Although our bodies are capable of finding peace, they were never designed to do so. Rather, they developed to internalize environmental hardship to ensure the perpetuation of our genes. Harmful experiences cause organisms to promptly deviate from otherwise optimal body plans, restricting growth and mobility while reducing their quality of life. The focus of this chapter is to explain why we retain stress in the form of bodily trauma.
From microorganisms to monkeys, all life forms respond to stressors with innate biological programs.1 They are prepared to alter their bodies and life strategies if they encounter adverse environments. To be clear, this is a form of non-mutational adaptation that takes place without natural selection during an individual’s lifetime.2 We all have the potential to become highly stress-adapted, and this could happen to you in a matter of weeks if you were exposed to extreme hardship. The DNA (genotype) does not change; however, the genes that are expressed change and cause the body (phenotype) to change.3 Your genes specify the blueprint and the foundation, but the environmental circumstances influence how soundly your structure is built.
The changes bodies make allow conformation to occasional but regularly recurring environmental pressures faced by the species. These are usually stressors. Changes can be either transient or permanent and are examples of a scientific concept called developmental plasticity.4 How you responded plastically to your environment results in a unique developmental trajectory. For instance, if you were a sad child growing up, you are more likely to be a melancholy adult. Certain developmental windows close early in life, but we retain a great deal of plasticity even in old age. This means that your fundamental nature (dominant, submissive, calm, anxious, etc.) is in the process of being determined even as you read this.
Developmental plasticity is any change in the body, good or bad, mediated by changes in gene expression as a response to the environment. When I say gene expression, I am referring to the process where the body’s cells determine that a particular protein is needed, they find the gene that encodes the protein from within the DNA in the cell’s nucleus and use it to build the protein. For example, when you exercise consistently, genes that encode the proteins needed for muscle tissue become highly expressed, resulting in muscle growth. That’s a clear case of developmental plasticity: your body responds to exercise by building new muscle to make the lifting easier.
The same thing happens on a faster scale when your eyes adapt to darkness. Cells in the retina use the rhodopsin gene to build the rhodopsin protein necessary to see better in low light. The production of breast milk involves expressing milk proteins within the breast tissue that are not expressed before pregnancy. Tanning involves the production of the protein pigment melanin. The formation of long-term memories (neuroplasticity) involves physical changes to brain cells that necessitate protein expression. Each of the 25,000 genes in the human genome codes for a protein that performs a specific function within our bodies when needed. Some of these genes, and their proteins, contribute to anxiety.
The Tradeoffs of Adapting to Adversity
Simple single-cell organisms respond to stress (excessive heat, starvation, and abrupt chemical changes in their environment) by tweaking their body plan. Molecular cues that they pick up cause them to express genes that may otherwise remain dormant, causing changes within their cell walls to respond to the demands at hand. Even in the simplest organisms like bacteria and protists, these emergency alterations have costs. Resources are funneled toward responding to the crisis rather than to longevity and upkeep. Over time, this negatively affects the health of the microbe.
Humans also make unhealthy changes in response to bad environments. Constant muscle strain incites protein expression that changes the muscle, making it hard, inflexible, and limiting its range of motion. Shallow breathing becomes persistent because the body uses gene expression to retune the breathing apparatus to become maximally efficient at shallow breathing. The heart is similarly retuned to beat rapidly. Threat-sensing areas of the brain are reinforced after threatening experiences.5 Stress stimulates the expression of a large variety of different proteins in organs throughout the body and brain that would not otherwise be expressed. These proteins are used in defensive structures, defensive maneuvers, and the creation of a defensive mind state. The effects of developmental plasticity can be lifelong or even multigenerational. Recent findings have found that many of the negative effects can be reversed, but the longer you wait, the harder it will be.
These changes might be useful, for instance, if your environment is filled with predators. But they can produce drastic bodily changes, especially if they are triggered early in development. This is easiest to see in non-human examples like certain species of horned beetle. The beetle’s body type can vary sharply based on food availability. Visually, the two versions look very different. Even many scientists at first assumed these two morphs were from different species. When they don’t have enough food, developing males become smaller and weaker and never develop their characteristic horns. Their metabolism is reduced, and they utilize “sneaky” reproductive tactics rather than the direct combat typical of their better-fed peers. This morph is adaptive—it has better reproductive success—but only in environments where food is scarce and larger beetles cannot feed themselves.6 Outside those environments, a hornless horned beetle has no real chance to compete.
