Maybe this happened to you as a child: someone with an alarmed expression looked at you and shouted, “Get hold of yourself!” Maybe you were being impatient or dancing out a tantrum or you just couldn’t let go of something. Maybe an authoritative person even shook you by the arm. But your nerves were firing and you had no idea how you were supposed to control them.
If only someone had been around who better understood the human body. Bringing ourselves to calm is hard-wired into our systems. There are many routes to doing this. One method is hinted at in the very phrase “Get hold of yourself.” We can do something physical. We can use action and touch. Holding ourselves—applying pressure to the body—actually calms the nervous system. This is the universal technology behind the human hug.
As a child with autism, Temple Grandin instinctively liked the feel of deep pressure but found hugs from people over-stimulating. During her summers at her Aunt’s ranch, she noticed how the cattle calmed down in the squeeze chute that was used to hold them still for inoculations. She eventually built a similar machine for herself—a squeeze box—which worked to calm her hyper-sensitive body’s frequent stress and anxiety.
Grandin’s revelation was at first scorned by psychologists. But it’s since been widely accepted and has helped not only those with autism, it’s also helped to make our slaughterhouses more compassionate. Cows heading to slaughter are “contained” in a way that reduces their distress. Using a similar principle, “thunder shirts” are now available for dogs; the tight and sturdy shirt applies pressure that helps to calm a variety of pet anxieties and fears. (A shirt like this worked well for my dog Jupiter.)
But we don’t need to buy anything to help ourselves. We just need to be willing to practice and learn the amount of pressure that’s just right for our body. It’s easy to do. Sit in a safe place where you won’t be interrupted. Take a few conscious breaths into your belly and then let your breath naturally relax and find its rhythm. Next, sense the internal space of your body. Become aware of how it feels as one continuous shape—going from your toes, into your ankles, up to your knees, through your hips and torso, your shoulders, fingers, neck and head. If there is tension anywhere within this shape, send breath there, until, as best you can, you can feel your whole body as one fabric.
Now lightly wrap your arms around yourself—with very little pressure. Notice any change in the internal space. Wait until your body feels comfortable with this gesture. Then, squeeze your arms as tightly as you can—and release. How does the internal body feel now? For many of us, strong pressure is uncomfortable and inspires resistance. We feel more stressed (as when tipsy Uncle Harold gives us too big and tight of a hug).
This information is useful because we’re learning how to calibrate ourselves to find the perfect degree of pressure. You’ll know when you’ve reached it because the internal space shifts. It feels pleasant and calm, better than when you began. So go back to a light grasp and gradually draw your arms in, pausing as you go. The pausing is critical. Unless your self awareness is extremely refined, you can miss this moment. When you hit it right—the inner space lifts. In my own body, this moment comes as as sensation of uplift. Sometimes it feels like a soft golden light is warming my inner body or a precious nectar is flowing through it.
If you practice this exercise daily for thirty days, you’ll get good at it (eventually you can “charm” yourself into this state without using your arms). You’ll also notice a positive effect from daily calming yourself—which will likely decrease the occasions you’ll need to “get hold of yourself.” But if that happens, now you’ll know exactly what to do.
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© 2015 Dana Gerhardt