My experience with chronic stress was an extreme version of the same issue that everyone on this planet contends with. Because of this, recounting my story of recovery provides a
vivid case study against which you can contrast your own experience. It also gives me a chance to describe how the Program Peace exercises relieved my symptoms, so that you can clearly see how they can relieve yours. My symptoms were pretty bad.
My posture was terrible. My eyebrows were permanently raised, I had a permanent lump in my throat, permanent kinks in my neck, permanent tweaks in my lower back, a permanently hoarse and high voice, a permanently clenched jaw, and I couldn’t hold anyone’s gaze for long before my eyes would dart away of their own accord. I was always squinting, and I had purple creases under my eyes. I mumbled when I spoke. I stammered when I was nervous. I always held my breath during conversations. I gasped between sentences, and looked at the floor when speaking.
Throughout my teens and twenties, I was deeply afflicted by anxiety, depression, and bodily discomfort. However, I was mostly unaware of the symptoms as they are described in the previous paragraph. Instead, I just felt perpetually distressed. I knew I wasn’t born distressed and that it had accumulated over time. This made me wonder, “where in my body do I hold this pain, and how can I get to it?” I found the physical manifestations of my stress to be completely elusive. I tried many different clinical and alternative methods to improve my condition with no success. Popular breathing exercises, clinical recommendations, and stress reduction programs did nothing for me. I began experimenting on myself using methods 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.
The core idea is this. Had you been raised in a perfect world, the way you hold your body would be pain-free. But no one is raised in an ideal world. Our spines, facial muscles, breathing musculature and brains have internalized trauma over our life course. Muscles and soft tissues throughout the body become stiff and painful. The cells themselves are altered on a molecular level. These insidious changes rob us of our composure and put us in a metaphorical straitjacket. That straitjacket constricts more and more with the passage of time. Left unchecked it fits a little tighter every day until death. The system presented here will teach you how to recompose yourself to escape this stranglehold.
This book will present activities and exercises for you to practice, each accompanied by relevant scientific background to provide perspective. The focus will be on comparative physiology, explaining how our bodies function by comparing us to other animals. Considering these parallels 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. The more traumatized a mammal becomes, the more tense and inactive its diaphragm becomes.
As mammals, humans do this too. In fact, the diaphragm is one of your body’s main repositories of trauma. You can release this trauma by training your diaphragm, which we will start later in this chapter and then focus on in depth in Chapter 3. Once you have the knowledge to master diaphragmatic breathing, the rest of the book will guide you to combine this form of peaceful breathing with various postures, expressions, and forms of body language to reprogram your entire behavioral repertoire.
My Personal Experience with Stress
Most of us have, knowingly or not, experienced intense, long-term periods of stress. In my case, it happened throughout my twenties. In the morning, I would wake up feeling anxious. After just a few social encounters, my heart would be racing and my adrenaline overwhelming. Friends and acquaintances were often alarmed by the way I behaved, wondering what I could possibly be so stressed about. I would greet a friend and the expression on my face would cause them to scan the immediate environment for threat because my countenance suggested to them that we were in immediate danger. 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 must be biological.”
Under conditions of chronic stress, symptoms continually worsen over time. My default stress level had been elevated over many years, and it showed. 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. Thought processes become overclocked. It becomes hard to fall asleep, difficult to rest, and impossible to relax. 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. As tolerance to the sensations of stress builds many people barely notice how deranged they have allowed themselves to become.
Pressing social concerns and professional responsibilities cause us to ignore the physical symptoms. In habituating to the physical and mental anguish, our body makes long-term adjustments that lock us into a condition of overexertion. This is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to successfully treat chronic stress. Modern medicine has no real solution aside from drugs and rest. This is why most people do little to nothing about it.
After a particularly bad day while lying in bed trying to meditate, I had an epiphany. I recognized the way I was holding 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 distinct aching localized in my spinal muscles, as agonizing contortions of my face, and as the misery of stiff, shaky breathing.
