Chapter 1: Optimal Quality of Life Training
Throughout my teens and twenties, I was deeply afflicted by anxiety, depression, and bodily discomfort. I tried many different clinical and alternative methods to improve my condition with little to no success. I knew I wasn’t born with the pain and it had accumulated over time. This made me wonder, “where in my body and brain do I hold this trauma, and how can I remove it?” I began experimenting on myself using methods that I derived from my knowledge of cognitive psychology, neuroplasticity, and mammalian biology. The result was a system designed to train the body to reflect an optimal environment. Had you been raised in a perfect world, your posture, the way you hold your face, your breath, and your thought patterns would be pain-free. Our spines, facial muscles, breathing musculature and brains have been traumatized over our life course. The muscles and soft tissues have become stiff and painful, far tenser than they would be if our lives were ideal. These insidious changes rob us of our composure and put us in a type of straitjacket. The straitjacket becomes tighter as our stress levels increase. If left to its own devices it fits a little tighter every single day until death. This system will teach you how to recompose yourself to escape the stranglehold that traumatic stress has on you.
As I present the activities and exercises, I will include relevant scientific background to provide perspective. The focus will be on comparative physiology, comparing the functioning of our body with that of other animals. Considering parallels with animals helps us make inferences about the ideal state in humans. For instance, when mammals are calm they breathe with the respiratory diaphragm, when they are distressed, they breathe with other respiratory muscles. Furthermore, the more traumatized a mammal has become, the less it uses its diaphragm to breathe. The diaphragm is one of the body’s main repositories for trauma. For this reason, in Chapter 3 we will discuss in depth how to breathe with the diaphragm. Once you master this form of peaceful breathing, you will be guided to combine it with other postures, expressions, and forms of body language to reprogram your behavioral repertoire.
My Personal Experience with Stress
During my twenties, I endured several months-long bouts of chronic stress. In the morning, I would wake up feeling anxious. After just a few social encounters, my heart would be racing and my adrenaline overwhelming. Many friends and acquaintances were often alarmed by the way I behaved, like someone who was panicking for no apparent reason. I would meet up with a friend and the expression on my face would cause them to look around, scanning the immediate environment for threat because my countenance suggested we were in immediate danger.
My default stress level had been elevated over many years. Upon going to bed, instead of allowing myself to return to a tranquil baseline, I fell asleep more frantic than the night before. When this happens, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems are stuck in a state of overdrive. The brain and thought processes become overclocked. We all know the sensations involved in physiological stress. Many of us reach a point where our experience of life is like a “bad trip,” infused with the sensations of both withdrawal and overdose. Most people do little to nothing about it. Modern medicine has no real solution aside from drugs and “rest.” Pressing social concerns and professional responsibilities cause us to ignore the physical symptoms. In habituating to the physical and mental anguish, we forget how to rest, and become locked into a condition of overexertion.
Despite concerted attempts to combat the stress, I could not find the enemy. Popular breathing exercises and stress resolution programs did nothing for me. I found the physical manifestations of my stress to be completely elusive. People would ask me: “What is it that you are so stressed out about?” I would reply: “I’m rarely worried about anything specific, it’s biological.” I knew that I was holding the stress somewhere in my body. After a particularly bad day, I was lying in bed trying to meditate, and I had an epiphany. I recognized the pain in my body as the source of my mental suffering. For the first time, I could feel my anxiety not as a diffuse and psychological pain, but as an aching localized in my spinal muscles, as agonizing contortions of my face, and as the misery of stiff, shaky breathing.
Recognizing that it was not there during my early childhood, I immediately wanted to know: “how did it get there?” From this point on, I have been working on discovering how the body and mind hold records of trauma and how to expunge them. In creating this system, I spent countless hours closely analyzing myself and taking my acquired habits, postures, and behaviors as indications of precisely what not to do. This process of self-deconstruction took me from being the most nervous person I knew to the calmest.
Why is stress so extensive in humans? Most of modern human stress derives from mundane frustrations that our body’s evolved mechanisms misinterpret as life-threatening. Because of our prehistoric past, we react to minor threats as if they are a matter of life and death. Most people don’t realize it, but much of these minor threats are ultimately social in nature. In fact, I believe that the predominant source of stress is the apprehension of social conflict and the unease that it creates. Deep down we are afraid that if we are TOO calm that others will reject us. We make ourselves feel uneasy and excitable so that we can use the outward manifestations of stress to communicate goodwill. This book will try to convince you that you don’t need to advertise your stress to avoid conflict and make friends.