A similar thing happens to the water flea Daphnia. If exposed to the smell of their natural predators early in life, they develop a large protective covering that helps them resist being eaten. However, this armor also makes it harder to move and feed. These examples of plasticity involve fundamental tradeoffs. The same kinds of responses occur in mammals, although the effects are usually less obvious. Still, sometimes, you can visually recognize the ravages of stress in people who are extremely anxious, highly traumatized, drug-addicted, or on the bottom of the social totem pole. What these people share in common is that their stress system has been turned up too high for too long. For the beetle, the environmental cue predictive of adversity is malnutrition. For the flea, it is the smell of its natural predator. Can you guess what ours is? It is distressed breathing. Shallow thoracic breathing drives the threat system and a cascade of harmful cellular modifications that change our physical body plan.
How Mammals Adapt to Chronic Stress
Decades of experiments have found that the offspring of nervous mothers are biologically programmed to also be nervous.7 Mothers exposed to adversity before, during, or after pregnancy upregulate their babies’ stress-response systems permanently. Mammals from mice8 to monkeys9 with stressed-out moms exhibit increased adrenal activity, which causes higher concentrations of stress hormones. Mammals with more active adrenal systems are more susceptible to stress, responding to mildly threatening events in exaggerated and inappropriate ways.
These responses often last for the animal’s entire lifetime. They are a specific type of developmental plasticity called “predictive adaptive responses.” The idea is that if a mother’s environment is hostile, then her offspring are likely to face that same environment and ought to be prepared for it. For the same reason, rat pups born to calm mothers tend to be calm themselves. Those that received high levels of maternal care in the form of licking, grooming, and nursing show increased resilience to stress even in adulthood.10 All mammals begin to adapt plastically to stress in the womb and continue to do so throughout life. This is why it is so important to take control of your reactions to stress: you have the power to steer yourself away from suffering.
We were all born with the capacity for unmitigated strength, consummate confidence, and unconditional dominance. Despite this, our body’s cells are constantly searching for cues about predation and social competition. Upon encountering these cues, stress hormones are turned up, the respiratory and cardiovascular systems are strained, muscles grow tense, and the brain is adjusted to make us angry, fearful, and paranoid.11 Again, these responses may result in subtle, microscopic changes or profound, visible ones. The Program Peace method aims to reverse the negative changes and create lasting, positive ones by providing your body’s cells with the cues necessary to cause them to interpret their environment as advantageous.
The autonomic nervous system controls the function of our internal organs. It affects the heart, lungs, various organs in our abdomen, skin, muscles, and many areas of the brain. It generally influences our organs to either prepare for stress, as in the fight-or-flight state, or for calm, as in the resting-and-digesting state. The fight-or-flight state is associated with the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system while the “rest-and-digest” state is associated with the parasympathetic branch. These two systems are constantly working together to maintain homeostasis to meet organismic needs. Both are necessary for health and normal functioning. They work in unison, but at any given time, one is usually more active than the other.
The activity of the sympathetic nervous system rises when we feel stressed and lowers when we feel calm. The sympathetic nervous system becomes toxic when it is augmented by developmental plasticity. This is when the body builds stress-adapted proteins into various organ systems. This keeps a person locked in a perpetual state of stress that scientists call “hyperarousal.”
Specialists describe the retuning of the autonomic system toward stress as an imbalance that equates to a “shift toward sympathetic upregulation.” This is the antagonist of our story, and it is an adversary for each of us to different extents. It is important to point out that the sympathetic nervous system itself is not our enemy; the problem comes only from long-term, persistent sympathetic over-activation. This happens when fear and intimidation are regular occurrences. As you might expect, inferior and submissive mammals have greater sympathetic upregulation. For example, low-ranking baboons have the highest blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart rates.12
Moreover, the upregulation of the sympathetic system is almost always a ratchet, meaning that shifts toward stress are generally steady and irreversible. This is partly because many experiences coerce us to breathe more shallowly, but very few convince us that it is safe to breathe more deeply. The table below details the physiological changes associated with both branches of the autonomic system.
Table 2.1: The Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Branches
If I were to walk over to my cat and bang my fist on the counter next to him, his autonomic nervous system would react strongly, raising his sympathetic activity. This would be very apparent in the form of a full-body startle and increased defensive activity. After a few minutes, his autonomic activity would go back to baseline (but repeated threatening surprises would shift his baseline toward sympathetic upregulation). If someone were to make a loud, unexpected noise next to me, I would also experience transiently increased autonomic arousal. Humans share a common ancestor with cats 85 million years ago. This funny-looking little mammal would have shared its habitat with dinosaurs and would have had an autonomic nervous system very similar to ours. But the autonomic nervous system is much more ancient than this.