Recognizing that I did not hold my body in this way since childhood, I immediately wanted to know how I had come to do it. From that point on, I have been working on discovering how the body and mind compensate after being exposed to trauma. In creating this system, I spent countless hours analyzing my behavior, and the way I carried myself in minute detail. After comparing my mannerisms and postures with the scientific literature on the manifestations of stress in mammalian biology I came to realize that I was a model of precisely what not to do. This process of self-deconstruction took me from being the most nervous person I knew to being the calmest.
Why is stress so extensive in humans? Most modern human stress derives from mundane frustrations that our body’s evolved mechanisms misinterpret as life-threatening dangers. Because of our prehistoric past, we react to minor threats as if they were matters of life and death. Although most people don’t realize it, most 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 tension 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
The majority of our bodily tension is perpetuated by nonverbal social displays. In biology, a “display” is an innate behavior that has evolved to serve a communicative purpose in members of the same species. Many such signals are observed in the animal kingdom, where they are often used to negotiate intraspecies conflict. For example, among 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 lowered, ears back, and tails low and wagging. They remain behind the pack leader when traveling, and if the alpha wolf challenges them, they will back away, bend down, or even lie on the ground making themselves completely vulnerable.
Subordinate dogs use much of the same body language. They additionally lick or swallow nervously, display a submissive grin, freeze, or flee. Many dogs in the act of submission will dribble urine, or pee on themselves without even lifting their leg. Canines are not unique in this. All mammals use their own set of subordination displays. They do it to avoid the escalation from contest to attack. To avoid outright fighting and bodily harm lower-ranking individuals send a message: “you don’t need to undermine me, because I am already undermining myself.” Submissive display may be more important to social primates than to any other order of animal.
As primates, humans constantly send out signals about inferiority and resignation. In fact, much of our nonverbal behavior is innate, and is 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 routinely do the same. It is important to realize that these displays are controlled by unconscious processes. Although you may not think that you are inferior, we were all born with neural pathways that cause us to adopt postures signifying inferiority. These pathways are coded for in our DNA and hardwired into our nervous system before birth.
Part of what this means is that we use submissive displays around those whom we see as our equals or inferiors. When we meet someone new, we stoop our necks, 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 display of rolling over to expose the belly. 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. I would go as far as to say that very little of my anxiety was due to the usual purported causes: worry, rumination, or traumatic incidents. I have never been badly abused, never been molested, and rarely discriminated against. I believe that almost all of my anxiety and depression was due to the cumulative effects of self-handicapping.
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 ancestry and constitutes a form of self-handicapping. It shows other individuals that we are taking the present encounter seriously, and that we are not too relaxed. The use of submissive displays communicates that we are tired, distressed, possibly crippled, and are not poised for fighting. Rather, it shows we are poised for flight. This would have kept humans safe during hunting and gathering times, and may have kept us safe on the playground as children, but it only holds us back in modern adulthood…Unless, of course, 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). Nonsubmissive gestures and body language are taken as disrespectful. 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 do the same. The more subdued they act, the less likely they are to be attacked. And so primatologists in the field slump over, act sheepish, move very slowly, and look straight at the ground, avoiding any eye contact. As long as they continue to do these things they are usually completely safe. But you don’t live among wild gorillas, and you are likely not reading this book from a jail cell, so don’t resort to submissive tactics. It is not your responsibility to placate anyone with postural concessions or conciliatory gestures. In fact, it is your responsibility to overcome your genetic inclinations to do so.
Animal behaviorists point out that the costs of handicapping signals may enhance their perceived value. Because submissive behaviors hurt us, others will recognize them as valid. Tensing and using inefficient posture usually results in an energy deficit, meaning that a subordinate individual is “spending” energy to “buy” mercy. That makes submissive behaviors authentic signals that communicate that we are operating with a handicap. The crouching and cringing that nondominant wolves exhibit takes extra energy, and comes with personal costs (such as muscular strain) 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 often the costs to the blusher can be outweighed by the benefits. The involuntary aspect of a blush declares sensitivity to social norms, and thus proves to others that you feel shame or guilt and that you value the group. There are many similar displays among animals, all of which are ways of saying, “Look, I’m going to all this extra trouble just to prove to you that I’m not an enemy.”