A. The facial muscles; B. A cross-section of the heart; C. The diaphragm and bottom of rib cage.
Submissive Nonverbal Behavior is the Root Source of Our Stress
Only in the last few years have I come to understand that the majority of our bodily tension arises and is perpetuated by, nonverbal social displays that we send to each other. In biology, a “display” is defined as an innate behavior that has evolved to signal communication among members of the same species. Many such signals are observed in the animal kingdom where they are used to communicate messages about intraspecies conflict. In wolves, the leader of the pack has a dominant posture: head up, chest forward, ears up, tail stiff and a confident swagger. The rest of the pack walks with heads lower, ears back, tails low and wagging and they remain behind the pack leader when traveling. If the alpha wolf challenges them they will back down, bend down, or even lie down making themselves completely vulnerable. Most subordinate dogs use the same body language and additionally lick or swallow nervously, display a submissive grin, freeze, or flee. Many unconfident dogs will dribble urine, or fully pee on themselves without lifting their leg in submission. All mammals use subordination displays to show submission to more dominant animals. This is done to avoid the escalation of a contest, and to avoid attack. This is ubiquitous in social primates where abiding by the status hierarchy is a high-priority. To avoid harassment, lower-ranking individuals send a message: “you don’t need to undermine me, I already undermine myself.” As primates, humans constantly send out signals about inferiority and resignation. In fact, much of our nonverbal behavior is innate and designed to communicate deference to other humans.
When we encounter a dominant member of our species, we unconsciously adopt a poor posture, speak in a high voice, and tighten our faces. Monkeys and apes do each of these routinely. Although you may not feel or be inferior, we were all born with neural pathways that cause us to send social signals signifying non-dominance. These pathways are coded for in our DNA and hardwired into our nervous system before birth. Samuel Johnson said, “No two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.” If this is true, it means that the average person acts submissive at least 50% of the time.
We even use submissive displays around those that we see as our equals and inferiors. When we meet someone new, we stoop our neck, stop flexing our buttocks, raise our shoulders, and stand shorter to make certain we do not offend them. This is the equivalent of the principal mammalian submissive displays of crouching down or rolling over to expose the belly. These ritualized submissive displays even extend to our breathing. We unconsciously assume that to be respectful and friendly, we must make our breathing shallow. Again, shallow breathing is inherited from our mammalian ancestors and constitutes a form of self-handicapping. It shows other individuals that we are not taking the present encounter lightly, and that we are not “too” relaxed. Taking on these burdens communicates that we are tired, distressed, possibly crippled, and are not poised for a fight. Rather, it shows we are poised for flight. This would have kept us safe during hunting and gathering times, and may have kept us safe on the playground as children, but it only hurts us in modern adulthood. …Unless you are in prison.
For an inmate to avoid attracting negative attention in jail criminologists recommend the use of submissive body language. They advise: never puff up your chest, minimize eye contact, don’t whistle, don’t sing, don’t dance, and above all keep your head down (pointed towards the ground). This advice should make a free person want to do the opposite as much as possible. Humans that have close encounters with 400 pound silverback gorillas in the wild must act very subdued. The more submissive they act, the less likely they are to be attacked. They slump over completely arching the spine. They act sheepish, move very slowly, and look straight at the ground, completely avoiding eye contact. As long as they continue to do this they are usually completely safe. You don’t live among wild gorillas, and you are likely not in jail, so don’t resort to submissive tactics. It is not your responsibility to placate anyone with postural concessions or conciliatory gestures.
Animal behaviorists point out that the cost of the handicapping signal may enhance its perceived value. In other words, because it hurts you, others will take it as valid. This usually results in an energy deficit, meaning that the subordinate individual “spends” energy to “buy” mercy. In that sense, these are authentic signals that communicate that we are operating in an inefficient manner. The crouching and cringing that nondominant wolves exhibit takes extra energy, and comes with personal costs but communicates that they are loyal members of the pack. Blushing has been conceptualized in a similar way (Crozier, 2010). Indeed, a blush can be unwanted, but the costs to the blusher can be outweighed by the benefits. The involuntary aspect of a blush declares sensitivity to social norms, and thus it can “prove” to others that you feel shame or guilt and that you value the group. There are many similar displays in animals that declare: “Look, I am not functioning efficiently, and I am doing it to prove to you that I am not an enemy.”
