The body has a mind of its own

Learning to not fight with yourself

Posted Jun 08, 2011

I appreciate the observation made by Loretta Graziano Breuning to my blog post, Waiting to Exhale. She decribes a common incident of involuntary breath holding while hearing someone saying hateful words. Whenever there is a sudden and unexpected sense of threat, the diaphragm will freeze momentarily. This is due to a very ancient part of the nervous system that prepares the body to respond to threats, a system designed to respond automatically, without thought, and without our ability to control it. This part of the nervous system triggers the production of stress hormones, activates the sympathetic (arousal) nervous system, and suppresses basic body functions including respiration, digestion, and growth. All the body's energies are directed toward the peripheral muscles which tighten in preparation for fight or flight.

In most animals, this system is activated until the threat passes, after which the body returns to normal functioning. In humans and some primates, however, our social conventions and expectations keep us from enacting the immediate response of getting away, or in Loretta's case, telling the other person exactly how we feel or asking them to stop. When we are in such situations, the body reverts to an even more primitive survival method: freezing. We are momentarily paralyzed, stopped in our tracks, and yes, we hold our breath.


It was great to hear that Loretta has experienced improvement in her body sense and well-being from receiving Rosen Method Bodywork. Although I'd love to offer a "cure" for her response to hatred, I have to admit, it happens to me also even after many years of practicing and receiving Rosen Method and other body sense modalities. Rosen Method -- and other body sense treatment and educational approaches -- often have the paradoxical result of making us more aware of how our bodies habitually and automatically respond to stress.

Rosen Method has not taken away all of my anxieties but I now have a heightened awareness of how anxiety feels in my body (including that very uncomfortable feeling of chest tightening). This gives me an opportunity to "label" it for myself and to observe it happening to my body without judgment. Without body sense, we are more likely to have a secondary stress response: we become threatened by our own body and fight against that, further draining our resources and persisting in a vicious cycle of high sympathetic arousal and elevated stress hormones which is ultimately toxic to the brain and body, compromising our mental and physical health.

So, as odd as it may sound, being aware of our own discomfort -- including that sickening feeling of breath holding -- is actually a good thing. Part of the healing power of body sense comes from deeply feeling our own pain and suffering and then accepting it as part of being human. By doing that, we avoid the secondary stress response and we allow our body to do its own thing, which most likely is to calm down within a reasonable period of time. When the stress response persists, and we begin to feel that we are out of control and threatened by our own dysregulation, it is time to get help. Maybe another Rosen session or yoga class or massage or whatever helps you to come back to yourself.