HELP FOR STRESS DISORDERS
By Eleanor Eggers, Ph.D., LP, BCB, (Senior Fellow)
I also taught people to practice a method of my own which I called Minis. It is a way of turning off the stress response. I recommended that people practice Minis in addition to practicing Autogenic Training or any other form of deep relaxation practice. (I referred to the latter as Maxis.) By Minis I refer to very short practice periods of relaxation of certain critical parts of the body.
They were to perform many Minis every day. How many? We never counted, but, hopefully, they would do them every few minutes. That would make a total of, maybe, fifty to a hundred times per day. They were to practice them until they realized that they had reached their goal of developing a new habit of holding their body in a relaxed fashion rather than in a tense fashion. In the process they developed a constant awareness and control of how they were holding their body.
Everyone can safely do the Minis, and everyone can benefit from doing them. I recommend them highly. There are no restrictions.
Even children can practice them successfully.
Mini # 1-A
Whenever you are doing something which does not require your full attention and especially when you are dealing with a stressful situation, check to see what you are doing with your tongue and jaw. If you find that your tongue is plastered against the roof of your mouth and your jaw is tense, perhaps with your teeth touching, remind yourself to let your tongue and jaw relax and to let your tongue rest limply on the floor of your mouth. The tongue and jaw are critical indicators and also triggers of chronic low-grade tension throughout the body. If you can learn to let them stay relaxed when you are not using them to talk or chew, it helps the whole body to stay relaxed. You will notice that you can perform more effectively and efficiently while your posture is relaxed rather than tense.
It is okay to hold your lips together while you are practicing “normal” relaxation in order not to look “foolish” to other people. If no one is around you can let your lips part a little. (During deep relaxation, the jaw automatically drops a bit and the lips part slightly. We will talk more about that in Lesson 7 on Autogenic Training.)
It is astonishing how many of us develop the habit of holding our tongues pressed against the roof of our mouths. This is a response to stress which has become so habitual that it feels “right”. While learning to let it rest on the floor of our mouths, we go through a period in which the tongue does not feel “right” in any position. After performing many Minis, we finally get to the point where it feels comfortable resting on the floor of our mouths. Eventually, when we check our tongue and jaw we find that they are relaxed, that the tongue is resting limply on the floor of our mouths and the jaw is loose instead of tight. At that point the tongue and jaw are no longer creating and/or reflecting a state of chronic low-grade tension throughout the body.
How long does it take?
It takes as long as it takes to change any habit related to posture. Probably five or six months, perhaps longer, depending on how diligent and persistent you are with your practice. One simply has to keep monitoring and correcting the unwanted behavior frequently until, finally, the new behavior becomes the norm. What we are doing is developing a constant awareness and control of what we are doing with our bodies and learning to hold them in a relaxed fashion rather than in a tense fashion.
Why does it work?
Because we are turning off the stress response each time we check and then relax the critical areas involved. We have developed the habit of reacting with an inappropriate stress response to situations which do not involve a physical threat. We need to reserve the stress response for situations which actually present real danger and require a physical response. The stress response is also called the "fight or flight" response, implying that it is meant to be used for fighting a really dangerous threat or running away from it.
The stress response involves many changes in the body. These include tension in the tongue, jaw, shoulders, and breathing. When we consciously let these relax, we turn off the stress response throughout the body. We are simply reminding our bodies to perform in the way they were meant to perform in the first place. Our bodies did function in a very relaxed way when we were babies. We have all had to deal with a lot of stress since then! We used to possess all the relaxation skills; we simply need to reestablish them. That happens readily because that is the way we were constructed to function.
Mini # 1-B
When you become accustomed to the idea of checking your tongue and jaw every few minutes, add checking your neck and shoulders, particularly your shoulders. Let your shoulders relax whenever you are not using them to perform some task. Let them be down instead of up, and perhaps think the word “down”. The shoulders are another key indicator of chronic low-grade tension. We frequently react to stress by tensing and raising our shoulders.
Many of us go around with our shoulders elevated pretty much all the time. The shoulder muscles extend up into the neck; so that gets affected too, sometimes causing pain. When we can change our habit of holding the shoulders in a tense, elevated position to one of holding them in a relaxed, down position, that will go a long way toward correcting our condition of chronic low-grade tension throughout our body.