We use self-handicapping to try to prove that we are not a threat. Crying is an extreme form of this. When we cry heavily, we are simulating respiratory distress. Sobbing would signal acquiescence to an assailant, enemy or even a companion, and this might be why it first evolved. It convinces the aggressor that we are no longer a threat. Chimpanzees have very clear ways to signal that they have been defeated; walking in an apathetic way, covering their face, hitting themselves, and lying prostrate. Primates use submissive displays because they are constantly competing with members of their close-knit group for food and mating opportunities. We are usually not, so why do we do it?
We do not self-handicap only to display deference. Unfortunately for us, we also do it to be likable. In humans, signaling a handicap can communicate modesty, conveying that one is not shameless or brazen. Even very dominant people will use subordination displays to be endearing and to get people to open up and trust them. Therefore, it is not always clear whether this form of signaling is better characterized as weakness or as a form of social intelligence. It depends on the circumstances. It also depends on the specific display in question and how long it is used.
Some displays elicit stress and drain our energy, and others don’t. That is why this program will suggest that you stop using certain displays and start using others. These displays are fundamental components of our personalities but are rarely considered, because we are usually completely unconscious of them. Society has done little to recognize them, and there is very little relevant scientific research. Nevertheless, they constitute “bad form,” and when used habitually, come at a steep price.
The figure below lists two types of displays, suboptimal submissive displays, and optimal dominance displays. These are just a few of those considered in this book. Ordinarily we don’t use the optimal postures because we are afraid they will be threatening to others. Ironically, when they are authentic and combined with positive affect, the optimal displays are actually calming and reassuring to others. Because we never learned how to use the optimal displays with authenticity and positivity, we have had bad experiences with them. We used them improperly growing up, others took offense, and intimidated us out of using them. This is why performing these optimal displays will make you feel tense and breathe shallowly.
This program will help you break these displays down into their component parts, so that you can practice each part while exposing them to sustained diaphragmatic breathing. I explain later how this process makes them authentic and positive. While reading the figure below make a mental determination of which displays you use most, and to what extent. Think about how you employ these displays in different scenarios such as when you are by yourself at home, when you are with friends, and when you are alone in public.
Figure 1: Submissive Displays vs Dominance Displays
We stop using these dominance signals because we know they make people feel uncomfortable. The more we suppress them to keep others comfortable, the more our very ability to use them withers away due to disuse. Use activities 1 and 2 below to get a sense of where you sit between these two extremes.
I believe that excessive prosocial posturing caused the majority of my stress. We do our best to act in ways that are accommodating and ingratiating, taking on bodily tension to do so. However, there is an ugly side to this. The people in our lives positively reinforce our behavior that is endearing, rewarding us for acting in non-threatening ways. They also (often subtly and unconsciously) punish assertive behavior, chastening us for acting self-assured. We cannot be mad at people for doing this because, in reality, we are constantly doing this to others as well. It is a human instinct. We are constantly using body language to check and balance each other. Most of this activity is a waste of time and energy that ultimately programs our brain for sadness and our bodies for disease.
In the past, I did not think that interpreting social interactions in terms of status was productive or informative. I thought the concept was passé. This proclamation of my indifference to the social hierarchy made me feel insightful and unique. It was a play for status in itself. Most people publically pretend like it doesn’t exist. It is true that in many social interactions dominance and inferiority play only a small role. In fact, there are many types of negative body language (dismissive, combative, guilty, disdainful, etc.) that when used frequently can become physically and emotionally crippling. Just about any negative affect will increase stress even if it has nothing to do with submission. But submission is a physiological state very fundamental to our nervous system. Being fair, fun, and friendly toward others usually involves submissive displays. This is because the neural circuits responsible for submissive behavior were repurposed by evolution to help us get along. Just as social bonding in mammals evolved from the same brain machinery originally responsible for the mother/infant bond (Churchland, 2011), many of our ingratiating and affiliative instincts evolved from submissive displays.
