My brother is at the dentist. He is having some work repaired on a root canal gone wrong. Sitting there, he is filled with anxiety. It’s going to hurt; he knows it.
Any moment the pain will begin. Any moment one of those hard, gleaming tools is going to dig into his tender gums and he will just have to sit there and take it. His hands are clenched, his breath shallow and constricted, his shoulders and neck tight and rigid.
At some point, he becomes aware of how tightly his hands are clenching. He notices how he is holding his breath, the tension radiating throughout his entire body.
Simultaneously, he suddenly realizes he can’t feel anything in his mouth at all. It truly is completely numb.
He is tensing (guarding) against a pain that isn’t there.
He is able to let go and relax a bit and finally, it is over.
There was no pain. There was only his fear of the pain.
Relating the story to me, he is laughing. Laughing at himself for all the unnecessary stress he put himself under. For all the unnecessary tension and stress his body underwent.
True, there have been other visits to the dentist that haven’t been pain-free. Visits, in fact, where he did experience high levels of pain and discomfort.
That pain is what his body remembered. That discomfort is what his body was trying to protect him from experiencing again.
But, in this case, the protection, the tension, was unnecessary. In this case, the tension only served to make a visit to the dentist much more unpleasant than it actually was.
This story got me thinking.
Thinking about fear. And, about how past experiences of pain (or the fear of pain) can completely disconnect us from what is really happening in the present moment.
In the present moment, there may be no pain, no threat. In the present moment, the sun may be shining, the birds singing, a gentle breeze caressing our faces.
Yet, at the same time, our bodies can be responding as if they are under direct attack. Our hearts can be racing, our muscles tight and tense, our breath restricted.
Today, I’m not so interested in the ‘why.’
Why, for instance, we can be thrown into such a state of fear or panic or anxiety when there is nothing in the present moment truly threatening us. For now, let’s just assume that there is a very real, very logical reason for our bodies to be reacting in such a manner.
And, instead, let’s talk about that moment when we become aware that our reaction is not based in reality.
Let’s explore ways to help us settle back into the present moment.
Where there is no threat. Where we are safe.
My brother returned to the present moment when he realized he was tensing up as if he was experiencing extreme pain when, in fact, he was in no pain whatsoever.
Once he gained that awareness, he was able to talk himself down. To point out to himself that he wasn’t in pain. That his mouth was, surprisingly, totally numb. He was then able to consciously relax his hands and take a deeper breath.
Sometimes, just noticing that your reaction isn’t based in reality is enough.
Sometimes, it isn’t.
Sometimes, the fear or anxiety can be totally overwhelming.
Sometimes there isn’t enough presence of mind available to notice that the fear you are experiencing isn’t based in reality.
Sometimes, all you can feel is the fear.
In these cases, I have a couple of simple suggestions to help you find your way back to the present moment. Both of these suggestions come from Jin Shin Jyutsu, a Japanese system of healing and self-care.
- The Grounding Points: sitting or lying down, find the small hollows beneath your collarbone on either side of your sternum. Gently place your fingertips (right hand beneath the right collarbone, left hand underneath the left collarbone) in these hollows.
These points serve to safely and gently ground you in your body.Take a few moments and focus your awareness gently on these two points. Notice what happens in your body on the level of sensations.
For me, I generally notice an almost immediate increased sense of relaxation. Often I find myself spontaneously taking a deeper breath as the muscles around my neck and chest begin to let go. It’s such a simple thing. Yet, it constantly amazes me how effectively it brings me back to myself.
- Hold your index finger. In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the index finger is all about fear. Cradling the index finger of either hand in the other hand rebalances the body energetically and helps fear to release.
Again, the key is to take a few minutes and just let yourself tune into the sensation of holding your finger. And, to notice what happens in your body as you continue to pay attention and cradle the finger.
I love this one because it’s so sneaky! You can do it practically anywhere, anytime and no one even has to know.
Do these suggestions really work?
The best way to find out is to give them a try! And, of course, to pay attention to how your body responds. And no, you don’t have to be in a state of fear or overwhelm in order to benefit from these suggestions. They can be used anytime you want to feel more grounded and present.
Will they solve all your problems and make it so you never feel fear or anxiety again? Probably not.
What I’ve found, however, is that the more I use them, the quicker and more completely my body responds.
These suggestions serve to bring me back to myself a bit when I’m in that state of fear or anxiety. They bring me back to the safety of the present moment. From there, I am better able to meet the fear versus be overwhelmed by it.
What’s your experience? How does your body respond?
Sonia Connolly says
Thanks for the tips! It’s surprising to me how much it helps to touch those points in the midst of emotion. The emotion is still there, but my body can calm down anyway.
When I’m at the dentist, there are two more reasons for intense emotions – the anaesthetic triggers an adrenaline reaction, so the pounding heart is physiological, not just a response to anxiety, and also my body knows at some level that it’s being invaded, even if it doesn’t hurt at the moment. I agree that it’s useful to notice whether pain is actually happening, though!
I like John Briere’s idea that each time we re-experience old pain in a safe environment, it helps us heal and be more present. So maybe your brother’s tension wasn’t unnecessary or wasted after all. Hope he heals quickly!
Hi Sonia! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m really happy you stopped by. 🙂
I love this post with it’s deceptively simple exercises and yes these tools really do seem to work!
I totally love the exercise where one places one’s hands just underneath the points of the collarbone. The effect was immediate from feeling panic to feeling calm. Warm, comforting, calming, magical. I’m still experimenting with cradling my index finger – so I’ll keep you posted!
As a very sensitive person whose body has in the past triggered into fear and anxiety in HUGELY overwhelming and uncomfortable ways, it’s difficult to describe how truly awful it is when one’s body goes into total panic or anxiety. So being able to comfort and calm one’s body as and when the OVERWHELM arises is fantastic.
So yes it works! Even for the sensitive, cynical or seemingly traumatized and I’ve been pretty much felt like all of the above!
I so love deceptively simple things that work! 🙂
And, I’m super happy to hear that you are experiencing calming, magical things using these tips when you are feeling panicked or overwhelmed.
Thanks much for sharing your experiences.