Lessons in Relaxation Part 2
If the millions of gallons of alcoholic drinks, the countless tonnage of tablet tranquillisers and sedatives, and all tobacco were suddenly removed from our society, the amount of noticeable anxiety and tension would increase enormously. Like most Western nations, we use the drugs contained in drink, tobacco and medicines to avoid feelings of anxiety. It has been estimated that there are 600,000 regular users of barbiturates – 100,000 of them addicted – and 20,000 alcoholics in this country.
A number of surveys of drinkers nave shown that alcohol is primarily taken to avoid stress. “I drink because it helps me relax”: “I drink sometimes when I’m restless and tense”: “I drink when things get me down”: were replies frequently met by Griffith Edwards during his research in a London suburb.
Nicotine, alcohol, and the barbiturate drugs used in tranquillisers are described as having a downer effect on one’s body and mind. They deaden sensitivity and awareness and thus appear to remove such things as fear of aeroplanes, and anxiety in contact with groups of people. But they do not remove the cause of these tensions, only temporarily subdue our awareness of them. Thus, a middle aged woman who had a horror of spiders, during a test on the effects of alcohol, could only enter a room with a spider in it after she had consumed a quarter of a bottle of vodka. When the alcohol’s effects wore off, so did her courage.
Tension and anxiety are in effect the same thing. The amount of drugs consumed in our society to deal with it shows anxiety as the most common of human difficulties. In a sense it is also a problem few people admit even to themselves. During a recent talk I gave to a group interested in alternative therapies, several people spoke of drinking as soon as they got on an aeroplane. None of them could see any connection between the drinking and anxiety.
So, what is anxiety/tension, and how can we deal with it in ways other than drug- use?
Fear is a natural and healthy part of animal behaviour. Fear stimulated the muscular and glandular systems of our ancestors enabling them to run faster from a danger or fight for survival. As individuals we are only here today because fear and wit enabled them to survive. Tests on animals nave shown that the fear reaction is produced by such things as attack or social pressure i.e. overcrowding in a cage of rats. If the cause is removed the anxiety state quickly goes. But if the stress situation is continued, the animal’s behaviour patterns break down, they become incapable of mating, they injure or neglect their young, and they die prematurely. Even so, at the point of approach to death, removal of the stress can lead to rapid recovery. Sometimes, however, the stress factor causing anxiety is carried about within the animal in two ways. Infant monkeys reared without the breast feeding and physical contact 0£ a mother, when adult, snowed similar signs of breakdown of behaviour as the rats mentioned above. They were incapable of an easy sexual relationship and rearing young. In her book In The Shadow Of Man, Jane Van Lawick Goodall has a picture of a young chimpanzee – Merlin -. whose body never developed properly and who died before maturing. He obviously suffered continued anxiety. Jane says his condition was due to the death of his mother while he was young. So infant shock or stress can lead to internal causes of anxiety.
Another cause I observed some years ago, while camping on a beach with my children and our dog. Having built a fire from driftwood, we put an empty aerosol can on the flames. We stood well away from the fire against a rock until the can exploded. Our dog was so shocked by the noise he ran all the way home – about a mile. Two years later we were on the same beach with the dog. While sunbathing, I stood against the rock mentioned above. Immediately the dog showed signs of fear and began to run home. In this situation, the dog had a conditioned fear reflex connected with my position against the rock.
As human animals, our anxiety can stem from exactly the same source as other mammals. The single difference is the price we pay for the wonder of language. Through it we not only communicate, remember and think more efficiently than other animals, but we can also perpetuate anxiety when its external cause has been removed. Like other animals, stress shows itself in our society as inability to enter into and maintain heterosexual relationships; inability to procreate; neglect of or injury to our young; crime; and war and violence against each other. The amount of homosexuality and lesbianism; the number of non-functional people emotionally incapable of maintaining work or heterosexual relationships; the amount of child abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, are a reflection of the amount of stress factors in our times.
