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Open Your Arms (Literally) to Life

Let your body guide your thoughts and emotions.

Key points

  • Our body's instinctive reaction to a perceived threat is to put your arms in front of our face and upper body.
  • Embodied cognition and other theories suggest that we can influence our thinking and feelings with our bodies.
  • The physical act of opening your arms is a literal manifestation of opening yourself up to being vulnerable (in a good sense).
John Hain/Pixabay, used with permission
John Hain/Pixabay, used with permission

Humans have a powerful and immediate reaction when we perceive a physical threat to our lives; we raise and cross our arms in front of our bodies (imagine someone throwing something at us, even if it’s a pillow). The goal of this instinctive reaction is to protect us from a threat to our lives and, thus, ensure our survival. This automatic reaction served our ancestors well on the Serengeti 250,000 years ago when we first officially became Homo Sapiens. Unfortunately, this same reaction, literally or metaphorically, doesn’t serve us well in 2023.

Living in Protection Mode

Our limbic system, which is involved with instincts and controls basic human emotions (fear) and drives (hunger), is unable to distinguish between threats to our physical lives and our personal and social lives. As a result, we react defensively in response to threats unrelated to our physical health and well-being. In doing so, we may close ourselves off from personal growth and deep social interactions, all in the name of avoiding emotional pain.

Paradoxically, the very act of protecting ourselves from this pain can actually hurt us more by preventing us from being open to opportunities that nurture our internal and external lives. When we close our bodies as a form of protection, we may actually be exacerbating our problems by triggering thoughts and emotions that deepen our defensiveness and create emotional distance from ourselves and those around us who could otherwise enrich our lives.

Embodied Cognition and Emotion

This notion of our instinctive physical reactions to potential psychological and emotional harm is consistent with a relatively new line of scientific study referred to as embodied cognition and embodied emotions. These theories suggest that our thoughts and emotions are affected by our bodies and physiological states. In fact, without naming them thusly, many strategies aimed at altering our thinking and emotional states are consistent with these theories. For example, common stress management techniques, such as breathing and muscle relaxation, are intended to alter our physiology and, by extension, cause us to change our thoughts and emotions associated with the cause of the stress.

Open Yourself Up

Open yourself up to the world” is one of the most frequently used axioms in the self-help industry. There are both possible risks and potential rewards to following this well-worn advice. The obvious risk is that, when you open yourself up, you are exposing yourself to some sort of harm, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or social.

When you are in constant protection mode, you also prevent yourself from connecting deeply with others. If you are unwilling to open up to others, they sense this closedness and are, in turn, unwilling to open up and make themselves vulnerable to you.

At the same time, the benefits are many. Because you’re not in protection mode, you open yourself to the possibilities of success and getting your needs and goals met. You can also see and embrace the opportunities that will likely present themselves when you open yourself up to the world. This openness goes in both directions as well. When you open yourself to the world, you also free yourself to fully express who you are and the life you want to lead. Lastly, you’re more likely to connect with others because they will sense your openness and be more willing to be vulnerable themselves. From this now-mutual openness can come deep emotional engagement, which is the foundation of healthy and nurturing relationships.

To put yourself in a vulnerable position, whether, for example, failure at work or rejection in a relationship, requires that you accept that there is the possibility of pain while, at the same time, understanding that you will survive and be okay in the long run. With this latter recognition, you remove the perceived threat to your life (whether physical or emotional) and, in doing so, you don’t activate your limbic system and its associated survival instinct. Thus, the protective mode isn’t triggered, and you are open to being open because you don’t feel compelled to defend yourself.

Though easily said in theory, such an action is far more difficult to put into practice for several reasons. First, it is not entirely clear what it means to open ourselves up. Second, it is not often evident how to apply this idea in any given situation. Finally, opening yourself up implies making yourself vulnerable in some way and we are evolutionarily not wired to put ourselves at risk to harm, whether physical or, more commonly in modern times, emotional in nature.

Putting Embodiment Theory into Practice

This “embodiment” line of thinking opens up some interesting possibilities for how we can use our bodies to shape the way we think and the emotions we experience, and, in turn, influence how we respond to ourselves and the world in which we live. In exploring the concepts of embodied cognition and embodied emotion, it occurred to me that these relationships between body, thinking, and emotions could be leveraged to take an ethereal concept such as openness, and make it physical and more tangible. Such an approach would have the dual value of making vulnerability more comfortable for people who tend toward protection mode and producing changes in thinking and emotions that reinforce and encourage openness as a choice, at first, then ultimately, as a default.

Open Your Arms

My idea is to create a physical manifestation of opening yourself up metaphorically by literally opening your arms when faced with a situation that makes you feel uncomfortably vulnerable. Again, the natural reaction to an emotionally threatening situation is to metaphorically hold your arms up in front of your body to protect yourself from the perceived threat. By physically opening your arms, you are sending a very different message that is both powerful and tangible to your mind and body that you are open to the potentially threatening situation. Based on embodied cognition and emotion theory, getting this contradictory message from your body can counter your threat reaction and potentially produce thoughts and emotions that are consistent with your physical openness. In time, a virtuous circle of openness and positive feedback from your inner and outer worlds will lead to a commensurate shift in your thinking and emotions related to previously uncomfortable situations.

Given this discussion, my advice with my clients recently has been, when confronted with a difficult situation, to literally open their arms, take a deep breath (another powerful tool of embodiment to alter cognition and emotions), smile (ditto!), and fully “be in” the openness in both its physical and metaphorical forms. The feedback I get from my clients is that the simple physical act of regularly opening their arms has been life-changing in the way they think and feel, the peace they feel having reduced or removed their threat reactions, the opportunities that arise in their lives, the connections they make with others, and, ultimately, their willingness to experience their lives fully.

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