Taking the Chill Pill: Some Lessons in Relaxation

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

Picture yourself sitting on the beach, or in a forest if you don’t care for beaches, or at a familiar, nostalgic spot. If you imagine yourself there, what kinds of things do you see? On the beach, can you smell the salt in the air? It in the forest, do you hear the buzzing of bees? In that nostalgic spot, are you wrapped in some cozy blanket, tasting your favorite comfort food?

If you pictured yourself in a favorite spot or a dream spot, you’ve just taken a mental vacation. Learning the skill of stepping away from the present moment and engage your imagination is a relaxation tool that can be very helping in managing stress or anger.

You may or may not have heard of relaxation techniques. Maybe relaxation seems like laziness, like a lack of productivity when there is so much that needs to be done. Research continues to find more and more benefits of relaxation. To sum it up: it’s good, and we need it.

Relaxation slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, slows breathing, reduces the need for oxygen, increases blood flow to major muscles, and reduces muscle tension. So physically, it counteracts the fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and stress. Relaxation helps stop the cycle in its early phases, or limit damage in anticipation of stressful or angering triggers.

Those who learn to relax experience, in general, fewer headaches and back pain, fewer emotional responses anger or frustration, have more energy, improved concentration, greater ability to handle problems, and more efficiency in daily activities. Because emotion is physical, it takes energy to experience it. Relaxation allows that system to take a break and refresh.

You can learn relaxation techniques from a professional (complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, doctors, psychotherapists, and life coaches) or learn relaxation techniques on your own. At their core, these techniques are about refocusing your attention to something calming and increasing awareness of your body. The key to developing the skill is practicing regularly.

The mental vacation we started with is a visualization exercise. Other types include focusing on your body and focusing on deep breathing, relaxing muscle tension. The publication Real Simple provides a great guide talking you through the exercise.

Close your eyes and gently bring your lips together. Inhale through your nose. As you exhale (also through your nose), make a humming sound: “Mmmmmm.” Let this hum last as long as it is comfortable. Then inhale and repeat. Don’t try to control it too much. Just breathe in and hum out. If you try to extend the hum longer than is natural, you might tighten up. Play with the tone until you find the place where your “mmmmmm” flows out in a comfortable, lowish pitch, audible but quiet enough that no one except, say, the person right next to you on the bus would hear it. The humming breath has a way of loosening your jaw, mouth, lips, and tongue—areas that tend to tense up when you’re nervous. Once you’ve found your hum, repeat it whenever you start to feel anxious— whether you’re standing, sitting, or walking.

Progressive relaxation trains you to mentally learn how to control muscle tension. Going one-by-one, you alternate tensing and relaxing the various muscle groups twice, tensing for at least five seconds and relaxing for 30. The more you practice, the more aware you become of physical sensations. In time you can learn to choose to relax your muscles without going through each step.

Still other types include yoga, tai chi, music, exercise, meditation, hypnosis and massage. There are different principles behind each so there is no one size fits all recommendation for a whole relaxation regimen. Just like any training, start now and find yourself more prepared for when stressful, irritating or unjust moments strike.

Anger: Learning to Quell the Storm

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

While fear is related to the future, anger is caused by something in the present. At the heart of the emotion is to put an end or escape the negative thing that has or is happening.

Like the other emotions, anger is part of being human. It moves within us and we discern what to do with it. Like the virtues, experiencing anger in appropriate amounts, leads to being good-tempered. We should get angry when the situation calls for it. Too much or too little indicates a problem.

Do you think you might have a problem with anger? Some people get angry too quickly, with the wrong people or at the wrong times, even though the anger calms quickly, it may be a problem. Some are ready to be angry with everything and at every occasion. There are those who are difficult to appease. Their anger seems to last forever. Or they repress it and sulk. Then there are those who get angry at the wrong things, or overreact and then stay angry until they can get back at the other person.

If you feel angry, you might listen to the argument to a point, but mishear it, feeling insulted where no insult exists.

Anger comes out of sadness. A difficulty occurs. Giving in leads to sadness. Moving to attack leads to anger. One of the first steps to overcoming anger is to focus on the enduring pain/emotion. What hurts to most?

When experiencing anger, you can either express it, suppress it, or calm it. Taking time to think about the core emotion is an act of calming the anger.

Increasing emotional awareness gives you the opportunity to learn to regulate emotion. Reflection leads to discovered meaning. You can learn to transform that emotion. It can’t just disappear. Like energy it can only be converted. Anger can transform to sadness or shame or compassion (the core emotion).

If you’re angry with the person, try empathizing. What might she be feeling? What could his motivation be? Empathy means picturing yourself in the other person’s shoes, with his perspective or background. You may respond differently to a situation, but empathy means seeing how her reaction was understandable for her.

If you find, even after reflection, that there was no misinterpretation on your part, that what happened was wrong, you were wronged, learning to express your feeling or experience in a clear and effective way will help satisfy your anger. It won’t erase the wrongdoing. Only forgiveness will help you to fully let go and move on.

In the mean time, some strategies to help manage anger include relaxation exercises, re-framing how you view the situation (empathy, alternative explanations), problem solving, better communication, using humor (not sarcasm), and changing your environment. There is a lot to be said for taking a twenty-minute break to cool down in the heart of an argument. Emotions are physical. Stepping away from the trigger will help calm the fight-or-flight mechanism that urges you to fight.

The earlier you can break the anger cycle, the better. Challenge the thoughts that trigger anger. You can talk yourself down as a friend might thinking to yourself, “calm down,” “relax,” “there might be another explanation.”

Give due justice by acknowledging when it’s reasonable that you are frustrated. Reflecting after an anger episode can help you build awareness to what words or actions trigger your anger. It can also help you avoid saying or doing things in the heat of anger. Everyone has an anger cycle. Try to draw yours on a piece of paper.