A Description of My Own Submissiveness
This bad situation is made worse if your social circle is filled with people that have come to expect you to self-handicap. This was my problem. From my teens through my twenties I hung out with a rough crowd. A number of my friends were convicted criminals and former gang members, several were brawny athletes, and others were drug addicts. I enjoyed their companionship and still do, but I was unaware of how much I felt compelled to send them subordination signals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I acted modest at best, and sheepish at worst. Take criminals for instance. Incarcerated people are forced to alter their posture and personality drastically so as not to attract negative attention from other inmates. These people often adopt exaggerated deferential displays and carry these with them after being released from jail. Brawny athletes usually demand tribute from others in the form of submissive body language. Drug addicts have some of the worst composure and breathing habits of anyone. Having these people as friends caused me to unknowingly turn up my existing submissive signaling to attempt to prove to them that I was an ally and not a competitor. Sending these displays can make you feel courteous and gracious while you are doing it, but even minuscule levels of nonoptimal displays become inveterate over the long term. The more you do it, the more others expect you to do it, and the more likely they are to be offended when you try to stop doing it.
A. A dog snarling; B. Subordinate and dominant wolves
Away from my friends, I would go to work and attempt to turn the subordination signaling back down. I would try to be calm and confident on the job. This was nearly impossible, though. The people at work could tell by my breathing and my facial tension that I was a person that was accustomed to sending inferiority signals, but that I was withholding these signals from them. This made them angry, caused them not to like me, and led to social rejection. By my mid to late twenties I couldn’t be, or even appear to be, calm around anyone. Every new acquaintance immediately assumed from the way I presented myself that I was their inferior. I constantly felt people were acting condescending towards me. But it was my own fault. People can’t respect you if you appear that you don’t respect yourself. The condescension started to make me into a bitter person.
My persona was still respectable in some ways. For instance, if you only heard a written transcript of my speech you might think I was assertive and chivalrous. When I saw videos of myself though, I saw someone who was faint-hearted and jittery. At the time I thought that people were mistakenly perceiving my kindness as weakness, but in reality, they were perceiving my shortness of breath, my cowering posture, and cringing facial expressions as weakness. Because my parents were good role models, I learned to hold my composure well during my early youth. My friends from childhood still treated me like the well-functioning Jared that they remembered. However, trying to maintain an obliging and self-effacing demeanor throughout my twenties caused my problem. I would go as far as to say that very little of my anxiety was due to the usual causes: worry, rumination, or traumatic incidents. I have never been abused, never been molested, rarely been bullied or discriminated against, and have not experienced much overt physical or psychological trauma. I believe that almost all of my anxiety and depression was due to the cumulative effects of self-handicapping.
My eyebrows were permanently raised, my eyes were permanently squinting, I had a permanent lump in my throat, permanent kinks in my neck, permanent tweaks in my lower back, permanent hoarse and high voice, permanently clenched jaw, and I couldn’t hold eye contact very long before my eyes would dart away on their own. I would stammer when I was nervous, and I often mumbled when I spoke. I always held my breath during conversations. I gasped between sentences, and always looked at the floor when speaking. Besides the anxiety and depression I had other psychiatric symptoms such as disrupted attention span, a working memory deficit, and panic attacks. I had several medical complications from severe stress, including diagnoses such as esophageal achalasia, dyshidrotic eczema, low testosterone, and outbreaks of cherry hemangiomas. I had back pain, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, coccydynia, excessive cervical and lumbar lordosis, hip bursitis, unequal leg length, plantar fasciitis, Osgood-Schlatter disease, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ), and numerous other structural misalignments and asymmetries. I had purple creases under my eyes and very poor posture. Since I developed the exercises in this book all of these disorders and symptoms disappeared and have not returned. Having had this experience and having familiarized myself with the wide body of scientific literature that relates stress to disease, I have concluded that submissive display, and the bodily tension that it creates, is one of the most pressing public health problems worldwide. The good news is that not only is it preventable, it is completely reversible.
You can benefit from this book, regardless of whether you have suffered from anxiety. Because of our evolutionary heritage, we all have inferiority instincts that constrain our pursuit of happiness. We all use submissive signaling. We all hold trauma in our bodies to different extents, we all could improve our breathing, and compose ourselves better. Even if the sources of trauma were removed from your life completely, it would still be a challenge to get rid of the scars left on your body. Once your breathing has become hurried and your muscles have developed knots, it is very difficult to reverse this without employing the techniques here. Many people will find these techniques too uncomfortable to do with discipline. To be free of trauma, you must work with and through its physical manifestations. Compressing tense muscles, overriding your shallow breathing style, flexing your way into better posture, and performing the various exercises here require resolve and determination. The good news is that even a little at a time adds up fast.