If you were to find a group of ants walking around on a tabletop, then strike the surface they were walking on, they would freeze for an instant before running about their business in a frenzy. The neural components that receive and interpret the quick blow to the tabletop are very similar in structure to our own. Mammals and insects both inherit their autonomic nervous systems from a common aquatic ancestor that lived around 590 million years ago, near the end of the Precambrian supereon13. Yet, we still share this same basic structure.
Not all animals have an autonomic stress system. Animals that live their lives attached to rocks, including corals, sea squirts, and anemones, have no use for it. Even some primitive mobile animals such as jellyfish also lack this system. We should consider ourselves blessed to have it. We just have to teach ourselves how to bring it under control because it is a great servant but a terrible master.
Illustration 2.2: Many orders of animals share similar stress responses and adapt to chronic stress in similar ways.
I know a man who is a psychopathic bully. He is friendly to people at first to gain their trust. Then, he says whatever he can to confuse, upset, and undermine them for his amusement. Before long, his victims are breathless, trying desperately to mount defensive arguments against his red herrings. Eventually, he points at them, laughs, and says, “This man is fighting for his life right now.” We are no different. We overuse the sympathetic system during simple social confrontations as if we were fighting for our very lives.
The sympathetic system retunes our organs for intense, uninterrupted physical exertion. This might be appropriate for a person forced to defend themselves against death on a minute-to-minute basis. But none of us do this in modern times. Our stress system is set to overdrive, even though most of us sit on our butts throughout the day and the most upsetting things that happen to us are minor verbal putdowns. The likelihood of you dying prematurely is very low, but your body is operating as if it is high. Persuade your body to stop this by choosing to breathe in a new and different way: as if your survival was guaranteed.
To bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic back into balance, we must recognize that we are not fighting for our lives. This is accomplished by spending more time with the parasympathetic prevailing over the sympathetic. How can we accentuate the parasympathetic system? Relaxed deep breathing. But, as you know, maintaining a relaxed breathing pattern can be extraordinarily difficult because we overreact to minor intrusions so strongly.
Your body has an inborn reflex known as the startle reaction that controls the frequency and severity of stress. Startle is a panic response to something alarming. It is initiated in the brainstem and kickstarts the sympathetic system. It lasts for a fraction of a second (between one-half and one-fiftieth of a second) and can be elicited by threatening stimuli such as loud sounds and fast-moving objects. It can also be elicited by thoughts about unpleasant subjects such as dangers or deadlines. When it happens, our heart rate increases. The next heartbeat comes early, which is a jarring experience. This is often described as the heart “skipping a beat.” Adrenaline floods into the body. The breath shortens. We also gasp reflexively when startled, and this has the effect of making the breath shallower and more rapid. Repeated startle responses over weeks or months sensitize the startle pathway in the brain, which explains why anxious people are much more prone to startling.
Startling can be very subtle, in which case you may not realize that you have been startled. When subliminal startling happens continuously, it is often recognized as nervousness. The submissive person will almost always experience more frequent startling than the dominant person. Highly submissive people will startle every few seconds during social interactions. They often startle during their own actions as if to apologize for them. I used to startle whenever talking to someone. It made me come across as shaken and fear-stricken. Sadly, for some of us, startling and trembling are part of being “nice.”
Startling devastates our composure. You cannot look someone in the eye with a straight face and decent posture after you have been startled. Once another animal sees that you have experienced a full-body startle, you immediately become prey. With introspection and patience, we can learn to inhibit our startle magnitude and reduce our emotional reaction to it. To do this, we must keep ourselves from overreacting when it happens. When you feel yourself startle, don’t get caught up in it or let it carry you away. Instead, let it wash over you, like a wave you have ducked under. Reducing the startle reflex, despite not being acknowledged by mainstream science, is feasible. Some Buddhist monks have demonstrated significant inhibition of their startle reflex, even inhibiting almost all evidence of it.
Startle also causes the body’s muscles to tense up. Some muscles, including those in the hands, feet, face, and abdomen are contracted intensely. Contractions in the back jerk frail spinal segments into unfamiliar positions. Sustained contractions from frequent startling can cause achiness and exhaustion. Much of your muscular pain is centered in muscles overworked by your startle response. This is why it is important to cultivate awareness of how startle manifests in your body so that you can ensure that you do not remain stuck in this configuration.
Aside from questions of frequency and intensity, the posture you hold when being startled is telling. When your startle posture is indicative of surrender, people and animals can see this. The way you carry yourself at the point of startle affects your default posture and comes to dictate many aspects of your personality. The full-body startle is accompanied by specific movements in mammals intended to protect certain body parts such as the neck and eyes. In human infants, the eyes blink, the face grimaces, the back arches, and the arms and legs flail out with elbows and knees bent. Adults form their startle postures over a lifetime. Many people flinch, cower, wince, slump over, flail, duck, backpedal, drop things, or buckle at the knees.