When we think of anxiety though, we need to remember that there are degrees of it. Because the fear reaction is a natural and healthy function, everybody experiences degrees of anxiety. Unfortunately many of us, have been trained from childhood to hide any signs of fear, as if it were some sign of weakness or failure. Even worse, we may have had it intimated that if we feel anxiety it means there is something wrong with us. We thus get into the awful situation of being afraid of fear.
Fortunately, within the last fifty years, extraordinary changes have occurred in the methods and efficiency with which anxiety is approached. Stress, as an important factor in home, work, and social life, is taken into account in medicine, education and most areas of communal life. Techniques have been defined which enable people to help themselves deal with anxiety. Interestingly, many of these are forms of applied yoga awareness meditation. Taken out of their original settings of ashram or temple, they have been put to use in the most testing of situations – everyday life. Of course, people suffered anxiety as much in the past as we do today, therefore such things as religion and yoga incorporate the methods past cultures found to deal with this ever present human difficulty.
To explain how to use these techniques I will tell the stories of peoples experience with them.
Brian was in his early forties when he began to experience severe anxiety states. This had been triggered by his divorce, living away from his children, and not being able to find work. By using a process of self awareness he could see the direct links between his tension and his situation. Watching not only the onset of the attacks, but also what he thought and what he was doing, enabled him to be clear about what was happening. Each time he walked out of the family house, for instance, he began to think what a failure he was as a parent. Almost immediately he began to experience grinding abdominal pains and a deep emotional despair. His observations led him to realise how he was creating his own misery through his thoughts and feelings of failure. Slowly he learnt to note the onset of his ‘failure’ feelings and change them. He re-appraised them to thoughts of ‘I am not a failure because I made a decision to change my life’.
To remove as many of the outer causes of stress as possible, Brian moved from the house he had lived in – which in his experience was linked with unemployment and distance from his children – to a house nearer his children, and in an area he was able to gain employment. Some time after this move he needed to collect something he had left at the other house. While driving there he began to experience grinding pain and physical tension. Having learnt to observe what he was experiencing in connection with what he was doing he realised the anxiety was in regard to returning to the house. But why should that bother him?
He had learnt to put into words what feelings existed in his body. Thing this he said, “You’re, taking me back to that place. I was hurt there, and don’t want to go back”. He understood from this that because it was so emotionally painful to be far away from his children and out of work, a part of his nature had a conditioned fear reflex to the house. Like the dog mentioned, his fear reaction wanted to keep as far away from what previously hurt it as possible. He was able to slowly change this by holding in mind that he was only visiting the house and would soon return to be near his children and work.
Like Brian, many people’s anxieties are produced either by a present situation such as divorce, death of partner, loss of work, or by interior thought processes suggesting failure, pointlessness, etc.; or by conditioned reactions to situations, places, people, or times of year.
To relax these areas of stress we need to recognise that most tensions and anxieties are a learned response to cues, or a natural reaction to situations rather than an illness or a sign of weakness. By observing what our tension is linked with, we are enabled to know the cause of our reaction, and change our relationship with it, We also need to remember that thoughts are just as powerful cues to anxiety as real events. So we need to notice what our regular trains of thought are. If they are repeatedly self depreciating, reflecting guilt or undermining of ones abilities, they need to be changed to believable affirmative ones. A 48 year old woman who was a supervisor in a dressmaking business, had begun drinking heavily to deal with her anxiety in having people look at her when she talked to them. Her automatic thoughts were – ‘How can I give orders if they think I’m a nervous wreck – I won’t be able to talk fluently and spontaneously – you have to have a quick answer if you are a supervisor’. She changed these to:- Many nervous people get on well with other people – All I do is blush, this doesn’t mean I’m a nervous wreck – If I slow down and talk hesitantly it doesn’t matter. People seem to like me, and a bit of stammering won’t make much difference. They will accept it as part of me’.
In Their book Self Watching, Ray Hodgson and Peter Miller point out that much recent research has uncovered that what were in the past thought to be human problems or illness, are now seen to be the expression of habits or learned response to cues. Also, these habits, even when in the form of severe compulsions such as ritual washing, or fear of the opposite sex, can usually be changed by simple techniques.