Chronic Use of Submissive Displays Leads to Trauma
One week I spent some days completely alone where I focused on remaining calm. After some restorative solitude, I felt an appreciable alleviation of anxiety. Then I went for a 5 hour visit with a few of my best friends. I came home and realized that my voice was high, that I couldn’t stop squinting, that my back and neck hurt, and that I was breathing very shallowly. In the mirror I looked tired and worn down. Observe how you feel and look after spending time with your companions. If you notice similar symptoms it doesn’t mean it’s time to find new friends, or a new partner, it means that it’s time to find a calmer you. But some people don’t want to be calmer. Some people enjoy being energetic and intense. The truth of the matter is that being energetic and being calm are flipsides of the same coin. If you can’t balance intensity with periods of calmness, then the intensity will burn you out like a sprinter that runs a daily marathon. Without composure, exhilaration turns to exhaustion in a matter of minutes.
The main problem with submissive displays is that we let them go on for too long. Any muscle that is contracted for more than a few minutes will take on damage. Many of our submissive displays like squinting and stooping the neck go on for several minutes or hours at a time. Even when it is slight and unnoticeable, strain accumulates. At first, you only slightly raise your shoulders and your eyebrows, but over time, knots develop in these muscles, keeping them permanently raised, and also making them painful. These knots and kinks develop on a molecular level, they starve the muscle of blood and force it to atrophy. This eventually turns the muscle into achy, weak, dormant muscle that is perpetually fatigued and a source of chronic pain. I will continue to build on this concept of strain accumulation in almost every chapter of this book.
Each of the medical symptoms that I listed in the last section I developed as either a direct or indirect consequence of muscular strain that went on too long. As we will see in Chapter 5, muscles that are strained repetitively undergo degenerative cellular processes and end up sending continuous pain messages to the emotional centers of the brain (Gerwin, 2001). Sounds bad right? Consider that the predominant form of social breathing in humans – shallow breathing where the diaphragm is not utilized – increases muscle tension throughout the body. This greatly compounds the strain and spreads it to the entire musculoskeletal system. Figure 2 below shows how prolonged use of the submissive displays listed in figure 1 strains muscles leading to unhealthy consequences.
Figure 2: Submissive Displays and the Unhealthy Consequences
A submissive act such as letting your posture collapse when someone yells at you reduces stress. Deferential actions are relieving in the short-term but simultaneously signal an acceptance of lower rank. In the long-term this signaling becomes the principle source of stress. Consider sneering.
The sneer is made possible by the contraction of muscles that run along the sides of the nose and lift the upper lip. Mammals sneer so that they do not bite into their own lips during an attack-bite. Primates and many mammals sneer when they are threatened, uncomfortable or stymied. They do it as a threat signal, and it is a display of the canines. It is the equivalent of flashing a dagger at someone. Dominant primates rarely sneer, and subordinate ones do it constantly. The most socially damaged monkeys have tense, stiff sneering muscles that they cannot relax. Humans rarely sneer consciously, but tense the sneering muscles habitually. Our strained sneering muscles cause us to smile when we are nervous – we use the smile to cover up the sneer. In fact, a sneer tarnishes our every smile. The tension in these muscles crushes our facial composure. I realized that my sneering muscles had palpable knots in them, so I developed 1) exercises to gain control of them, 2) activities to learn to relax them, and 3) muscle compression routines to release the cramps. It took me a couple of minutes a day for several months, but it was well worth it. Those knots are gone completely. I look much calmer, and I feel less defensive. After completing the exercises in Chapter 10, you will too. For now just become acquainted with your own sneer.
Right now it should look and feel uncomfortable to smile without sneering. Just doing it will cause you to breathe shallowly. However, pairing it with diaphragmatic breathing will change this, making it your preferred, and most happy, way to smile.
The Methodology: Co-activating Various Instances of Ideal Posture
“We are chained to ways of walking, ways of thinking and ways of perceiving and feeling. We are slaves to our automatic behavior.” F.M. Alexander
Composure is established during early development but can be constructed anytime in the life course. This book will show you how by training ideal posture; breathing posture, facial posture, spinal posture, mental posture. The definition of posture is: “the relative disposition of the parts of something.” To create hardy posture, you need to properly condition the parts individually, and then the relationship of certain parts to other parts, before you can expect all the parts to come together in the right way.