In high-level military, police, and martial arts training, combatants are drilled to assume specific fighting stances when alarmed. Through repetition, we can reshape the automatic movement pattern that is recruited. Most people startle recognizably several times every day so you should have ample opportunity to correct your startle. To begin experimenting on your own, start with Stress Adaptation Activity 2.1.
If I touch my cat unexpectedly when he is nervous, he will startle. If he’s not nervous, he won’t. We need to carry ourselves in a way that if something intense happens unexpectedly, we won’t startle. Reducing and reshaping your startle response is an example of how you can begin to make progress in replacing anxious nonverbals with more healthy ones. The discussion of optimal postures throughout this book will help you determine what you want your startle posture to consist of.
Stress Adds Tension to Our Organ Systems
Over months or years, elevated activation of the stress response can be highly detrimental to health.14 This is called “stress adaptation” and it reallocates the use of available resources in a way that hinders the organism in the long term. This is because most responses to stress are desperate efforts to keep the organism alive just a bit longer. The changes sacrifice long-term investments in health and biological maintenance for intense short-term expenditures. It’s an ecological wager that acknowledges that the organism will likely not survive for years in the present environment but may be able to survive long enough to reproduce one last time. Our modern bodies continue to make this same pitiful wager even though it is completely unnecessary in today’s environment. The sympathetic upregulation that bought our ancestors a little more time to reproduce today causes us strife, adversely impacts our health, and sacrifices longevity. Getting stuck in survival mode is antiquated and anachronistic. It can be seen as a Stone Age, or even a Mesozoic (the age of reptiles), way of remembering just how bad the environment is.
Illustration 2.3: How the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems affect the organs to prepare us for either “resting and digesting” or “fight or flight.”
The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system revs up various organs. Each of these organs responds by overexerting itself differently. Some people hold more trauma in the stomach while others hold more in the face. Each person has a different trauma setting, for each of dozens of modules and hundreds of muscles. This gives everyone a unique pattern of strengths and vulnerabilities. Some of these modules correspond to functional structures, such as the swallowing apparatus, the muscles of urinary control, or the intestinal sphincters. Some modules may correspond to plexuses, or clusters of nerves, such as the pharyngeal plexus, the cardiac plexus, or the solar plexus.
These anatomical modules partially overlap with the ancient Hindu yogic structures called chakras. Chakras are thought to channel energy and correlate with both physical ailments and emotional strengths. Chakra-based practices are characterized as pseudoscience today because they stem from an ancient philosophy that made some assertions that turned out not to be true. However, the primary concept of the chakra has some validity. Modern medicine generally acknowledges that even the archaic descriptions of chakras bear a remarkable resemblance to contemporary anatomical descriptions of nerve clusters.
For example, consider the “throat chakra.” All of us hold some degree of tension in the muscles that control the vocal tract. This traumatizes our voice boxes and manifests as a painful lump in the throat, which worsens as stress increases. It causes us to feel “choked up,” diminishes vocal range, and makes the voice weaker and hoarser with age. However, we can retrain our vocal apparatus using a series of exercises designed to relax and strengthen the muscles, restoring a broader vocal range and effectively healing this chakra-like module. This is the subject of Chapter 12.
Illustration 2.4: A. Spinal nerve plexuses; B. Meditating yogi with chakras represented by circles; C. Internal organs
The extent to which our chakras have been impacted by stress and trauma determines the extent of our submissive displays and our aptitude for composure. In other words, chronic stress disfigures organs through developmental plasticity. This includes tensing the muscles behind the face (nasopharynx), retracting the genitals, and contracting the smooth muscle of the gut. The people most afflicted are more susceptible to sensations like “the jitters,” a “bleeding heart,” “butterflies in the stomach,” the sensation of a heavy weight on the chest, and shortness of breath. These forms of chakra discomfort are the primary causes of anger, pain, shyness, introversion, and the background hum of persistent anxiety.
Most of the time, we don’t notice our compromised displays, the physiological dysfunction, or even the pain they cause. Neither angry nor shy people understand that their behaviors are dictated by the discomfort that comes from unbalanced organs. Instead, and quite unfortunately, they often attribute their responses to aspects of their environment. They use violence or submission to try to change the environment instead of using self-care to change themselves. This lack of awareness allows their pain to control their behavior all the more effectively.
