“Keep looking up, that’s the secret of life.” – Snoopy
It’s interesting isn’t it how our body and mind are so connected.
We know our body is programmed to react to thoughts and emotions… when we feel happy, muscles draw our mouth into a smile, and the body releases hormones that make us feel good. When we feel upset it triggers tears. We can feel (or even be) sick when we are nervous, we produce adrenalin when we feel under threat, and when we are angry our body can raise the volume of our voice and clench our fists.
Although we know that our mind influences our body, we don’t always think about how our body can influence our mind, but it can really transform the way we feel.
A couple of weeks ago my son arrived home from school very grumpy, “I can’t believe it,” he announced, “I’ve got to write a speech… and then… we have to do it in front of the whole class!” He paced round the room, “I hate doing that…” he grumbled crossly, “I hate standing there, and talking, and everyone looking at me…” He ranted on about how pointless it was and how much he hated it, “…and I get so nervous!” he added, blinking away tears of frustration and annoyance.
“Oh dear,” I said when he finished (an inadequate response I admit), “how long do you have to talk for?”
“A whole minute!” he replied indignantly.
“Well, a minute’s not too long.” I said lightly, in what I hoped was a supportive tone… he rolled his eyes.
In fairness, he has never liked this kind of thing – I remember him at 4 years old, the shyest of Josephs in his first nativity (thankfully with a kind and confident Mary to help him through). I sympathise. I don’t know many people who truly enjoy talking in front of a big group of people, especially their peers, and standing at the front of the classroom facing thirty 14-year-olds is pretty intimidating.
“What’s the speech about?” I asked.
“It’s got to be a rant of some kind,” he said, “something we hate!”
“Well that’s lucky…” I laughed, “you’ve just gone on for more than a minute about why you hate doing speeches…You’ve done it already!”
He failed to see the funny side, but to give him his due, he eventually wrote a decent speech about his fear of public speaking. It turns out it actually has a name – Glossophobia, and it’s a common fear affecting famous politicians, actors, presidents, celebrities and 14-year-old boys alike.
The night before the “big day of speeches” he was really anxious and nervous… time to enlist the body.
Just as thoughts and feelings cause physical changes in our body, conversely our bodies can cause changes in our state of our mind. There’s a lovely technique called the Circle of Excellence that you may know. It helps us to draw our positive strengths and qualities into difficult situations or at times when we want to perform at our best.
To briefly explain, it works by thinking about how we’d like to feel in the difficult situation and the qualities that would help us to feel that way. Imagining a circle on the floor, we step into it remembering a time when we strongly felt those positive emotions and qualities. In the case of making a speech, for example, we might want to feel calm and confident. Remembering what we saw, heard and felt in those moments can recreate those emotions which can then be anchored with a physical movement like a squeeze of thumb and finger, or a word. This can then be triggered to regenerate that state when needed.
Scientific brain imaging shows that when we imagine something our brain stimulates similar responses as if we were really there, and that there is very little difference in the interpretation of the reality and the imagined. The circle of excellence creates an imaginary place where we can be all the things we want to be in a situation. It is, of course, portable, and can be re-imagined to tap the mind into the positivity when the support is needed.
I wonder if you have certain ways of drawing on your strengths and resources like this? Maybe you’ve done it before a job interview or a difficult meeting? Athletes use this kind of technique a lot to help them make the perfect shot or run the perfect race.
There are other ways the body can… I want to say “trick our mind”, but it’s more that there are other ways our body can positively change how we feel.
Just standing up taller can alter our emotional state making us feel more confident and positive. The famous psychotherapist Milton Erickson encouraged his patients to go for a walk and count chimneys, not because he was interested in chimneys but because walking with their heads lifted encouraged more positive thought.
Many of the big, wide poses in yoga boost confidence and wellbeing, especially when coupled with mindful breathing, and I’ve written before about the benefits of deep controlled breathing which can influence our feelings to calm the emotions and reduce stress and anxiety.
Smiling can also make a difficult task easier. Studies show that the brain interprets muscle activity in a pretend smile in the same way as a genuine smile, automatically triggering a similar feeling. It’s certainly something I’ve found helps even if inside, I’m desperately trying to work out what to do!
I expect that sayings like “keep your chin up” and “put on a brave face” probably come from an instinct that using our body can help.
So next time you want to change how you feel, tune into your body. Are you hunched and drooped because you feel anxious or sad? If so, this will be sending signals to your brain saying “I’m not ok” and it will react accordingly. Yes, I am hunched because I am unhappy, but also I am unhappy because I am hunched… standing tall and strong can start to reverse those feelings.
The trick is to notice, then you can make the change.
And there’s something else too…
How we hold our body also signals how we are feeling to others. A high percentage of communication between humans is through body language which we read instinctively. Think about a mime artist and how we can piece together the narrative from movement alone.
In the same way that we can “trick” our brains, we can also disguise how we feel to other by changing our body posture and expressions. So if we are in a situation where we don’t want to show our nerves or fear or doubt, then make a conscious effort with your body – with the added benefit that in doing so you’ll be sending more positive signals to yourself to counteract those emotions!
Oh and the “something I hate” speech apparently went well. I’m pretty certain my son didn’t stand tall and smile at his classmates, but he did say Maybe he’ll take the memories of pride and achievement into his imaginary circle for the next time!?
Deborah Stephenson, soon-to-be Ollie Coach
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email email@example.com
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us