This will sound wrong to your modern, capitalist ears, but it’s true. Relaxing the body relaxes the mind far more than the other way around.
School didn’t teach us this. The stories our society tells about success and happiness don’t reflect it.
We’re told that thinking is king. That rational thought is more valuable than emotion. That more information — more data — is always better.
But that just doesn’t line up with the science of how the body works.
Some 80 percent of information that travels between the mind and body goes from the body to the mind.
Drawing a line between something we call the“mind” and something we call the “body” might even be unhelpful. Researchers studying the digestive situation have been discovering more and more connection between the brain and the gut.
Just look at animals. “When death appears imminent,” writes the psychologist Peter Levine, “all mammals instinctively enter an altered state of consciousness.”
Like when a gazelle goes limp — “plays possum” — just before it’s caught by a chasing cheetah. “What that means for the [gazelle] is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.”
Many of us humans do the same when we’re overwhelmed emotionally or stressed out.
We freeze. Our stomach muscles tighten and shoulders pull up. Our face scrunches and neck tenses.
Our body is trying to protect us from some imminent danger. Even if the danger is somebody on Twitter.
It doesn’t take a big cat to get us there. Sometimes it’s extreme trauma, like war, a near-death experience, or sexual abuse. But often all it takes is a passive aggressive text from a friend. A tweet by a QAnon-believing white supremacist. Someone driving aggressively on the highway.
Sometimes we fight back. We fire off a tweet or flip off the driver.
But because so many of these little traumas occur throughout the day, we mostly just keep things inside.
We stuff down our anger or sadness or fear because we have to get to work or pick up the kids from school or watch the next episode of that show everyone’s talking about.
“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters,” writes the psychiatrist Mark Epstein. “An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life … Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.”
Throw in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy — the social systems we live within — and the trauma turns up to 11. Violence and harm are all around. Yet we’re just supposed to keep going, showing up to work, paying the bills, doing, doing, doing.
But the gazelle can teach us.
“When it is out of danger, the [gazelle] will literally ‘shake off’ the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body,” Levine writes. “It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened.”
That “shaking off” is the key. It’s how the gazelle discharges all the energy that built up as it tried to escape the cheetah. Once that energy has moved through its body, it can move on with no stress.
Traumatic symptoms — like a tensed-up stomach — aren’t caused by the traumatic event. They’re caused by all that unreleased energy. It stays trapped in the body and wreaks havoc on our muscles, organs, and nervous system.
“Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well,” writes Levine.
They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear and sorrow but without passing through the primitive ‘immobility responses’ and releasing the residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress.
In other words, the body is a doorway to feeling less stress and anxiety.
Regular exercise can release built-up tension. Yoga has been shown to reset critical brain areas that get disturbed by trauma. Meditation relaxes parts of the body that have tensed up due to overthinking.
Even taking a short break and feeling your feet on the floor over the course of a few deep breaths can help take the edge off.
This all doesn’t mean that thinking — the mind — isn’t helpful.
We need our minds to make decisions, plan, and otherwise navigate the world. Having more information to make a big decision isn’t always helpful. But having the right information is.
And sometimes, we need help feeling safe enough to relax the body and let go of trauma. That’s where talk therapy comes in.
“For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”
But the next time you feel stuck, scattered, or lost, remember the gazelle. Go for a walk, do some dancing, stretch a little. Remember that shaking it off is far more effective than trying to think your way to feeling better.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. I’m here to help you be more mindful about work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe to my weekly email here.
Photo by Edsel Adap.