Each chakra-like module has its own mini nervous system, and each sends and receives messages to both conscious and unconscious areas of our brain. Our mind is continually receiving updates from these modules and has the opportunity to send instructions back to them. However, if you neglect to guide attention to the sensations, the brain develops a blind spot, or scotoma, for them, making them almost impossible to self-regulate. Program Peace will help you develop an awareness of, and control over, these different modules. We will focus on sensing where the modules are, whether you are straining them, and by how much. The program will also help you learn how to hold them optimally while breathing diaphragmatically so that you can combine them into healthful ways of being.
Often, when an individual attempts to withhold submissive displays, other signs of submission spill out despite their best efforts. When someone unintentionally emits signals that betray nervousness, psychologists call this phenomenon “tension leakage.” Examples of tension leakage include a cracking voice, swallowing at inopportune times, body sway, increased blinking, trembling, fidgeting, stammering, and startling. People who show such leakage early in a confrontation are sometimes thought of as “weak” or “soft.” Unfortunately, most people socialize by default in a state of moderate physiological distress just below their threshold for tension leakage. This book will also help you become aware of your tension leakage and try to persuade you not to be afraid or ashamed of it.
If you had to point to places in your body and say, “My anxiety exists in the pain I feel here,” where would you point? Do you think it is possible to rehabilitate that area? I think it is. Do you think it involves muscles that can be contracted? I think it does. As Chapter 1 discussed, you can heal your chakras by bringing them to fatigue. Holding the muscles involved in a firm, sustained contraction for several seconds will exhaust them. If you are relaxed and breathing diaphragmatically, muscular exhaustion leads to recuperation.
The chakra-like modules are pots that are boiling over, leaking everywhere. People engaging in tension management try to put a lid on the pot but find themselves constantly cleaning up the spillage. The exercises in this book take another route. Instead of trying to cover up the spills or hide them, they turn down the heat on the stove so that you can exhibit grace under pressure.
Even Sea Slugs Take on Trauma
One of Earth’s simplest animals provides a great model for trauma. The sea slug Aplysia californica is a large shell-less sea snail. The Aplysia has a defensive reflex to protect its respiratory organs from damage. When the area around its gill is touched, the animal retracts the gill up into the bulk of its body. The response is so simple and reliable that neuroscientists have used it to study the cellular basis of protective reflexes.
In 2000, neuroscientist Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his research on these animals. He decided to use the sea slug in his experiments because it has very large neurons, and there are only about twenty thousand of them. Contrast this with the one million neurons in a cockroach or honeybee and the 100 billion neurons in the human brain. This simplicity, however, is no barrier to effective function. The slugs are more than capable of learning carefully about when and how much to retract their gills, and, thanks to Kandel’s work, we have a clear understanding of the neural mechanisms involved.
The Aplysia’s gill retraction reflex exhibits a phenomenon called sensitization, whereby the reflex can be strengthened by adding a painful stimulus. By shocking the animal with a small amount of electricity, experimenters cause it to startle. Pairing the shock with a touch to its gill can make its natural defensive response much more powerful. Sea slugs trained this way are constantly “on guard,” withdrawing their gills more forcefully and for up to four times as long when touched. This change occurs because the slugs on high alert have generalized the negative experience of the shock to other stimuli so that even a benign, light touch elicits a powerful withdrawal.
Illustration 2.5: A. Sea slug Aplysia californica; B. Aplysia with gill fully relaxed; C. Aplysia with gill fully retracted.
You could say the muscles and nerves involved in retracting the gill constitute a chakra. This is similar to how humans come to hold tension in muscles all over their bodies, overreact to unthreatening stimuli, and generalize traumatic experiences to everyday life. The Aplysia’s gill retraction reflex is analogous to the reflexes responsible for a wide range of submissive displays, from our squinting eyes to our hoarse voices, from our suppressed sexuality to our tense diaphragms. The only real difference is that the sea slugs are traumatized by actual painful stimuli, whereas most of our trauma comes from the way we interpret social competition.
The good news here is that the Aplysia can very easily be desensitized, and so can we. When the slug is touched lightly and repeatedly without being shocked, there is a progressive decrease in how far it retracts its gill. Gradually, it relearns that there is no risk associated with light touching and it becomes able to relax. Such a decreased reaction to a stimulus is known as desensitization or habituation. Slugs cannot heal their own chakras in this way. However, by simulating an optimal environment through relaxed diaphragmatic breathing, and using the right mindset, we can. Rather than researchers prodding us with electrodes, we have social contacts prodding us with provocation. This book will teach you how to desensitize your chakra-like modules to their competitive attacks.