Venting anger won’t necessarily make you feel better (complaining, hitting things), but if you feel yourself losing control, it is always better to exercise your anger-energy in a safe way that does hurt people or property.

Of whom should I be afraid? At the heart of fear

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016

To talk about goals, we must talk about the essential step of identifying obstacles. Obstacles may be concrete (not enough money), personal (procrastination) or harder to trace (fear of failure).

Fear is an emotion. We don’t make it happen. It happens to us. It can occur because of a personal belief, a necessary decision, or before we’ve even had a chance to think. Once it happens, we can use our thinking to increase or decrease the emotion. Cognitive therapy uses this technique to help lessen fear.

Fear has to do with the future, a fear of something that is difficult or impossible to overcome. With fear, there is also a feeling of hope of escape. If we didn’t hope that there is some way out, we’d feel depressed or despair.

Because of this difference, fear itself is not a bad thing. It can push us towards caution or towards action, depending on the difficulty.

In psychology, fear is considered from a biological and cognitive perspective (our bodies and our thinking). The fight or flight mechanism moves our bodies to action by raising heart rate, tightening muscles, and shortening breathing when the mind perceives some threat. As pure instinct, this happens without any thought. If while camping, Joe encounters a bear, his body is ready to save him, perhaps even before he’s fully aware of how dangerous the situation is. We still may experience fear without a physical threat. The same mechanism occurs. If you can’t always run or fight, the physical reaction may turn to anxiety.

If you feel fear or anxiety, ask yourself, what am I afraid to lose? It could be an opportunity, a loved one, reputation, security or many other possibilities. The answer tells us something about our values. Times of crisis reveal what matters most. Day-to-day anxiety can tell us the same.

Fear can transfer from the thing we fear to lose to the person or thing that makes us afraid. This is called transference. If I fear loss of safety, I become afraid of the aggressor. If I fear loss of love (rejection), I may fear confronting my partner. Naming the fear on the deepest level and acknowledging any transference that has occurred with help develop the thought process needed to work through, plan and possibly face the fear.

Sometimes we’re afraid because the thing we fear just seems so much bigger than us. Its magnitude implies its power. It implies we have less control. Ask yourself, how much control do I have in this situation?

There may resources or training available to empower you. Knowledge may help you face it. Reassessing values, contemplating such concepts as the meaning of life and death may help. Something as simple as the support of a friend, or knowing another has faced what you face now, can give you the strength and courage to know that the thing you are afraid is not as powerful as it feels.

Fear is natural and part of the human experience. Nevertheless, one may lose his ability to judge the appropriate amount of fear for a situation. Small things may seem bigger than they are, more dangerous even though the place is safe. It might become frightful to meet new people or go to a new place. In this case, the fear is disordered. If severe enough, the person may suffer from an anxiety disorder.

To maintain balance, when you fear afraid or anxious, ask yourself, “what am I afraid of losing?” Consider if the fear is realistic or not, and what would happen if you really lost it. It might not be as bad as you fear.

Inside Out: Drawing Attention to the Face of Emotion

We have to face our emotions. The wide range of emotions shape our experiences and who we are in good and complex ways. Pixar’s recent film, Inside Out, illustrates the beautiful mess that is our emotions. In it we see the emotions personified, vying for the right way to handle a situation, one taking over when the others can see no other way, pushing in at times. Joy’s childlike optimism runs the show until the time comes when Joy can no longer be the solo player, allowing the other emotions only supporting roles. There comes a time when sadness is inevitable, and facing sadness, facing the situation for the badness of the situation has merit, and empathy can heal us enough to help us move forward, returning us to joy.

The film highlights the fundamental emotions that come with being human: joy, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust. Research has shown these to be universal, recognizable face expression across cultures. Joy is the optimist, and Sadness is the pessimist. Anger interprets situations as slights to self, judging negatively the motives of others. Disgust finds initial dislike in all things, but is also able to finely tune the subject’s taste to a more refined pallet, be it a good outfit or aversion to broccoli. Fear creates caution, but also panic. Part of the process in the film, is the move on the part of Joy to understand the role and value of Sadness, who from the beginning seems only to thwart Joy’s efforts at making the subject happy.

Perennial philosophers referred to these emotions as passions, movements within us that happen separate from our will. I do not choose to be sad when a bad thing happens. We first experience the passion and then use our minds and desire to either advance, retreat or reshape the emotion. I choose how I react to sadness.

Emotion occurs as a learned response or as an innate reaction to a stimulus. We experience a natural disgust to large numbers of maggots. We have a natural fear of snakes. Hormones can move emotion within us. The flux of hormones for women at moments in her menstrual cycle may cause unexplained anger or sadness. Oxytocin is release when a person looks at or holds an infant, creating a sensation of joy.

Since we share emotions with animals, it is our ability to make a choice in reaction to the emotion that separates us from the animals. Men in a sudden state of anger are expected to refrain from attacking another person. People are expected to choose a better way when attracted to someone who is not their spouse. We see the raw emotion and inability to regulate in toddlers. In the face of a toddler tantrum, one may think, “if only he could understand.” But understanding comes with age and maturity.

When we gain that understanding, our emotions can become powerful tools. As the body uses pain to tell us something is wrong, so the “negative” emotions can communicate the same. Disgust to protect us from poison, fear to protect us from danger. There are experiences in life that are unfair. Anger can motivate us to act for the sake of justice. Sadness can push us reach out to others.

If only it were so simple. Experiences may condition us to overreact or under react to situations, like nerves deadened through trauma. We may not experience fear when we ought, and be more risky than is wise. In the coming posts, I discuss each emotion in greater depth, how it can go array and ways to manage the emotion when the reaction it motivates is less than virtuous. Stay tuned.