Crying is an extreme form of self-handicapping. Many scientists believe that its evolved purpose is to interfere with normal vision. It also simulates respiratory distress. Sobbing thus signals acquiescence to an assailant, or even to a companion. 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 doing this, so why do we do submit?
The answer is that humans don’t just self-handicap 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. We do our best to act in ways that are accommodating and ingratiating, taking on bodily tension to do so. Even very dominant people use subordination displays to be endearing and to get people to open up and trust them. Therefore, it is not always clear whether submissive signaling is better characterized as weakness or as a form of social intelligence. It depends on the circumstances. It primarily depends on the specific display in question and how long it is used.
Submissive Displays are the Source of Our Stress
Ordinarily we don’t use the optimal dominance postures because we are afraid they will be threatening to others. This is unfortunate, because when they are authentic and combined with positive affect, dominant displays can actually be calming and reassuring to people around us. Any good leader has this effect on people. But because most of use never learned to use dominant displays in positive ways, we grow up associating them with bad experiences. Peers and strangers might have seen us walking with our heads up, taken offense, and tried to intimidate us into adopting a compliant and docile head-down posture. Experiences like these are the reason that performing optimal displays makes you tense your muscles and breathe shallowly.
The table below lists submissive (suboptimal) displays, and their comparable dominant (optimal) displays. These are just a handful of those considered in this book, but they are enough to start with. 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 1.0: Submissive Displays vs Dominance Displays
We refrain from using the dominance signals in Figure 1 above because we are concerned that they might make people feel uncomfortable. The more we suppress them to keep others comfortable, the more our ability to use them withers away due to disuse.
As you step out of your room, get out of your car, or walk into the grocery store you are constantly trying to determine how you are going to hold your body. You are determining how much impunity you can walk around with. You unconsciously scan the area to see if there is anyone that you will have to cower before. Remember that you always want to hold your body like you have nothing to be afraid of. Use activities 1 and 2 below to get a sense of where you sit between the two extremes of submission and dominance in your own neighborhood.
Activities one and two are designed to help you notice how social pressure encourages and reinforces our submissive displays. There is an even uglier 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 unconsciously) punish assertive behavior, chastening us for acting self-assured. However, we cannot be mad at people for doing this because, whether aware of it or not, we do this to others as well. It is a human instinct. We are constantly using body language to check and balance each other, and in doing so we mutually denigrate each other. Tearing each other down, instead of building each other up, 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. You may feel this way too. I thought the concept was passé. This proclamation of my indifference to the social hierarchy made me feel insightful and unique. It took me some time to realize that this stance was a play for status in itself. Most people publically pretend like the social hierarchy 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. In fact, just about any negative affect will increase stress even if it has nothing to do with submission. However, submission is a physiological state very fundamental to our nervous system.
Being fair, fun, and friendly toward others too often 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 that was originally responsible for creating the mother/infant bond (Churchland, 2011), so many of our ingratiating and affiliative instincts evolved from submissive displays.
Submissive and Dominant Displays in Animals
Dominant and submissive displays occur in almost all animal species, from insects to fish to apes. Threatening intimidation displays are meant to impress, making the animal bigger or emphasizing its physical dominance. They involve bristling hair, ruffling feathers, raising skin folds, baring teeth, displaying horns, emitting loud sounds, making quick and powerful movements, and adopting exaggerated postures.
When a western silverback gorilla wants to intimidate a rival, he will start hooting, throwing objects, pounding his chest, kicking his legs, and running sideways when approached. The fur of dominant chimps stands on end to make them appear larger, and they walk with exaggerated slowness and weight. They gallop, run in circles, hit things, do somersaults, and produce a wide range of loud barking and hooting vocalizations.