Since the discovery of the pecking order among hens by Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1922, status hierarchy has been understood as the predominant form of social organization in vertebrates. Animals that live in social communities must actively compete in the same space for resources. When food, mates, or territory are disputed, dominant individuals will prevail over subordinates. Interestingly, a tiered social system helps the group become stable and viable over the long term. On average, it is beneficial for each member, even for those of the lowest ranks. This is because it minimizes violent competition over resources by defining the relationships among members. Dominance hierarchies improve reproductive fitness for all the animals involved by discouraging physical fighting, thereby saving time and energy and reducing the risk of injury.
Unfortunately, a stable hierarchy necessitates constant signaling. Many mammals send out submissive signals even before any direct confrontation occurs. For instance, the subordinate dog will often whimper and place its tail between its legs in response to an immediate threat. Even in the absence of any threat, it will carry its head low, tremble slightly, and adopt a restricted tail posture all the time.
In primates, being harassed or subjugated by higher-ranking individuals, even without any physical contact, is the major form of stress for many species.15 But it is not just being dominated that is stressful. It is the compensatory response. Submissive displays activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system and create continuous strain on the muscles and organs responsible for them.
Most animals have a nearly equal propensity to display dominant and submissive displays in infancy, and young mammals often use both interchangeably in bouts of play. However, as the animal matures, one of the two types of display becomes more frequent and more pronounced. Their experiences with victory and defeat drive this shift.16 The term social defeat refers to losing a confrontation or dispute with a member of your species. This happens constantly in the wild. The more frequently you feel defeated, the stronger your submissive signaling becomes. It is anticipatory and preemptive. Animals that lose repeatedly exhibit chronic subordination, wearing the extent of their social defeat on their sleeves to advertise their place in the hierarchy.
Cricket fighting is a popular pastime in China and provides a perfect example of social defeat. A cricket loses a match if it is thrown from the ring, runs away from a battle, or avoids contact. Studies have found that after just one loss, a cricket can “lose its fighting spirit” and will only fight again one time out of ten.17 Rather than engaging in actual combat, the insect will simply flee the next time it is approached without even taking the time to size up its opponent.
Other examples are just as dramatic. In experiments with mammals, the “resident-intruder” paradigm is often used. This involves placing a subordinate rat near the cage of a more dominant one. Inevitably, the dominant rat will make a dominance display, resulting in the subordinate animal being threatened and acting defeated. Sometimes, the submissive rat is placed inside the dominant rat’s cage, which leads to the intruder being attacked and forced into submission. Because the cage is small and escape is impossible, the intruder will lie on its back, emitting distress calls and freezing behavior to appease the attacker. In both experimental protocols, the submitting animal’s physiology is significantly changed18.
Social defeat is a source of chronic stress in animals capable of affecting both neuro- and biochemistry.19 In mammals, social defeat routinely leads to social withdrawal, lethargy, reduced exploratory behavior, anhedonia, decreased sexual drive, and reduced levels of testosterone in males and females.20 In humans, it is linked to low self-esteem, feelings of depression, avoidance, anxiety, and increased levels of stress-related hormones. One of the most dramatic changes is the attenuation of the breath. You may have noticed that after a soul-crushing defeat, the most notable change is that it sucks the wind right out of you.
There is good evidence that social defeat in humans leads to poor health21 and goes hand-in-hand with sympathetic upregulation. Low social status is a robust predictor of death and disease in humans.22 Several large-scale public health studies have found that low socioeconomic status is strongly related to illness, disease, and mortality.23 The lower a person’s status, the more likely they are to have cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, neoplastic, pulmonary, renal, or other diseases. This association between disease and social status cannot be explained away by related factors such as age, income, health behavior, race, sex, or access to healthcare and is thought to be a direct effect of stress.24 In places where everyone is poor, the effect is nowhere near as strong. It is the inequality that affects health, and it seems that social stress is the real culprit, as socially isolated people and those who receive less social care and inclusion have a greater risk of dying from any cause.25
Experiences of social defeat cause us to become preoccupied with matters of status. Male chimps are obsessed with it. They organize most of their lives around issues of rank, allowing social struggles to consume their time, energy, and mental lives. Chimps use intimidation, bluffs, isolation tactics, and obtrusive social maneuvers to challenge and undermine others and dethrone the leader.26 Similarly, human glory-seeking behaviors, personal vendettas, crimes, and even large-scale political conflicts almost always involve efforts by individuals to improve their rank. Innate tendencies to resist social defeat form the basis of human egotism, hubris, false pride, and insecurity. The primate ego is the source of much of our existential suffering.
