May 5, 2019

Using the Body’s Natural Defenses to Help us Relax: a 5-minute Meditation.


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Sometimes, I find it impossible to unplug myself from the chaos of this busy world we live in.

I’m pretty much always on the move and often feel overwhelmed by endless to-do lists, not to mention the constant interruption of notifications (thanks to the glorious invention of the smartphone).

I’m so busy, in fact, that I have to actively relax. As in, I have to actually schedule “time to relax” on my calendar.

Because even as a mindfulness teacher, it’s still a constant challenge for me to slow down, be fully present, and listen to what my body is telling me it needs.

Why we find it hard to relax:

According to Compassion-Focused Therapy, we have three internal “systems” that motivate us to respond, react, and take action in any given situation.

These are known as the threat, drive, and soothing systems.

Here’s how they work:

>> Threat system: runs on adrenaline, tries to protect us, often triggers us to feel anxious, stressed, disgusted, or angry.

>> Drive system: runs on dopamine, tries to motivate us toward resources to aid survival, often triggers us to feel focused, and regulates attention and learning.

>> Soothing system: runs on oxytocin, tries to manage distress, often triggers us to feel content, safe, and protected.

But how these systems play out in our lives largely depends on our personal experiences.

For example, I grew up in an environment where achievement was the only thing that mattered. Striving for perfection became like a drug; it’s how I felt good about myself (and what I was rewarded for by my parents and teachers).

My brain, therefore, created an association between achievement and pleasure—and I began to operate primarily from my drive system.

And I recently realised that despite my rigorous mindfulness training, I still spend my “down time” doing drive-focused activities (such as studying), rather than just allowing myself to fully relax.

The truth is, I feel like I’m wasting time if I’m doing anything other than pushing toward a goal.

And I know I’m not alone.

So many of us allow our threat and drive systems to rule our respective roosts.

For example:

How often do you feel drained or irritable, because you’re just completely overwhelmed? (Hello, threat system!)

How often do you feel jacked up while working on a project, because you’re working toward a big goal? (Drive system alert!)

It’s not entirely our fault, of course, our achievement-oriented culture doesn’t exactly encourage us to chill out and get in touch with our soothing system.

But we can learn ways to develop this soothing system and relax. When we become experts on ourselves, we intuitively know how to self-soothe.

The best way to do this is to learn to pay more attention; to our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our needs.

Taking a moment to check in and identify what I need, has been crucial in learning how to tap in to my own soothing system, and to allow myself to fully relax.

This is a simple five-minute self-soothing technique that you can do anywhere, any time:

Minute 1: Ground

Start by closing your eyes, or simply lowering your gaze. Pay attention to the sensations in the soles of your feet. Notice the contact they make with your socks, shoes, and the ground. Feel the earth beneath your feet.

Minute 2: Melt

Allow your body to relax. Unclench any muscles you’re holding, and pay particular attention to your facial muscles, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Let your body become heavy and allow yourself to feel supported by the earth.

Minute 3: Breathe

Shift your focus to your breath. Try to simply notice your breath flowing in and out of your body, without attempting to change it. Notice where you feel the breath most strongly; it could be in your nostrils, your chest, or deep in your belly.

Minute 4: Open

When you feel settled, place a hand on your heart, or simply bring your attention to your heart space. Ask yourself, “how do I feel right now?” Pay attention to the physical sensations in your body, and any answers that arise from your inner self.

Minute 5: Accept

Once you’ve identified how you feel, place your other hand on your belly, or shift your attention to that internal space. Ask yourself, “what do I need right now?” Again, pay attention to any feelings in your body and to any signals your inner self may be sending.

Trust the answers you get—remember that you are the expert on you.

Then, take whatever action your intuitive inner wisdom has guided you toward, allowing your soothing system to “take the reins” for a little while.

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