Free Your Neck: First Aid for Stressful Situations

Everybody has something that “pushes their buttons.” When your “buttons” get pushed, what happens? You feel frustrated, maybe angry. I sometimes feel caught up in a whirlwind, a little out of control. That’s when my training kicks in. See, we don’t have just an emotional reaction. We respond with our whole selves, and I learned early in my Alexander Technique journey that there was a “physical” reaction right along with whatever I was thinking and feeling. F.M. Alexander called this “psycho-physical,” because the self really can’t be easily divided into two parts – we are unified, work in unison, and our psycho-physical selves can be mis-used in unison, too.

Many people acknowledge that the Alexander Technique helps to lower stress. As your overall coordination improves, and your level of background tension decreases, you may notice a decrease in stress. But can the Alexander Technique help in intensely stressful situations?

There’s a story I often tell in my workshops about an experience I had not long after I began taking Alexander lessons. I was in grad school in Ithaca,  NY, where (in the grand scheme of things) there really isn’t a lot of traffic. But when there is…it can be intense. Like some other eastern US cities, Ithaca’s downtown is a web of one-way streets, and because of the hills surrounding downtown, there was only a narrow neck to get from my home up to campus. And I was LATE. I started feeling really frustrated, angry at the situation, at the traffic lights working against me, at the other cars and drivers taking up the road, and I noticed something key – I was tensing through my whole neck, shoulders, and back, and pulling down, contracting through my spine. It didn’t feel nice at all. Since I was stuck at a red light, with no where to go, I tried an experiment: what would happen if I freed my neck? I did… and my rage simply evaporated. I was suddenly free to choose how to respond, and I realized that creating more tension in my body and feeling angry about something over which I had no control just didn’t make sense. I was still late, but I was now much more poised in the midst of my lateness, and would be more ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

This experience isn’t isolated. I’ve used my Alexander Technique skills myriad times over the past ten years to come back to center in a whirlwind of frustration, and it never involved me telling myself to “calm down.” There are times when anger or frustration is justified, of course, but we don’t have to be pulled into a spiral of tension and collapse. We have “fight or flight” responses to many stressors in our modern lives that don’t require actual fighting or actual fleeing. I may be angry over a situation, or afraid – but I don’t actually have to defend myself against, say, a bear, so I can release all of that unnecessary muscular tension that was preparing me to wrestle the bear when I’m only faced with a person… or a computer screen!

So here’s an experiment for you: Next time something pushes your buttons, take a moment to become aware of your whole self. Don’t “try to relax,” just notice. Are you contracting or holding your neck? Raising your shoulders? Tensing your arms or legs? Then:

  • Release whatever breath you have in your lungs, then allow some air to return. Maybe you were holding your breath, too! If you have learned how to do a “whispered Ah,” this would be a great time to do one!
  • Give yourself some Directions: Allow my neck to be free, so that my head can balance forward and up, my back to lengthen and widen, my knees to go forward and away. Arms releasing from the torso, legs extending from the back.

Repeat as necessary, noticing your “state of mind” in the process. Is your frustration still as intense?

It may be, and you can move on to other tactics to work with your emotions (and about which I am unqualified to give advice. I’m not a mental health professional.) For me, physical activity is key when dealing with a “big” emotion, but I always try to sustain awareness of my whole self in the process.

I’d love to hear from you if you try this experiment. Drop me a line or give me a call. If you tried it and it didn’t work as well as you hoped, please know that the skills involved are learned over time, and that type of learning is what lessons in the Alexander Technique are all about. You can find a teacher near you at www.amsatonline.org/teachers.

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