Our egos reflect the place in the pecking order in which we imagine ourselves. This is why the ego plays such a pivotal role in our mental lives. The ego is a neurological mechanism designed to help us navigate the primate social hierarchy while avoiding defeat. It causes us to compulsively compare our attributes to those of others and to use these comparisons to guide our use of dominance and subordination displays. After using the exercises in this book to rehabilitate your breathing and other bodily functions, I hope you feel divested of your submissive inclinations and with them your susceptibility to defeat. When this happens, you should feel that your ego expands to include others rather than exclude them.
We want to develop egalitarian relationships in which there is no vying for dominion. Don’t bother subjecting yourself to the never-ending, back-and-forth game of status displays. Rise above them. To do this, you must respond to other people’s aggressive and submissive displays toward you without feeling compelled to respond with those of your own. Doing so involves subduing four central mammalian instincts. This means that whether they play submissive or aggressive, you choose not to respond with either aggression or submission. You will find that virtually anything else you respond with will be perfect.
“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are.” — Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
This book’s premise is that, due to our molecular heritage and primate ancestors’ preoccupation with social competition, we are highly susceptible to becoming stress adapted. This causes us to hold various lesions in modules throughout the body. It poisons our minds and causes our behavior to be desperate, combative, and vindictive. It causes us to perceive threat when it is not intended and appraise real threat as more dire than it really is. The resulting tendencies cause unnecessary negativity that significantly impedes humanity’s cultural and intellectual progress.
Stephen Hawking once argued that the human race is equivalent to “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” I used to think that we were scum in both senses of the world: 1) grotesque, biological waste and 2) miserable, immoral miscreants. Now, I think it is the symptoms and physical stigmata of stress that cause us to act reprehensibly. For that reason, I think that they make us scum. In my mind; however, if we can transcend our physical afflictions, we can transcend our propensity for evil. In doing so, we would also rise above our lowly biological origins.
What happens to an animal that reaches the top? Does an ape that becomes an alpha individual in their group become more aggressive or less aggressive? What is your guess? Many people tacitly assume that dominant individuals are more aggressive than subordinate ones. The opposite is true. When an ape or monkey is accepted as the alpha of its group, its violent tendencies evaporate. They are the most assertive while also being the least aggressive. There is no need for either violence or threat displays (except under unusual circumstances, as when a rival challenges the alpha). This is true of both males and females. It is, therefore, counterproductive for a human to act aggressively in an attempt to appear dominant. What they appear as, instead, is impetuous and foolhardy. According to primatologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson:
The male chimpanzee behaves as if he is quite driven to reach the top of the community heap. However, once he has been accepted as alpha (in other words, once his authority is established to the point where it is no longer challenged), his tendency for violence falls dramatically. Personality differences and differences in the number, skills, and effectiveness of his challengers produce variation in how completely he relaxes. However, once males have reached the top, they can become benign leaders as easily as they earlier became irritated challengers. What most male chimpanzees strive for is being on top, the one position where they will never have to grovel. The difficulty of getting there induces aggression.27
Scientific observations like this document for us that acting aggressive is a sign of weakness and self-perceived inferiority. I believe that the main reason dominant primates are not aggressive is that their own subordination signals no longer haunt them. As with apes, so also with humans: we are kept controlled by our egos and obsessed with issues of pride because we want desperately to stop having to submit. I know this was the case for me. My nonverbals were so submissive that I was embarrassed by them. I didn’t want to appear weak so I would instead get angry, angry enough to cross ethical boundaries. Deep down, we know that submissive behavior is the source of much of our physical and emotional pain, so we are always seeking ways to feel confident in leaving submission behind. But the necessary confidence is elusive.
In the last chapter, we discussed how once we stop sending submissive displays, we no longer have to choose between assertion and aggression because being assertive without being aggressive will become second nature. How is this so? Imagine you were always blushing, always sneering, and that you always looked like you were about to cry. Imagine how frustrating and difficult it would be to come across as assertive. To be assertive, you would almost have to be passive-aggressive. Right? Chapter 6 will show you that the tension we hold in the muscles surrounding our cheeks and eyes keeps us continually on the verge of blushing, sneering, and crying.
Releasing the tension responsible for such displays will allow you to reach true equanimity and present you with a different option. At this point, you will have to choose between being a good person and being a bad person. You can utilize your newfound composure altruistically or malevolently. At this crossroads, I believe most people will realize that being good is the only real path because once your submissive behaviors have disintegrated, it will become clear that they were always the primary drivers for bad behavior.
I can tell you from firsthand experience because I went from one extreme to another. When I felt I was on the bottom, I was sulky, ill-tempered, and hateful. I always felt like I had something to prove. The majority of my time alone was spent planning retorts and retaliation. I experienced “other people” as a type of hell. Since being desensitized by Program Peace’s exercises, I no longer feel these emotions at all. Other people are just not a source of negativity anymore.