The manner in which we carry ourselves has been molded by other people’s reactions to our posture. Hundreds of different elements of our body language have individual learning histories and have been either positively or negatively reinforced to acquire their present settings. This reinforcement may be outright as when our parents tell us not to glare, or subtle as when peers ignore us until we take the bass out of our voice. You have not chosen your current postural settings; they were chosen inadvertently during social trial and error learning. Most of these settings were selected during infancy, childhood and adolescence when you were immature, and dealing with other immature people. It is important to accept that the probability is very low that the postural configurations that you have right now are ideal.
Our brain and spinal cord hold the memories that regulate our posture. The human brain is filled with around 100 billion cells, and each one specializes in coding for a different aspect of either our environment, our behavior or both. Each of these neurons encodes a tiny, subsymbolic fragment of memory, and they are used in groups to represent actual constructs. When they become coactive in carefully chosen groups, these constructs sum together to create full memories, thoughts and conscious experiences. This means that all of our thoughts are composed of unique combinations of microsymbols that already exist in the brain. Combinations of these also direct our behavior, posture and body language. When the microsymbols for different postural settings co-activate, they wire together, forming new memories, and making that particular combination of neurons more likely to fire together in the future. The combinations that have coactivated during our lifetime – our memories – are self-limiting. They force us to send submissive displays, perceive our environment cynically, and act defensively.
A. Cross section of the brain; B. Coactive brain regions; C. A neuron
We do not get to consciously pick and choose the brain cells that co-activate together. It happens too fast. In fact, it is difficult for us to co-activate neurons that have not already co-activated extensively in the past. This is why we need dedicated practice to develop new skill sets. Because humans are limited capacity processors, it takes practice to master healthy postures and to be able to use them together simultaneously. Electrical energy in the brain flows where there is the least resistance. The neural pathways that have been activated by experience are the most conducive. You can re-direct activity to unused circuits through conscious effort. When you do this you over-ride your autopilot. However, only whreat you are paying attention to is new, and everything else you do at that moment is on autopilot.
Your brain’s records of how to hold the body correspond directly to where you think you fit in the hierarchy of your social group. Most people try to manipulate the environment (arguing, conniving, using power plays) to change other people’s perception of them so that they can assume a more dominant posture. Instead, this system will show you how to change yourself from the inside out, starting with what you coactivate. You want your historical record of co-activation statistics to work for you, and the activities in this book will help you program it properly.
The method used here utilizes established principles from the science of neuroplasticity to accomplish this. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure or relearn in response to new experiences and demands. The process of neuroplasticity underlies all learning, training, and rehabilitation. With time neuroplastic changes consolidate and stabilize making what you have learned become second nature. The exercises in this book use neuroplasticity to optimize posture by building new brain circuits and unmasking or disinhibiting ones responsible for assertiveness.
The neural reprogramming method here works by co-activating the fundamentals of proper posture and self-empowering social displays. The exercises will have you practice optimal behaviors individually, then in small groups, and then eventually all together. For instance we will learn to breathe properly, with a calm face, wide eyes, a straight neck, and a relaxed vocal posture. Additionally, we will attempt to dissociate optimal postures from the submissive postures that often accompany them. For example, we will attempt to isolate widening the eyes from raising the eyebrows. We will also try to dissociate squinting and sneering from smiling, and many other things like this. In doing so, we will attempt to coactivate everything with proper breathing. In fact, every exercise in this book is intended to be performed along with diaphragmatic breathing.
You could improve your postures and displays without diaphragmatic breathing, but it would take much longer. This is because just assuming ideal postures makes your breathing defensive. For instance, when you smile, or when you stand up straight, your breath immediately and automatically becomes shallower. This is especially true in public. This happens because during your lifetime behaviors such as smiling and standing up straight have been routinely co-activated with defensive breathing. To undo this and to detraumatize your smile you must breathe deeply and diaphragmatically while smiling. This book will provide you with a diaphragmatic makeover, restructuring dozens of behaviors and postures, dissociating them from the body’s stress system by pairing them with diaphragmatic breathing. Chapter 3 contains explicit instructions on how to accomplish diaphragmatic breathing, but for now try a single diaphragmatic breath in the activity below.
