Beauty Can Be a Natural Stress Reducer

The Law of Opposites in action

Posted Sep 17, 2020

Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels
Source: Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels

These are, in short, stressful and ugly times. We feel the impact of our current climate emotionally, when we feel down and/or anxious, but the impact is also manifested in the body—a racing heart, insomnia, digestive issues and muscle tension. By utilizing the law of opposites one can intercede and lessen the impact of these stressors.

Examples of the law of opposites abound in almost all schools of psychotherapy. Psychoanalysts speak of turning passive into active; the idea is that the ego (self) grows via its own activity. Behaviorists note that avoidance grows anxiety, and they suggest that to reduce anxiety one walk toward rather than away from unrealistic fears. In mindfulness practices, the “chattering monkey” mind is redirected to the quiet of the breath. Environmental treatments, too, have relied on the law of opposites. Light is suggested to treat the depression of Seasonal Affective Disorder caused by the darkness of the changing seasons.

As these are ugly times, the law of opposites would suggest then that we gravitate to beauty. But resilience, the ability to bounce back and regain a sense of balance, requires certain skills based in the opposite of tension and stress. These include physiologically letting go, psychologically letting go, and accessing and sustaining positive emotion.  It is in all three of these domains that beauty acts as a natural therapeutic. And the reason why lies in both one’s conscious and unconscious mind.

Falkner noted that “the past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Wherever you have been, you can access at any given moment. Falkner’s quote harkens back both to Freud and Pavlov. The Freudian notion is that the unconscious is a repository of all potent past emotional experiences. It is timeless, like the rings of a tree.

Can you remember a time when you were in picturesque surroundings, took in the sonorous sounds of an orchestra, or were engrossed in a piece of beautiful art? Immerse yourself in that lived experience.

If this doesn’t come naturally, here’s how to begin:

1. Close your eyes and take four deep breaths.

2. With your eyes still closed, access a specific memory of beauty.

3. Bring it to the forefront of your mind: See what you saw then, hear what you heard then, and feel what you felt then.

4. Stay there until the experience begins to fade, then open your eyes.

Pavlov understood that we are sensory creatures: Our experiences are rooted in what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. This is the basis of classical conditioning: When you pair two sensory stimuli in time, repeatedly over time, an organism will respond to the first as though it were the last. In the Pavlov example, the sensory modalities were sound, sight, and smell. The dog couldn’t not salivate at the sound of the bell it associated with food. 

Go back to your beauty memory.

1.        Close your eyes and take four deep breaths, then re-access your memory.

2.       This time press the index finger of your dominant hand against the pad of your thumb as you access the memory. Hold it there until the memory begins to fade.

3.       Repeat this three times.

4.       Do this exercise two or three times a day for a few days.

During this time of negative information overload, beauty is one way we can get out of our heads and into our sensory experience. Our wings are clipped because of COVID-19 and we are limited in where we can go. But it is not a total imprisonment; natural beauty and artistic beauty are still plentiful and can transport us.“Bell/Food” can become the same as “Finger Press/Beautiful Memory.” Soon, whenever you press that finger, you may be transported.

Reductions in respiration rates, skin conductance, and muscle tension have all been reported when research subjects are monitored while listening to beautiful music. Psycho-physiological restorative responses have been noted in studies that look at people’s reactions to natural surroundings.

Wisdom is time-honored, as is beauty. Two aspects of wisdom are affect optimization and paradox, which are tapped when we access moments of beauty during ugly times. Affect optimization is accepting both negative and positive emotion, while simultaneously accentuating the positive emotion. We can both feel the negativity that is all around us and take in the beauty that is ours to behold.

The paradox of beauty is that in ugly times, beauty abounds. We have the power, via the law of opposites, to find peace at this most unpeaceful time in our lives. We just have to make a conscious effort to invoke it.

References

Baum-Baicker, C. and Sisti, D. (2012). Clinical wisdom in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy: A philosophical and qualitative analysis. The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Spring 2012, 23(1), 13-27.

Falkner, W. (1951). Requiem for a nun. Random House

Han, K-T. (2007) Responses to six major terrestrial biomes in terms of scenic beauty, preference, and restorativeness. Environment and Behavior 39 (4), 529-556.

Omigie, D; Frieler, K; Bar, C; Muralikrishnan, R.; Wald-Fuhrmann, Fischinger, T. (2019). Experiencing musical beauty: Emotional subtypes and their physiological and musico-acoustic correlates. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Sept 09, 2019.