The first step is to see by self observation whether the anxious response is triggered by a past event, or by repeated performance. To satisfyingly meet all the areas of our life is a skill. We are not born with that skill, but we can each learn it, like riding a bike, or driving a car. The negative habits we have learnt can be changed. One of the skills which is enormously transforming in regard to anxiety and other problems is to open a communication with what Dr. Assagioli calls our Sub-Personalities.
In past ages these Sub-Personalities may well have been described as evil or disruptive entities which possess or live inside oneself. Recent research has defined a much more rational and workable insight. Each of us have areas of experience which are not clearly definable, but influence us powerfully. In making memory or experience available to conscious awareness, prior or beneath word or thought formation, lies process which expresses in images, as in dreams. So there is a tendency the unconscious has, because of its dream, or image creating process, to exercise certain important parts of our experience in the form of a person or animal.
Bill explains this in describing one of his own Sub-Personalities. He says, “I have for most of x~ adult life felt uneasy or even frightened of groups of people. I have an active dislike of parties, and generally make very few friends. Because my work brings me into close contact with the public, this fear and dislike is often a trouble to me. As this has led me to avoid advancing in my chosen work – which would need dealing more actively with groups of people, I sought help to find out how I could change. I was gradually taught how to put into words what I felt in my body, until my inner feelings and what I said matched.
“When I had learnt now to do that, something startling and almost amusing happened. It was as if my new ability had created a link between my everyday personality and a part of my nature hiding in the shadows, which I hardly knew. It was akin to meeting another person and learning about them. This person inside me told me, through my ability to express inner feelings, how they had been, as they felt, attacked by two nurses as a child. The nurses had in fact fought with me as a nine year old to give me an anaesthetic for a nose operation. Despite my screams and struggles they held and anaesthetised me. This and other incidents similar to it had led to the formation of a group of experiences with the common theme of how people can do violence to ones feeling and growing identity. In collective form it attained a sort of active but largely unconscious character, which I had not been aware of except as feelings of fear in regard to people. Naturally it distrusted people, especially in groups and when connected with authoritarian bodies such as hospitals.”
Bill learned to communicate with his inner fearful feelings about people, to hear its anger and hurt. He thus integrated into his waking self what had been a split off part of his experience. Listening to it and expressing his conscious views of those childhood experiences helped this integration. Bill called the part ‘Hurt Me’ Part of Bill’s exchange with it is as follows:-
Hurt Me I hate people. The bastards bashed me again and again. Look at how those nurses raped me emotionally. I pleaded and pleaded but they took no notice.
Bill I know that’s difficult to understand and forgive from a child’s point of view, but adults get caught in things like duty and authority. Besides which nurses sometimes need to force people into an operation which will save their life. Without it they would die.
Hurt Me I wouldn’t have died without my nose operation. You can’t tell me they had to abuse me. They could respect other peoples’ fear and feelings.
Bill I agree. They certainly need to learn that.
In this way the hurt melted, and Hurt Me was able to find forgiveness, and a more relaxed relationship with people. And Bill’s story illustrates one of the powerfully helpful ways 0£ gently releasing the tension of inner anxieties.
Such techniques as Self Observation, and Understanding and transforming our inner conditioning have been tried and tested by thousands of people. They are tools which we can use ourselves without the supervision of a doctor or psycho-therapist.
I personally feel that the change in the way we relate to ourselves and the world which use of these methods of awareness bring, is creating the beginnings of dramatic change in the structure of society itself. Just as the development of the rational scientific outlook a few hundred years ago has reshaped our whole world, so the advance of personal awareness into our own motivations create a new society.
The fundamentals of this personal release from stress, and the social change are, firstly, self-awareness. Secondly, out of that awareness, learning to begin a dialogue with life itself within us, and thereby hear its cries and wisdom in its tragic and wondrous involvement with our form.