How to Flourish Under Pressure with Alpha Waves

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The bad news first!

Early in the 20th Century the American physiologist Dr Walter B. Cannon coined the phrase the "Fight or Flight Response". It is our body's primitive, automatic, instinctive response that prepares the body to "fight" or "flee" from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. 'Freeze' has since been added to the phrase, as the body also has the choice to 'freeze' as a way of protecting itself. By 'body' I mean the 'complete person' (body, mind, emotion, etc.).

Wild Thing!The "Fight, Flight or Freeze Response" is an ancient response that is designed to protect us. However, these days, more often than not, the response is not relevant to the challenges we meet today and can actually be counter-productive. In ancient times 'man' might encounter a wild animal and had two choices, run away (flight) or stay (and fight). Either way the body would respond by flooding itself, instantaneously, with chemicals such as adrenaline, in preparation for protective action. This would happen automatically with no conscious effort. The individual would react appropriately by fighting or running away. This meant that the chemicals had done the job of protecting the person and equilibrium had been restored.

These days we don't usually meet this kind of acute danger, but our body still responds as if we do. Consequently, when we live in a pressurised environment, the 'Fight, Flight or Freeze Response' still wants to protect us by flooding the body with adrenaline (and other chemicals) so that we can be ready to defend ourselves.

For example, if you are involved in a minor car accident, your body will react as if you are in acute danger and get ready for action. Instead of running away or fighting to defend yourself you will exchange names of insurers instead! You can imagine what happens to all these powerful chemicals that run riot in our bodies, but which are not actually needed?

This kind of reaction does not only take place when you encounter acute pressure, but can also occur when chronic pressure accumulates over time. In this instance, the pressure becomes out of control and the smallest thing can trigger the adrenaline rush around our bodies. This makes us feel edgy, shaky, anxious and out of control. Resultant symptoms can be many and diverse.

When our 'Fight, Flight or Freeze Response' is activated (through perception of 'danger', fear or anxiety) chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. The body responds by shutting down certain parts of our physical systems, so that 'energy' in the shape of oxygen, bypasses these systems and is sent instead to the parts of our body that need it most (e.g. muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting). Over time, this process can really mess up our digestive, circulatory and skeletal systems as well as our thinking and reasoning processes.

The body can't distinguish between real danger and perceived danger (what is just in your mind). For example, you might act out a very specific scenario in your mind concerning an altercation with someone, but although it is just in your mind, your body will respond as if it is really happening and will trigger the 'Fight, Flight or Freeze Response'. Some or all of the following will happen: your breathing pattern will change; you may start to chronically, or even acutely, hyper-ventilate. Your digestive system will shut down as the blood supply in the body is taken to the large muscles of the legs as they need more oxygen, ready for running away or for fighting. Hence the dry mouth, stomach and bowel problems, which can accompany the response. Your muscles will tense, resulting in head and neck ache and so on and so forth. This pattern can become a vicious circle and lead to more and more stress. Eventually it can affect every part of you as the immune system struggles, becomes exhausted and finally breaks down.

If you are really successful at this scary, imaginary self-manipulation, you will have at least three possibilities of causing yourself even more stress. You might recognise this pattern as either something you do habitually, or maybe you know someone who does this:

1. Before you actually meet the 'problem' or 'problem person' you start to imagine vividly, how awful they are going to be and how powerless and panicky you will feel. You then anticipate what they will say to you and your response. You can predict how you will feel; how you are going to respond; what they will say and how you would reply. You will probably re-run this scenario until you are under so much stressed that you are no longer as effective as you could be. By now, your blood pressure may be raised and your digestive system is working overtime and the list goes on. Over time, you will become an expert at this pattern, and you will only need the smallest trigger to activate the stress response!

2. At the actual meeting your fears are confirmed and the meeting is truly awful. This is no surprise, because you have engendered a self-fulfilling prophecy. You had rehearsed it well from the start and your mind now has the satisfaction of 'knowing you were right' in the first place. This will leave you with a negative belief, such as 'I am no good at meetings' to add to your unconscious collection of triggers. You will justify those beliefs to yourself and be left thinking things like: 'When I need to have a similar meeting it will always end in grief'. 'I can't speak up for myself...' etc. I am sure as you are reading this you may be able to personalise this scenario and create more negative beliefs along a similar theme! Generally speaking, these beliefs and triggers are learned and occur unconsciously. Your body will respond accordingly, each time you find yourself in a similar situation. Consciously, (i.e. with common sense applied) you know that this does not have to be true, but your unconscious mind has accepted the negative belief so that it can protect you the next time; by either avoiding similar situations or preparing yourself for the worst, if they are unavoidable.