Allow me to give you a hypothetical example of how diaphragmatic breathing can help you. Imagine that you were forced to hold your neck in an awkward and uncomfortable position. Pretend that you have to look up and to the extreme left and hold this for five minutes. Now imagine four scenarios: 1) in the first scenario, you breathe normally. You might come out of this ordeal with your neck feeling a little tight and uncomfortable. This might disappear in a few hours. 2) In the second scenario, imagine holding your neck like this while breathing very shallowly. Imagine that you are breathing in the same way that you would if you were being traumatized by some terrible circumstance. At the end of five minutes, you might have developed a cramp in your neck, and it may be painful for a few days. In fact, certain cellular changes from this experience may remain with you for years, subtly affecting the way you hold your neck and creating a domino effect of traumatic tension that has the potential to last a lifetime. 3) In the third scenario, you do your best to breathe slowly, deeply, and diaphragmatically. Breathing in this way, you may notice that at the end, there is no pain. 4) Finally, in the last scenario, you breathe as you will after you spend six months completing the breathing retraining outlined in chapter 3 of this book. I am going to try to convince you that if you were to do this, your neck would be much less likely to have taken on strain. Rather, it would be strengthened and toned by the 5-minute effort. Diaphragmatic breathing protects us from the negative consequences of repetitive strain. On the other hand, shallow breathing makes us vulnerable to it. Shallow breathing at our desks destroys our neck and lower back, and shallow breathing while grinning destroys our smiles.
This book features over 100 activities and exercises organized into different topics and grouped by chapter. I think the process is emotionally cathartic and will give you an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The reprogramming training here is designed to act like a “cheat code” that allows you to hack into the programming of your nervous system and reset it to a lower level of stress. The system comprises four main components that act synergistically:
The Components of this System
- Breathing Retraining: This section will instruct you on how to make your breath deeper, slower and smoother. You will be shown how to engage the diaphragm and strengthen your breathing musculature.
- Facial Reconfiguring: This section will teach you how to relax your face, start using empowering facial displays, and stop using submissive ones. It will also show you how to compress your facial muscles to reduce tension, and will describe several facial exercises.
- Postural Restructuring: This section will focus on the key aspects of proper posture, exercises to improve strength, balance, coordination and methods to counteract frailty through locating and rehabilitating strained muscle.
- Cognitive Reprogramming: Sections throughout the book offer advice on how to be assertive and composed while still being a good person. They will provide tools for reframing stressors and the mistakes of others, and for dealing with your own ego and aggressive tendencies.
After the description of each exercise in this book, the duration that you should perform the exercise will be listed (i.e. 5 minutes). Also listed is the number of times that you should perform the exercise to reach proficiency (i.e. four sessions a week for six weeks), and the recommended amount to maintain the ability after proficiency is reached (i.e. two times per month). These details are only given for the exercises but not the activities. Activities are intended to be completed only once. Some exercises have a warning, and this means that it is possible to hurt yourself while doing the exercise as described. Some exercises are given between three and five stars, and this means that I highly recommend them. Almost every exercise is intended to be performed with paced breathing, led by a breathing metronome, which will be explained in Chapter 3. At the end of the book, there is a spreadsheet calendar that guides you to complete weekly exercises as part of a six-month regimen.
Here is a quick list of some of the concepts that are targeted by the exercises in this book. The list is intended to get you thinking about them before we proceed.
- Always breathe at least 3 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Your breath should be a tiny but continuous sip of air that never pauses and always proceeds at the same rate.
- Monitor your breathing carefully during conversations; don’t let it become shallow.
- Breathe through the nose as often as possible.
- Minimize squinting, and raising your eyebrows.
- Do not make your voice high pitched as an indication of affection or compromise.
- Notice that before you meet someone, make a call or send a text, your face and neck will tighten up and you will start breathing shallowly.
- Do not respond to provocation or threat with your face or with your breath.
- Look above the horizon as much as possible.
- After making eye contact, look at or above the eye line rather than below it.
- Stand and sit erect.
- The best posture for the neck is to look upwards while brining your chin to your chest.
- Press your shoulders down and back, and flex your buttocks as often as possible.
- Be very calm when you model social interactions in your head.
- Minimize replaying or imagining negative social scenarios, especially confrontational or violent ones.
- Be very calm in social situations. Retain complete composure. Make calm a priority in your life, even over appearing rude or unsophisticated.
- Expect that the calmest version of you has what it takes to resolve any scenario.
- Try being “dead calm,” first by yourself and then with others.
- Think of yourself as pure of heart, slow to anger, and not easily offended.
- Make your posture and countenance ruthless, uncompromising, and unapologetic but temper this by making your personality humble, considerate, and affectionate.
