Stress Lessons Taught By My Body

I was at a stormy period of my life with my business in trouble and my marriage a minefield.  On a stool in my garage I sat rocking back and forth with my jaw in my hand, suffering from an excruciating toothache.  Almost absentmindedly, as if to distract myself from the pain, I began to massage under the ear, around the jawline, even under the tongue.  The pain was electrifying.  Then suddenly it vanished.  It completely disappeared, and never returned.

That marked a turning point.  I realized my toothache was not a dental problem, but a mental problem.  Stress. MY BODY WAS SPEAKING AND I DIDN’T KNOW THE LANGUAGE.

I vowed to learn it. 

I began to read up on recent research in alternative health and to take classes in body work.  Discoveries I made changed my life.

I learned that my tendency to freeze under stress is a well-documented phenomenon, called a neural hijacking.  It happens when the thinking part of the brain shuts down because the ancient, emotional brain, is on hyper-alert.  Under sustained stress the emotional brain, on survival mode, effectively short-circuits the slow, thinking part of the brain. 

Thus, learning to reduce and manage stress is essential to remaining clear-headed and alert, particularly during times of trouble.

Happily, there is a positive flip-side to this body-brain connection. Research proves you can “rewire” your brain to change the mental, emotional and physical habits of a lifetime. It's called "neuro-plasticity" - and it is very good news.

But positive rewiring of old habits isn't easy.  It requires sustained, mindful intention.  By “mindful” I simply mean being aware of whatever it is you are doing, while you are doing it.  This can include paying attention to your internal thought-loops and emotional states as well as your physical posture, depending on what it is you are trying to improve.

The first lesson I learned from my body, on the day of the toothache, was the intimate connection between body and mind: the brain can cause physical pain.

That led to the second lesson – which I learned later from yoga class – that intentional, mindful physical activity can help manage emotional stress. I was lucky to discover Iyengar yoga, a practice that focuses on slow, precise alignment within each pose.  The teacher provides detailed, individualized corrections as students learn to send precise intentions (that is – to rewire) each part of the body.

I can personally vouch for the benefits.  The daily practice on my living room floor not only gave me greater strength, flexibility and vitality, it calmed my mind.   When I attempt a pose, sending a precise intention to each part of my body, my mind is completely absorbed. My brain is too busy to be anxious.  I don’t think about dinner or financial problems or conflict at work.  Without realizing it I was doing meditation-in-action.

The mindful yoga practice did not fix my problems at home or work.  But I was no longer frozen.  I was able to respond decisively as issues arose, and from that, to feel strong. 

You can’t control life’s storms or calm the ocean waves.  But you can take your board out on the water and learn to surf.