Here’s how learning to love yourself and meditation helps.
Wherever anxiety first comes from, it is now stored in your body. You feel it in your shoulders, chest, lower back, neck and in any contracted muscle. But why are those muscles contracting in the first place?
As cliche as it sounds, it all goes back to childhood. Sometimes even to infancy. Most of us were born into what the infant perceives as “shocking” circumstances. Bright lights after months of darkness. Cold air after months of enveloping warmth. Cold hands holding us after months of gently floating in amniotic fluid. No wonder a newborn’s face is often screwed up into as much an expression of anger as of discomfort.
In early childhood we learn who we are by seeing our reflection in the eyes of our parents and/or other caregivers. We take in their reactions to us, and to our demands such as: feed me, hold me, change me, clothe me, comfort me.
If our infant demands are met adequately and relatively promptly, we learn to calm ourselves and relax. If they aren’t, we might cry until we’re exhausted, and hold our bodies stiffly while doing it. If that is the norm, or happens often, we learn to keep our bodies stiffened. We learn that emotions are exhausting. Sometimes we just give up asking to get our needs met.
As children, we adjust to the people around us in any way we can. If the environment is healthy and nurturing, we become self-confident, and able to handle our emotions as we grow. When there is chaos in our home, our bodies go into fight, flight, or freeze mode in response.
Children of parents who were alcoholics, addicted to drugs, who raged, and/or who suffered from personality disorders, grew up with chaos, and also uncertainty. Uncertain of when a volatile parent would become angry or neglectful. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
This uncertainty also leads to more fight, flight, or freeze responses in the child. Eventually those responses get coded into our neuro-pathways in our brains, and the muscle memory gets encased in our bodies.
Our automatic and autonomic reactions to triggers are so “practiced” and ingrained, we don’t even realize what they are. They are encoded.
We hold our breath when we are scared or stressed. This is part of the “freeze” response. It’s almost as if we think if we don’t breathe, no one can see us. We become very still, and draw into ourselves. We try to hide in plain sight.
We feel an overwhelming urge to run and hide when we hear our boss, partner, or even a stranger raise their voice. Some of us are triggered to run and hide even by someone’s tone of voice. Our muscles tense up as if we are in the starting block of a race, ready to run at the sound of the metaphorical gun or whistle.
We gear up to fight, even if we are not the “type,” and would never actually start a fight. But as a cornered child, or a beaten one, we felt the urge to fight back, but were forbidden to do so. So our bodies got used to holding in the anger and rage, and our muscles tensed up to do so. Notice next time you feel angry if you clench your fists. Or you might clench your jaw instead, “holding” in the angry response. This is especially true of us who weren’t allowed to express anger at a parent or guardian.
We developed and created our survival personalities.
When we get older and go out into the larger world, we find we’re identified by gender, ethnicity, belief system, nationality, sexuality, attractiveness, abilities, ambition, and so much else. According to Richard Moss, M.D., this is where and when we develop our idealized self from these definitions.
But then, at some point, our idealized self crashes into the little kid inside us. And the scared, angry little kid doesn’t live up to our idealized self. Even as the kid helped us survive to get to our idealized self.
We developed and created our survival personalities when we were young. In survival mode, we try not to feel our emotions, especially the ones we weren’t allowed to feel, or were punished for. That “trying not to feel” shows up as contractions in our bodies. Tight shoulders and necks, clenched fists and teeth.
Survival personalities aren’t a bad thing. They helped us survive. Be grateful to the little kid inside who figured out how to safely navigate a sometimes, or often, scary world. Tell them thank you.
There comes a time we want to be free.
Knowing where anxiety originates, and developing gratitude to our inner child for surviving, is the beginning. It’s not enough to realize that what we went through is what made us who we are. For most of us there comes a time when we want to be free.
How do we get free of survival mode? What is beyond fight, flight, or freeze?
Richard Moss, M.D., in his book “The Mandala of Being,” describes what comes next as developing empathy and nurturing acceptance of ourselves, the kid inside, and of our untamed and tamed emotions. That sounds simple enough, right?
Simple, yes. However, it takes practice, and guidance helps. You can find guidance from a psychotherapist, a spiritual guide, or certain books. You can start setting yourself free with the following:
Start with giving love to your inner child, as if they are an actual child you know. Put a picture of you as a child somewhere you can see it every day. Each time you look at it, send love to that child. Give them permission to play and to heal. Tell that child they deserve love and acceptance.
Find activities you enjoy that use the body. I studied Aikido for twenty years, and experiencing the flow of Ki (Chi) through my body released much of the stored tension and anxiety. It also taught me to accept the energy of others without embodying it. I learned to embrace conflict when it was unavoidable, and then flow with and release the attacker.
But what do you do if it feels like you are attacking yourself with your internal critic? How do you “fight” the attacker inside your own head?
Because we incorporated the angry, critical parent or other adult when they unloaded on us as children, we now carry those “voices” in our heads.
Counter the critical voices. Similar to using Aikido in a physical attack, when you hear your own inner critic, notice “who” the attacker is. Because we incorporated the angry, critical parent or other adult when they unloaded on us as children, we now carry those voices in our heads. When we are self-critical, it’s really stuff we adopted from adults as children. You couldn’t shout or answer back when you were a child, but you can now. Actively counter the statements you tell yourself.
When you tell yourself you’re stupid, acknowledge that maybe a certain action wasn’t wise, but then counter by saying you are actually very smart. List or remember all the times you knew you were smart. You can do this internally or out loud. Out loud provides an added strength to the countering statement.
When you directly counter a negative statement that originated in childhood, feel the tension in your body relax. Notice that you feel stronger, calmer, and more grounded. You are an adult who can and will protect your inner child, so the child can relax.
Finally, ground yourself. When you feel anxious or tense, try these steps adapted from “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle:
Touch something, and really feel it. Then listen to a sound. Now look at something as if seeing it for the first time. You have just allowed your mind and body to be completely in the moment, the “here and now.” Next, feel the energy inside you that is your Ki, Chi, Inner Body, or Soul. It is completely calm. Observing, not judging. It sends compassion to you and others as it observes. You completely relax into the energy that is who you truly are. Repeat as needed.