Dominant lizards perform pushups, bobbing their heads up and down, displaying their muscles and athletic prowess for others to see. This display shows off the bright coloring on their throats and sides, and indicates that they are in prime physical condition. Many male lizards raise themselves up on their legs and arch their backs to signify territorial dominance. And remember, lizards are not utterly distinct from people. 300 million years ago, before we were mammals, we were reptiles crawling the Earth. We have inherited many of our most primal instincts, and social signals—as well as the structure of the oldest and most reflexive parts of our brains—from these miniature dragons. This inheritance is the reason that their dominance displays seem so familiar.
A. Common lizard; B. Tyrannosaurus rex; C. Iguana
Submissive displays, on the other hand, usually make the animal look smaller and weaker. They involve bowing, cowering, stooping, shaking, breathing shallowly, and exerting efforts to minimize the appearance of physical assets. Some animals have bizarre, ritualistic signals, as with some lizard species that display submission by raising a front leg and waving it in a slow, circular motion.
Like a loyal subject genuflecting in the presence of royalty, chimpanzees with poor fighting records cower immediately during confrontation. They shrink down, and whimper. They may vomit, their legs shake, and their posture collapses.
Figure 1.1 Some Common Primate Hierarchical Displays
A Description of My Own Submissiveness
Here, it is helpful to once again use my own history as an example. 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 the extent to which I felt compelled to send them subordination signals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I acted modest at best, and timid at worst.
Take criminals for instance. As discussed earlier, incarcerated people 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 amplify up my existing submissive signaling in an effort to prove 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 entrenched over the long-term. The more you perform them, the more others expect you to, and the more likely they are to be offended when you try to switch to more assertive behavior.
A. A dog snarling; B. Subordinate and dominant wolves
Many of you will have had the experience of trying to change your behavior—to become more confident and assertive—only to face social rejection. Here’s how it happens: as a young man in my twenties, I tried to be more assertive when I was at work. Away from my friends, I would attempt to reduce my subordination signaling, doing my best to be calm and confident on the job. But my coworkers could tell from my breathing and my facial tension that I was accustomed to sending inferiority signals and was trying to shift my behavior. I was withholding these signals from them. This made them angry, caused them not to like me, and led to social rejection.
Once they are rolling, submissive habits, social reinforcement, and accumulating tension continue to snowball. By my mid- to late-twenties I couldn’t even give the appearance of calm around anyone I knew. Each new acquaintance immediately assumed, from the way I presented myself, that I was their inferior. For my part, I constantly felt that people were being condescending and dismissive. 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.
Crucially, the social dynamics in play are not about what you say, but about how you say it. It’s the nonverbal behaviors that matter. If you saw a written transcript of my speech as a stressed-out twenty-nine-year-old, you might think that I seemed assertive and chivalrous. But if you saw a video, you would immediately perceive me as faint-hearted and jittery. At the time, I thought that people were mistakenly perceiving my kindness as weakness, but, of course, the problem was much simpler. They were perceiving my shortness of breath, my cowering posture, and cringing facial expressions as weakness.
Submissiveness is not just a social phenomenon. Once submissive behaviors become ingrained habits, the stress and anxiety they promote begins to negatively affect your physical health. In my case, the symptoms were extreme—in addition to anxiety and depression I showed other psychiatric symptoms of stress such as a disrupted attention span, a working memory deficit, and panic attacks. I developed medical complications related to stress, including diagnoses such as esophageal achalasia, dyshidrotic eczema, male pattern baldness, 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. All of these are known by medical professionals to be linked to chronic stress.
Since I developed the exercises in this book, all of those conditions, disorders, and symptoms have disappeared, and none have 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 hold trauma in our bodies to different extents, we all could improve our breathing, and compose ourselves better.
