“We don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh”. 3 tips on how to save yourself from stressful thoughts and tense shoulders inspired by William James.

Have you ever wondered why it is that we sometimes get tense and stressed despite knowing that there is absolutely no reason for it? Why is it that occasionally even in a rare instance of British summer and Friday afternoon we still feel uneasy and not exactly living the beauty of the moment?
William James
Well here is one credible answer inspired by a giant of Psychology and Philosophy, William James. William James, in the course of his human psychology research, theorised that any feeling or mental attitude is preceded by a bodily sensation. This sensation is a foundation on which we build our emotional feeling and eventually our mental attitude and our imagination.

In other words, you can actively change the way you feel by exploring and enriching or impoverishing the sensate capacity of our body. The over 100 years old James-Lange theory of emotion has yet to be disproved and the current affective neuroscience discoveries actually support it. What this means is that we simply feel good because our body is in a feel-good attitude and we feel bad because of the corresponding bodily arrangement. Amy Cuddy and her now very popular power pose TED video is based precisely on these principles.

How do you use his wisdom to release your stress?

If we follow James’ stipulation to its logical end then we discover that not only we are “happy because we laugh” but also that we are stressed because our body is tense. We begin to understand that that our tense jaws and shoulders, jittery movements and lack of patience all belong to the architecture of our stress involving sensation, emotion, feeling and thinking. To change it we need to play with how we experience these individual components. As we do this, suddenly we have a choice, a possibility of freedom from tension is born.

So how do you actually do it? If you have experienced Rolfing you are probably aware of the emphasis we put in each session on your sensations and how these affect the way your body stands, walks and breaths. If you remember, we investigated themes such as the quality of your contact with the ground, the sensation of having a huge back space or a floating head, all of these were components of the training in refining your perceptual awareness to instigate the change at the foundations. According to James, sensation is the first component of how we experience the world and it underlies our emotional disposition towards it. Our capacity to sensate is directly linked with our stress levels and because in your Rolfing process you have trained this capacity into your nervous system, it should not be too difficult for you to re-create the rich, sensorial, stress-free state whenever you wish to. If you have not had Rolfing yet, well then give it a try and find out how beneficial it can be.

Tip 1 – your face and jaw

Follow along with the exercise in this video, or with the description below:

As you most probably noticed, much of the stress we experience is felt in the tension of the jaw. After all, it is our face that participates most in the world of daily commutes, work meetings and business lunches and so it is “loaded” with this tension of daily encounters most easily. Here is how to give your jaw some much needed off-loading.

  1. Put each of your hands just below the hard line of your cheekbones and press gently against them. Allow all of fingers but the thumb to support the weight of your head so that it is upright.
  2. Once you can feel that your fingers are sinking gently into the flesh of your face, begin to very slowly open and close your mouth.
  3. Now allow the fingers to slide slowly upwards towards your temples. Focus on the softness of the tissues of your face sliding against the hardness of the bone, follow the shapes and movement that the opening and closing of jaw generate – get curious.
  4. Continue until you stop feeling the muscles of your jaw and arrive at the bones of the skull.
  5. Imagine that your eyeballs are hidden deeply in the back of your head.
  6. Look at the world as if from the back seat of a car, or a tunnel. Allow things to be far away and don’t make the effort to see them. Let every object feel evenly important and unimportant in the embrace of your gaze.
  7. Repeat this again 3 to 6 times. Close your eyes and don’t open them until step 6.

Once you are done, check what changed. Can you sense the weight of your jaw and your face, the depth of your head, is there something settling in for you, can you sense the mask of your face relaxing?

Tip 2 – your neck

The neck, because of its intricate connection with the shoulders and the jaw, is implicated in most of our stress responses. As we draw our shoulders up in a protective pattern, it is the neck that bears their weight. Similarly, the retracted jaw puts it in a very strenuous position making its the role of supporting the head ever more difficult. Here is how to give your neck some much-needed release:

  1. First test the range of your neck by looking up and remembering how far your gaze can reach and then looking right and left mentally marking a point of how far you can see.
  2. With your 4 fingers, find the base of the skull and the top of the neck. Then lift your face up towards the sky a little so that the top of your neck softens.
  3. Sink your fingers into the soft dip beneath the base of the skull and move your head gently up and down so that your fingers sink in and out of the flesh.
  4. Now as you slowly move your head up, move your eyes down at an equal pace, then do the same in the opposite direction. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
  5. Then voila, your neck should feel different, if you are not sure, retest your range and see for yourself.

Tip 3 – your shoulders

The shoulders are probably an area we spot our stress most in. We usually unconsciously lift them up in a protective brace and carry on like that for days or weeks on end, creating tension and often a lot of pain. The shoulder girdle is a very interesting part of our anatomy because its freedom from weight bearing gives us the capacity to manipulate objects, communicate and ultimately be humans. The downside however is that we implicate it too much in the mental dilemmas of our digital age, asking it to bear forces it never evolved to handle – so it often hurts. Here is what can be done to help it.

  1. Stand supported evenly on both of your feet. Make sure that your pelvis is both resting and well supported by your legs and your head is floating just like a balloon.
  2. Tune in to your breathing, be clear about exhale and inhale.
  3. Then on the inhale lift your shoulders all the way up to your ears, then as the exhale happens allow them to drop under their weight. Repeat 5 to 7 times.
  4. Allow the sensation of the weightiness of your shoulders to emerge and become clear in your awareness.
  5. Begin to swing both of your shoulders back and forth and be clear about the sensation of your shoulder blades gliding on your back as well as their weight.
  6. Gradually begin to diminish the swing like a pendulum coming to stop.
  7. Once you stop, feel how your shoulders feel now, what changed? Can you sense what’s new? Is there a sensation of volume and weight?
  8. Now that you know that it is possible to play with and diminish the architecture of your stress by working directly with your body, you just need to keep at it. Sticking to a routine and making it fresh and alive can be demanding. We all know how easy it is to slip into the familiar old patterns, but then if you ponder the choice and the freedom you get in return for this 5 minutes of directed attention, the choice is simple and the choice is yours. Following Prof James: “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”


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