Mini # 1-C
When you have developed some skill at remembering to check and correct the tension in your tongue, jaw, neck, and shoulders, try to include checking your breathing at the same time. Your only task is to make sure that you are breathing abdominally. Relaxed breathing involves breathing into the lower part of the lungs rather than the upper part of the lungs. When the lower part of the lungs expands during inhalation, this causes the abdomen to rise a little. The abdomen then falls a little during exhalation. Hence, we call relaxed breathing abdominal breathing. When people are tense, they sometimes breathe only into their chests or the upper part of their lungs. This triggers tension throughout the body. So it is very important that people learn to develop the habit of abdominal breathing rather than chest breathing. The way to accomplish that is to check one's breathing frequently and correct it when necessary. Just be careful not to overdo it so that you make an effort out of breathing. Breathing needs to be automatic and effortless.
Mini # 2
Doing a Mini # 1 (a, b, and c) takes very little time, only a few seconds, and can be done while doing other things. In fact, the idea is to practice it in a way that others will not notice and that will not interfere with your activities in any way. Mini # 2 is to be done whenever you have a little extra time to devote to it, perhaps a minute or two, perhaps more.
To do a Mini # 2: After doing a Mini # 1 (a, b, and c), please pay attention to your breathing and simply watch your body breathing effortlessly for a minute or so (longer if you feel like it). Also notice how calm, regular, automatic, and shallow your breathing is. (Your breathing becomes shallow whenever you are inactive physically because your need for oxygen becomes minimal.) Do not practice “deep breathing” as this involves effort and, therefore, tension. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel the warmth and also the rising and falling of your abdomen. In addition, you can imagine sending warmth to the rest of your body during every exhalation, particularly to your arms, legs, and torso.
Coping with High-stress Challenges
If you are facing a particularly stressful situation or a need to perform in a manner which is especially difficult for you, such as giving a speech, taking a test, being evaluated by your supervisor, or doing something else you are afraid of, performing a quick mini has the potential of "saving" you. If you consciously relax your shoulders and focus on keeping them relaxed, you will find that your anxiety has practically disappeared because you have turned off the stress response. If you can manage to relax your tongue and jaw at the same time, that will add to your ability to stay calm while taking on the stressful task.
Maintenance of a Relaxed Posture
Performing the Minis diligently will help you develop a new habit of holding your body in a relaxed fashion rather than in a tense fashion. This goes a long way toward correcting the condition of chronic low-grade tension which has been causing your stress disorders. A tense tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, and breathing are part of the stress response. When we let them relax, we turn off the stress response, thereby reducing or eliminating the chronic low-grade tension.
It is wise to continue to practice checking these key areas many times every day to make sure that you are holding them in a relaxed fashion. The old tension habits die hard and are just waiting for a chance to reestablish themselves. The new relaxed habits will need encouragement in order to stay with you for life.
You may want to say a slogan to yourself as you practice your new relaxed posture. You can make up one of your own, or you can use the one I like and recommend: “Practice, practice, practice”, taken from the joke which asks the question, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
With regard to posture, I do not mean to be encouraging you to be lazy about standing up or sitting up straight so that you allow your neck and shoulders to slump forward. It is necessary to use (or tense) certain muscles to keep your spine straight and your neck balanced squarely on top of your spine. These muscles are not a critical part of the stress response. Therefore, you do not need to avoid tensing them in order to avoid triggering a stress response. Correct posture involves holding the spine straight while keeping the muscles of the tongue, jaw, and shoulders relaxed except when you are using them for legitimate purposes, such as talking and chewing.
A military posture may be all right for the military, but it is not a relaxed posture. The problem with it is that it involves “sucking in the gut”. This interferes with relaxed breathing, which requires allowing the abdominal muscles to be relaxed so that the abdomen can expand when the lower part of the lungs are filled with air and press down on the abdomen.
When we combine deep relaxation practice with doing the Minis, we shorten the time it takes to accomplish the reduction or elimination of disorders. Sometimes doing only the Minis is enough to eliminate a stress disorder. It is most effective and powerful to do the Minis plus Autogenic Training. However, if you simply cannot find the time to practice both, at least do the Minis! It is easy to work them into your daily schedule and really doesn't take any extra time at all.
I have not had experience with using the Minis by themselves, but they are similar to the method which Charles Stroebel, M.D., developed and called “QR, the Quieting Reflex”. He published a book by that title in 1982 which became a best seller. Unfortunately, it is now out of print. He reported that many people had conquered their stress disorders by using this method of relaxation practice. It took them about six months to accomplish the elimination of their stress disorders.
His wife, Elizabeth Stroebel, Ph.D., developed a Quieting Reflex program for children. It is available on a set of two audio CDs under the title "Kiddie QR".