Even if all environmental sources of trauma were removed from your life completely, it would still be a challenge to get rid of the lasting trauma already present in 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 in this book. 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
We often keep a specific submissive display active for long stretches of time. Many displays never abate. For example, some people spend their lives speaking in a voice that is much higher in pitch than is comfortable for them. Everyone overuses displays of weakness and these become fundamental components of their personality. These are rarely considered, because we are usually completely unconscious of them and we don’t understand how destructive they can be. 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 main problem with submissive displays is that we let them go on for too long. Any muscle that is significantly contracted for more than a few minutes, and deprived of rest, will begin to take on damage. Most submissive displays—such as squinting and stooping the neck—last for several minutes or even hours. Even when it is slight and unnoticeable, strain accumulates. At first, you might only slightly raise your shoulders and your eyebrows. But over time, knots develop in those muscles, keeping them permanently raised and making them painful. Those knots and kinks develop on a molecular level, and they starve the muscle of blood and force it to atrophy. This eventually turns the muscle achy, weak, and dormant, leaving it perpetually fatigued and creating a source of chronic pain. I will continue to build on this concept of strain accumulation in almost every chapter of this book, as we work through techniques for undoing its effects on different body parts.
I believe that I developed each of the medical symptoms that I listed in the last section 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 1.3: Submissive Displays and the Unhealthy Consequences
As you learned in the first part of the chapter, how we carry ourselves has been molded by other people’s reactions to our posture. Hundreds of elements of our body language have individual learning histories and have been either positively or negatively reinforced until they reached their current settings. This reinforcement is sometimes outright, as when our parents tell us not to glare, but is often subtle, as when peers ignore us until we take the bass out of our voice. You did not choose your current postural settings; they were chosen inadvertently during social trial-and-error learning. Most of them were selected during infancy, childhood, and adolescence when you were immature yourself and surrounded by other immature people. It is important to accept that the probability is very low that the postural configurations you have right now are ideal.
Now that you know why and how submissive displays are so damaging, we can talk about how to fix them. The first thing we need to do is get clear on the goals: in order to improve your health, you need to replace your default submissive habits with their assertive, relaxed alternatives. We’ll start with a simple example.
Consider sneering. The sneer is made possible by muscles that run along the sides of the nose and lift the upper lip when contracted. Mammals sneer so that they do not bite into their own lips during an attack-bite. Most mammals sneer when they are threatened, uncomfortable or stymied—sneering is a threat signal, a display of the canines. It is the equivalent of flashing a dagger or putting a hand on your gun.
Dominant primates rarely sneer, while subordinates do it constantly. The most socially damaged monkeys have tense, stiff sneering muscles that they cannot relax. In humans, sneering is rarely done consciously; instead, most people tense their sneering muscles as a subconscious habit. The tension in those muscles crushes their facial composure, making it difficult to appear calm and collected. Once I realized that my sneering muscles had palpable knots in them, I developed (1) exercises to gain control of them, (2) activities to help me relax them, and (3) muscle compression routines to release the cramps. Undoing the knots in my sneering muscles took me a couple of minutes a day for several months, but it was well worth it. The once-palpable, knuckle sized knots are gone completely. I look much calmer now, and I feel less defensive. After completing the exercises in Chapter 10, you will too. For now, though, just use activity three to become acquainted with your own sneer, and to learn to separate it from your smile.
Right now it should look and feel uncomfortable to smile without sneering. In fact, most people feel extremely uncomfortable in any social situation as soon as they let their sneering muscles relax. However, pairing both sneering, and its absence, with diaphragmatic breathing will change this, affording you a whole new level of composure. The other chapters in this book develop similar techniques into a thorough, systematic approach. The next section explains how this approach works, and why it relies so heavily on pairing dominant displays with diaphragmatic breathing.
The Methodology: Combining Optimal Behaviors with Diaphragmatic Breathing
As described on the home page combining diaphragmatic breathing with optimal postures heals those postures making them arise spontaneously and making dominant body language your default. If you haven’t seen the explanation and figures yet, please read them from the homepage now.
The exercises in this book will ask you first to practice optimal behaviors individually, then combined in small groups, and finally all together. For instance, we will learn to breathe properly, with a calm face, wide eyes, a straight neck, and a relaxed vocal posture. You will also work on dissociating optimal postures from the submissive ones that often accompany them. For example, we will attempt to isolate widening the eyes from raising the eyebrows, isolate smiling from squinting and sneering, and make many other similar distinctions.
