Do you remember the pose? Hands on hips, legs firmly planted a couple of feet apart, spine straight and head held high? Last Saturday, Dr. David Hamilton had us hold this position for two whole minutes, in his seminar on the Science of Self Love at the Tree of Life in Birmingham.
Blood tests and observational studies of people holding this stance show increased confidence, and also increased testosterone and lowered cortisol (the stress hormone).
David also offered evidence from MRI scans to show that we can re-wire our brains if we keep repeating new patterns. These may be actual, for example playing a scale, doing a dance routine or they may be in our mind, we may simply be visualising managing a situation in a different way, the brain scans show the same result and repetition grows new pathways. As those of you learning an instrument probably know, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes fixed.
So it’s very important what we practice. Can you just pause for a minute and notice, what is your body telling your brain right now, what signals is it sending? And what are your thoughts telling your body? Just noticing may help you see more clearly the sort of repeated patterns of body and mind that have become your default way of being.
Our bodies, our thoughts, our muscles are all linked together and as you know, when I am teaching about the anxiety cycle, we can intervene at a chemical level (alcohol or prescribed drugs will temporarily reduce stress) or a physical level (I invite clients to focus on breathing, relaxation and posture) or a thought level (in therapy we look at the thoughts that are causing the muscles and the brain chemistry to cause a stress response) – whenever possible I encourage myself and others to avoid intervening chemically because we can alter our natural chemicals through working with the body and working with our thoughts.
I often liken our body to a blender or smoothie maker: If I press the ‘on’ button on my smoothie maker, it doesn’t think to itself, ‘I wonder if Miriam meant to switch me on or whether she just accidentally pressed the button when cleaning?’ or ‘I’m not sure if these pears are ripe enough to blend.’ The smoothie maker doesn’t reason or decide whether being switched on is necessary or fruitful (pun intended), it just responds to the switch. Our stress system is like this. If I think, ‘I’m late, it’s a disaster!’ I press the stress switch in my body, my body now produces the chemicals necessary to deal with a disaster and I have adrenaline racing around my system for what can be several hours. If something then startles me while my stress system is aroused, for example, another driver pulls in front of me, this adrenaline will be exacerbated.
So our thoughts can produce stress chemicals and our muscles respond, our breathing changes and our mood is affected. We can intervene by changing our thoughts, our body or our chemistry, they are all inter-linked.
I love this Peanuts cartoon, and Imogen from Body Intelligence and I use it on our International Body-Mind Workshops (there’s one this August 2nd, details below). It was wonderful to hear David Hamilton (scientist, author and speaker) explain that due to neuro-plasticity (that means the brain wiring isn’t set permanently but is open to constant change) the work I do on my own development and with clients can make a difference quickly. Changing our self-talk and our thoughts really can have an impact, meaning that our brains change and this impacts our brain chemistry, our muscles and our health.
Changing our posture, can also change the chemicals in our brain. For many years I have known that the body work component of Gestalt psychotherapy can change our mood, and it was fascinating to hear how blood tests prove that different postures raise or lower our stress hormones, our cortisol levels. Of course knowing the theory won’t change us, it is action that re-wires the brain. If you haven’t read my posts on laughter yoga, the links are on this page. I honestly believe that I , and those I work with on a Monday morning in my Laughter and Happiness Group, have re-wired our stress responses through physical exercise and laughter exercises. We learn to laugh in response to triggers that might have once stressed us, like a visa bill, a traffic jam, the internet not working. We open our chests and breathe deeply – the signal to my brain is, ‘Miriam is clearly not in danger as her chest is open and her breathing is deep and her face is smiling’, my brain identifies this as happy and relaxed and produces the appropriate chemicals. This is why even simulated laughter has been shown to have the same health benefits as genuine laughter.
As well as the blood test results of those adopting postural changes, David was showing us brain scans of people who do repeated exercises (mental or physical) a few reps at a time with short breaks and how this massively increases the brain growth in the part of the brain being used. I don’t have all the references to the studies but you can find these in David’s books and on his website.
When Imogen and I joined forces to write and create our workshop based on the interface between Alexander Technique and Gestalt Psychotherapy she and I invited participants to focus on how certain thoughts fire our muscles into action. For example, Imogen invites participants to think, ‘I’ve got to do it now and I’ve got to do it right.’ Just try this for yourself now. Do you notice a change in your heart rate and muscle tension? Which muscles respond?
You can also try, ‘I can’t do it, I give up.’ What do you notice happening in your body now?
For many years as a Gestalt therapist, I have worked with the body, e.g.. ‘Try saying that sentence standing up, standing on the table with your arms open…. try saying that sentence curled up small, in a quiet voice…what differences do you notice in yourself..?’ and so on.
Alexander Technique teachers invite you to notice not to change, Gestalt therapists too invite you to notice how you feel in different postures or as the result of different behaviours. By undertaking Alexander lessons or psychotherapy we can learn to observe ourselves and we can choose to adjust ourselves in order to improve our wellbeing. We make the unconscious conscious and this gives us choice.
David Hamilton taught us that loving kindness, meditation and BODY MOVEMENT can all result in our arteries relaxing and widening. How great is this? Scientific evidence that love is good for our physical heart! Loving, kind and gentle people live longer. David’s new book about the science of self-love will be published in January and he’s doing talks and workshops on this at the moment.
If you are interested in learning more about your unconscious body patterns or thought patterns, then do come on the workshop on August 2nd with me and Imogen. It’s a relaxing fun day, we do floor work, teaching, experiential exercise and discussions. There are spaces for ten participants. Further reading on these topics you will find via David Hamilton’s website and on this website and on Body Intelligence.
So I have adopted a daily Wonder Woman practice, and by having the body of Wonder Woman for two minutes, I know I am now growing the confidence, the brain chemistry of Wonder Woman too!
Poster-2014 For the Body-Mind workshop on August 2nd 2014 is on this link.