Overcoming the Inferiority Instinct
The sad truth is that we continue to use bad posture and submissive display even when unprovoked. Before you know it, the way that you hold yourself in front of your angry boss adversely affects the way you hold yourself when you are with your best friend. Even when you are by yourself, you are maintaining all of these defensive displays, as if the negative people in your life are constantly following you everywhere. Why don’t we let ourselves relax when we are alone? Is it because we are always modeling social scenarios in our head, and we want to “stay in character” while we are doing it? This book will help you learn to assume healthy postures during your time alone, and with practice, this will transfer to your social persona. Ultimately this will make you unable to be bullied.
If you immediately start practicing the activities in this book in social situations, they will be feeble. People will recognize this, and they may attempt to punish you. When I first started these things, a few people took offense at the way I carried myself because it was unfledged. For this reason, it helps to begin developing these postures alone or in imaginary social situations. Start in your room, while you are driving, or taking a walk. Once these behaviors become ingrained, people will not question them. You can build yourself a stolid countenance while alone that is so convincing, that even in public it is beyond reproach. Alternatively, most of the exercises here can be performed with a friend or in a group, and I encourage you to do so after performing them on your own first.
In an effort to not offend friends and family members and to ameliorate discord, we send submissive signals, expect them to send them back, and punish them if they do not. Discuss this with the people with whom you spend your time. You can create an understanding with your loved ones that your relationship is better off without these signals. Instead of making each other weaker, you can train each other to get along without showing weakness. Ask your roommate or spouse to walk around your home like they own the place, and tell them to expect you to do the same. When you are around people who are relaxed, standing straight and speaking in powerful voices, you mirror them without even thinking. These are the people that you want around you, so make your friends into these people. If you don’t have this discussion with the people close to you, they will notice how this program has changed you, and they may become disheartened. However, if you can recruit them you can transform them whether they participate in the program or not.
Aggression vs Assertiveness
Initially, this book was going to describe the many costs of aggression. I saw aggression as a pitiful coping tactic that unfortunately is often rewarded but never leads to an optimal solution. I saw it as a heuristic that people employed inflexibly and far too frequently. I felt that by living my life without aggression, I reaped many benefits and wanted to share my protocol for using diplomatic formality and etiquette. My method was flawed though because in trying to lose aggressiveness, I also inadvertently lost my assertiveness. A few people told me that stifling my inner emotions would only cause pent up tension. I staunchly disagreed with this at first. However, they were right. I spent so much energy placating people and repressing my personality that I became perpetually distressed. So as not to appear aggressive I accentuated my subordination displays and debilitated myself with self-handicapping. I will still argue here that we should absolutely inhibit anger and aggression; however, only while maintaining composure, aplomb, and self-assurance.
Much of this book is about how to perceive and act on the distinction between aggression and assertion. In mammals, the brain pathways for aggression (fighting members of your species) are completely distinct from the brain pathways for predation (searching out and obtaining prey) (Panksepp, 2012). A cat that is pursuing a rat does not hiss or arch its back. The active brain areas reflect motivated hunger rather than anger (Gleitman et al., 2004). If you were to wipe out the aggressive system of a predator’s brain, it could still be a stone-cold killer. If people knew this basic neurological truth they likely wouldn’t praise aggressiveness, or confuse aggression with assertion. Once you can discern between the two, you can simultaneously be confident and friendly, poised and thoughtful, assertive and pure of heart.
At its core, this book is about being both self-possessed and kind at the same time. I have spent my life trying to be both but have only come close in the last few years. Many see being “cool” and being “nice” as two things that are incompatible or mutually contradictory. Because our psychological schemas for aggression are conflated with our schemas for assertiveness, many people find it impossible to be one without the other. As soon as they start acting non-submissive, most people inadvertently also start being rude. They can’t help it. Religious leaders tell us to be nice at the expense of being assertive. Dating coaches and business gurus tell us to be assertive at the expense of being nice. We live our lives choosing between these two options. Once you stop sending submissive displays, you no longer have to choose. Everything you do will be assertive and being nice will come with ease.
Chapter 1 Bullet Points
- We all suffer from pain, trauma, depression and anxiety to different extents.
- All mammals use subordination displays to show submission to more dominant animals in order to mitigate conflict.
- Humans use submissive displays too, often just to be friendly.
- Submissive displays that go on too long, cause stress, muscle tension and shallow breathing.
- It is difficult to stop using submissive displays because they become habitual and because others come to expect them.
- The activities and exercises in this book will target these hidden sources of stress and aggression.
- This will improve the way you feel, look, and get along with others.