3. On your way home you can then let whatever happened during the meeting run over and over in your mind. Reliving the upset and resulting stress over and over.

The good news......

The mind is a quick learner. As it learned to be on the alert, it can also learn how to dissociate from these scary, angry and, generally-speaking, negative thoughts.

Unless we live in utopia, free from the pressures of daily life (paying bills, bringing up children, and living with others) it is normal and natural for most people to experience pressure in our fast and busy society.

If we can actively balance pressure with time for reflection, it will help us to recover from the damaging effects of pressure. This balanced approach, will allow us to nurture our systems and use pressure as a stimulant rather than a stressor. In turn, this practice will help us to flourish under pressure. We are now in control of the amount of pressure we allow ourselves and we are in charge - we are driving the bus! When we are stressed, stress drives us and we are helpless passengers on the stress bus, unable to get off. It drives us!

The million dollar question is: how do we do this - how do we find our inner peace?

perfect relaxationWe do this by pro-actively doing the opposite of what we do when we allow ourselves to be out of control: we embrace the idea that it is possible to actively practise relaxation. It is the kind of relaxation that is practised at the end of a yoga class. This practice restores and harmonises our complete system and teaches our unconscious mind that it is not only save to be relaxed, but essential for our healthy and effective existence. We owe it to ourselves and our nearest and dearest.

There is now so much evidence of the physical and mental benefits of relaxation that I don't think it is necessary to linger on this. You only need to google 'relaxation' and it will return so much relevant information. The moment you decide to take about 20 minutes out of your day to nurture your nervous system with relaxation, you will re-discover your inner strength, optimism and your quiet centre again. I use the word again, because that peaceful inner centre has been there all along, but you might not have touched upon it for a while. Active relaxation will bring this back to your consciousness and gives you the power to be in a relaxed state and literally flourish under pressure.

For the past forty years, I have worked with stressed people, initially with yoga, and later in health education and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). Even forty years ago, people were telling me that they were stressed and came to yoga to relax. However it was not until I studied NLP that I fully understood, why a lot of people were telling me that they could not relax completely, even during a yoga class.

I studied what actually happened during relaxation sessions, while I worked for the British Wheel of Yoga as a DCT (teacher trainer). During my time as a DCT, over a period of twenty years, I visited many classes to assess the student teachers for their final class assessment (prior to qualification). What I often observed, was that teachers were leading the relaxation sessions from their own perspective. They did this, because their own experience of total relaxation was the experience they wanted to pass on to their students, because it had worked so well for them. They wanted to share that wonderful feeling, which is completely positive. This is not meant as criticism, but just as an observation. It made me think and then consider what was necessary to make sure that every person in a yoga class would get the relaxation experience that was perfect for them?

NLP taught me that to be really influential at an unconscious level; teachers would need to use language patterns that the unconscious mind of each and every one of their students could relate to. Applying this to my own teaching was just so effective. I was quite astounded by the response I received when I started using some of these NLP skills in my own classes. The spontaneous feedback I received from my students was startling!

After teaching yoga for about 25 years, I started writing scripts to help keep me on course with the new language patterns rather than falling back on the old ones I had automatically used for so many years.

I now teach these patterns as part of an 'In Service Training' course for the BWY and also as open courses for all relaxation teachers and trainees. The patterns are easy to learn, very practical and can be personalised by each teacher.

So the 'good news' is that you can learn to be relaxed, and with each session you will remove more and more of the stress patterns from your being. I like to relate it to a gentle cleansing process; you don't need to add relaxation to your being, you already possess it at your very core. What you might need is a process of daily relaxation that works for you, so that you can find your inner peace, which has been there all along waiting for you to re-discover it.

Best wishes, Antonia Boyle

NB: I would be delighted to run the NLP for Yoga Tutors Course for any yoga teacher or teachers' groups. Read More>

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Alpha Waves, Westerham Kent