Your brain’s current records of how to hold your body correspond directly to where you think you fit in the hierarchy of your social group. Most people who want to be more assertive try to manipulate the environment—by competing, conniving, or using power plays—to change other people’s perceptions of them and gradually assume a more dominant role. Instead, Program Peace will show you how to change yourself from the inside out.
This method relies on established principles from the science of neuroplasticity. 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. One aspect of neuroplasticity is making things automatic; with time, neuroplastic changes consolidate and stabilize, making what you have learned second nature. The exercises in this book use neuroplasticity to optimize your posture by exposing brain circuits to others that they have never been exposed to. This will allow you to over-ride your autopilot, build the habits of an alpha, and remain calm while doing so.
A. Cross section of the brain; B. Coactive brain regions; C. A neuron
Even behaviors that express positive emotions have been routinely co-activated with distressed breathing over your life time. In fact, in most people, smiling is quick to recruit shallow breathing. To detraumatize your smile, you must breathe deeply and diaphragmatically while smiling wide. Starting in Chapter 3 this book will provide you with a diaphragmatic makeover, restructuring dozens of behaviors and postures, dissociating them from the body’s stress system, and pairing them with diaphragmatic breathing. For now, acquaint yourself with what diaphragmatic breathing feels like. Try taking a single diaphragmatic breath in the activity below.
Let’s consider a hypothetical example of how sustained diaphragmatic breathing can help you. Imagine that you are in an uncomfortable position; you have been forced to look up and to the extreme left for five straight minutes. Now, imagine four scenarios:
- In the first scenario, you breathe normally. You might come out of this ordeal with your neck feeling a little tight and uncomfortable, and the feeling might disappear after a few hours.
- In the second scenario, imagine holding your neck like this while breathing very shallowly, just as you would if you were frightened 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 the third scenario, you do your best to breathe slowly, deeply, and diaphragmatically. Breathing in this way, you might notice that at the end of the five-minute period, there is no pain.
- Finally, in the last scenario, you breathe as you will be able to do after you spend six months completing the breathing retraining outlined in Chapter 3 of this book. If you were to do this, your neck would be much less likely to have taken on any long-term strain. Rather, it would be strengthened and toned by the 5-minute effort.
Diaphragmatic breathing protects us from the negative consequences of repetitive strain, while shallow breathing makes us vulnerable to it. Shallow breathing at our desks destroys our necks and lower backs, shallow breathing during exercise limits the potential gains, and shallow breathing while grinning destroys our smiles.
How this Book is Organized
This book features over 100 activities and exercises organized into distinct topics and grouped by chapter. After the description of each exercise in the book, you’ll find the recommended length of time that exercise should be performed (e.g., 5 minutes). Also listed is the number of times that you should expect to perform the exercise in order to reach proficiency (e.g., four sessions per week for six weeks), and the recommended amount to maintain the ability after proficiency is reached (e.g., two times per month). Note that these details are only given for the exercises, and not the activities. Activities are intended to be completed only once.
The book also has a companion volume called “Program Peace: Exercise Manual and Journal,” which comes complete with daily entries and a calendar where you can record the exercises you have completed as part of a three-month regimen. It is not necessary, but it is helpful, and can be downloaded for free from the website.
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, which means that I highly recommend them, and that they are especially valuable as part of your retraining. Almost every exercise is intended to be performed with paced diaphragmatic breathing, synchronized with a breathing metronome, as will be explained in Chapter 3.
