emotion is the first step. Allowing ourselves to feel them is what comes next. I have fewer words to share on this aspect. It is often uncomfortable and painful and feels extremely vulnerable. As the sadness was washing through me I felt unable to control it and had no idea how long it would last. I did know really know what to do, but letting it takes it course seemed to work well. Anything, so long as it was allowed to manifest itself the way my body required. I can’t say I have a lot of experience with my feelings. I am very sure that my relationship with my feelings needs to be rebalanced on the whole. This seems like a good next step in that process, providing vital perspective. One set at a time right?
Paying attention to how we are feeling physically is often much easier than trying to figure out how we are doing mentally. By spending time using some of the mindfulness techniques and trying to target physical symptoms we are also building aesthetic knowledge about ourselves. Like any form of practice, the more we seek to know our own bodies the more in alignment we will be with how we are feeling. This, in turn, will lead to a greater sensitivity and acuteness in how well we can perceive issues as, or before, they become more severe.
I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or medical practitioner. I don’t have training in Chinese medicine or other therapeutic systems. I know what has worked for me and I hope that these techniques can be helpful to others. If you or someone you know is suffering from acute depression, anxiety or other situations which are making your day to day experience difficult and challenging your quality of life then I highly recommend seeking professional support. No one should be in this alone and there are resources and support groups available.