Our ingrained bodily habits make it difficult to just stop sending submissive signals. Even if, somehow, we could leave behind our mental concerns related to status, our bodies would continue to carry symptoms of social defeat like shortness of breath, the rock in the pit of our stomachs, and the hot tension in our faces. These are spiritual burdens that will inevitably drag us back into the hierarchical fray. This book will show you how to mend these symptoms and how to lay down the burden of submission, shame, and stressful social comparison. Where do we start? With the cornerstone of confidence: “breathing easy.”
In most mammals, shallow breathing accompanies submission and aggression, while deep breathing accompanies dominance and assertion. A submissive chimp always greets a more dominant chimp first and does so using a sequence of short pant-grunts. These depthless pants are indicative of self-handicapped breathing. Chimps whimper when acting submissively, producing a high-pitched sound accompanied by attenuated breath. We also breathe shallowly around others, especially when experiencing social anxiety. I believe that if it were studied, researchers would find that the extent of deep, diaphragmatic breathing is an accurate predictor of social dominance, the number of offspring, quality of life, and a wide variety of other positive outcomes in primates and all mammals generally. Unfortunately, there has been extraordinarily little related research on breathing style in animals or humans.
Recent experiments have offered us glimpses into the benefits of breathing with the diaphragm. Study participants that practiced deep breathing achieved significant reductions in self-reported anxiety, stress hormones, heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure,28 and the activity of the sympathetic stress system.29 It also enhances mood, oxygen levels, pulmonary function, cardiorespiratory fitness, and respiratory muscle strength, as well as parasympathetic activity. Findings like these, along with the benefits I have experienced myself, have led me to believe that the most important message that you can send your body and its cells is, “Hey, it’s totally safe to breathe slowly and deeply.”The scientific community knows shallow breathing to be an indicator of stress and sympathetic over-activation. But it is rarely recognized as a submissive and conciliatory display. Recognizing it as such is important in understanding how to counteract it. We breathe shallowly to show people we are listening to them, that we are concerned and do not think of ourselves as better than them. We face strong unspoken social norms telling us to breathe shallowly. Tragically, however, it results in stress adaptation, increases our tendency to startle, creates tension in chakras throughout the body, and rewires our mind for negativity.
It is possible to escape the social pressure to breathe shallowly. We can do so by building strong, consistent diaphragmatic breathing habits, training ourselves to breathe deeply under every possible circumstance. Deep breathing in social situations breaks the link between social friction and fight or flight. It allows you to stop responding to social pressures as if they are matters of survival.
Whether you are sitting in a meeting, chatting with a friend, having an argument, or taking an exercise class, there should be only one competition that is going on in your head. Out of everyone in the vicinity, you want to have the most relaxed breathing. The only way to accomplish this is to breathe slowly, smoothly, and deeply, reducing the number of breaths you breathe per minute. Relaxed breathing will liberate you from the status hierarchy and is the only thing that you should do aggressively. The next chapter will show you how.
- Your body is a “survival machine” designed to support a competitive molecular replicator: namely, your DNA.
- Our biology prioritizes the DNA, and for that reason, our bodies are designed to sacrifice our physical and emotional well-being for the sake of survival and reproduction.
- As one example of this, we are built to adapt to stressful environments by upregulating our stress-response activity, resulting in anxiety and pain.
- Even in the modern world, everyone’s stress system has been over-activated to some extent. This anxiety or “hyperarousal” results in chronic muscular, respiratory, and cardiovascular fatigue.
- Anxiety and chronic stress negatively affect every organ in the body. These organ systems are roughly congruent with the ancient Hindu system of chakras—familiar body parts that need to be rehabilitated with love and care.
- We use anxiety as a submissive display to prove to others that we are neither “too calm” nor “too good” for them.
- The overuse of submissive signals leads to the accumulation of trauma within our tissues and organs, especially the breathing muscles. The result is often chronic defeat, otherwise known as depression.
- Being nonsubmissive is not about being tougher than anyone else; it is about not wasting energy on competitive nonsense that leads nowhere.
- Dominant mammals are usually the most composed, and the least traumatized and hyperaroused. They don’t feel any need to use anxiety as a form of social lubrication.
- Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation of dominant behavior because it builds unconscious self-confidence.
- You can escape the cycle of social anxiety by breathing deeper and longer breaths in social situations—fearing no one but treating everyone well.
- Through developmental plasticity (new gene expression), you want your body to make persistent, beneficial adaptations that are responses to an optimal environment. To do this, you must give the body the right cues to trick it into assuming that your environment is safe and full of resources. This is accomplished by breathing with the diaphragm.
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