The process of working through them to gradually retrain your body is emotionally cathartic, and will give you an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The reprogramming you’re taking on 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 is comprised of several components that act synergistically. Below is a short description of these components:
|1 &2: Intro||Background on the major themes: submissiveness, dormant muscle, trauma and composure|
|3: Breathing||The four tenets of diaphragmatic breathing will end your distressed breathing pattern that is the root source of your stress and tension|
|4: Eye Posture||How to look upwards more often, make better eye contact, stop squinting and stop raising your eyebrows|
|5: Tension and Relaxation||How unconscious bracing is aging and traumatizing your muscles and causing chronic pain|
|6: Massage||The most effective methods of self-massage and where to apply them for immediate results|
|7 & 8: Facial Restructuring||Facial relaxation, exercise, and massage to transform your face and end chronic wincing|
|9: Smile Rehabilitation||How to smile in a sustainable way that does not lead to stress, fatigue, or loss of composure|
|10: Vocal Rehabilitation||Rehab your vocal muscles and find your true voice|
|11, 12, 13 & 14: Postural remodeling||Learn how to position your spine and rehabilitate your neck and back|
|Antifrailty||Clear pain, aches, and stiffness from your body|
|Positive Thinking||Techniques to free your mind from worry and fear|
|Conflict Management||The best ways to deal with and think about competition and confrontation|
|Joy Rejuvenation||How to promote play, laughter, happiness and fun|
Here is an initial 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; it is a look ahead, not an exhaustive overview. By the end of the book, you can expect to have mastered these and incorporated them into your everyday behavior.
- Always breathe at least three seconds in and five 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 bringing 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 being 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 attitude shift by making your personality humble, considerate, and affectionate.
Using Program Peace by Yourself and With Others
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 for being less submissive. When I first started practicing, some acquaintances were confused by the new way I carried myself. My assertiveness was not fully fledged. For this reason, it helps to begin developing these postures alone, or in imagined social situations. Start in your room, while you are driving, or as you are taking a walk. Build up to active social engagement slowly. Once dominant behaviors become ingrained, people will not question them. Practicing alone, you can build yourself a stolid countenance that is so convincing that it remains utterly beyond reproach, even in public. Ultimately this will make you unable to be bullied.
Alternatively, most of the exercises here can be performed with a close friend or in a group, and I encourage you to do so after first practicing them on your own. Fostering a low-stakes environment will make it dramatically easier to bring your new postures out into the wider world. I recommend that you start by discussing the framework with close friends and family. You can create an understanding with your loved ones that your relationship is better off without submissive signals. Instead of making each other weaker, you can train each other to feel comfortable and at ease in strength. 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.
If you don’t have this discussion with the people close to you, they will notice how the program has changed you and they may become disheartened, not understanding why you seem different. However, if you can recruit them to practice with you, you can transform them whether they perform the program’s specific exercises or not. When you are around people who are relaxed, standing straight and speaking in powerful voices, you will find yourself mirroring them without thinking. So help your friends become assertive by being a role model.
Final Note: Assertive is not Aggressive
Much of this book is about how to perceive and act on the distinction between aggression and assertion. What do these words mean to you? In the literature on animal behavior assertion is constructive, and aggression is destructive. An animal chasing down its food is acting assertive, an animal hurting another animal with no benefit to itself is being aggressive. 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 predator. 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.
As we will discuss in the next chapter, submission holds hands with aggression. The submissive straight jacket we find ourselves in causes us to lash out periodically in anger and frustration. A submissive person’s assertiveness comes across as passive aggressive. This is why I recommend avoiding aggression while maintaining composure, aplomb, and self-assurance.
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 people see being “assertive” and being “nice” as two distinct modes that are incompatible or mutually contradictory. Because our psychological schemas for assertiveness are often conflated with those for aggression, many people find it impossible to be one without the other. This means that as soon as they start acting non-submissively, they inadvertently also start being rude, and pushy. 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. Like most stressed primates we live our lives choosing between these two options. However, once you use Program Peace to train yourself to stop sending submissive displays, you no longer have to choose. Everything you do will be assertive and being kind will come with ease.
Chapter 1 Bullet Points
- We all suffer from some degree of pain, trauma, depression and anxiety.
- All mammals use subordination displays to show submission to more dominant animals in order to mitigate social conflict.
- Humans use submissive displays too, often just to be friendly.
- Submissive displays that go on for too long cause stress, muscle tension, and shallow breathing.
- It is difficult to stop using submissive displays because they become habitual and because the people around us come to expect them.
- The activities and exercises in this book will target these hidden sources of stress and aggression.
- Replacing submissive behaviors with assertive ones will improve the way you feel, how you look, and make it easier to get along with others.
- Becoming assertive does not mean becoming aggressive.