Sunday, April 16, 2017

Emotional Complexity, Longevity, and Your Posture

"It's amazing, I can see the silver lining!"

"Things that used to bother me just don't anymore."

"You know that movie The Matrix? I'm like that guy, dodging all the bullets, but miraculously I'm dodging stress at work. I have so much more energy at the end of the day. I feel so much better."

I hear it often from my clients who are going through their Rolfing series. It's similar to what I felt when I received my first Rolfing 10-session series back in the 90s: At the time, I was in a double-degree program studying cello and biopsychology in Boston, and as if that weren't enough, I was pushing myself through pre-med, preparing for the MCAT, and applying for a Fulbright Grant at the same time. 

Needless to say, the stress was high. A C+ on an exam, an audition that I didn't have time to practice for, a glare from the conductor when I got to orchestra rehearsal late... Life was full of little awful events that made me feel horrible.

But how bad would I feel, and how long would it bother me? Those changed while I was getting my Rolfing series. I remember telling my Rolfer, Aline Newton, "It feels like stress used to stick to me like rain on a cotton jacket. Negative thoughts would hang around for days or weeks. But now it feels like the stress literally slides away. It rolls off me like water." In addition, I told her: "I can see how things are never all bad." 

And unbeknownst to me, I had gained a powerful tool for staying young and healthy, longer. In my 20s, I didn't care, but being "greater" than 40 now (ahem), this is worth gold.

Put another way, Rolfing had somehow helped me to increase my capacity for emotional complexity, the ability to accept that everything has its positive and negative aspects, nothing is truly black or white.

And you know what? Twenty-five years after my college graduation, laboratory research shows that emotional complexity strengthens our immune system and, fascinatingly, helps to prevent aging. An excerpt from the book The Telomere Effect by Drs. Elizabeth Backburn and Elissa Epel:

"Typically, older people experience more positive emotions than negative ones in daily life. The experience isn't purely 'happy.' Rather, our emotions grow richer and more complex over time. We experience more co-occurence of positive and negative emotions, such as those poignant occasions when you get a tear in your eye at the same time you feel joy, or feeling pride at the same time you feel anger -- a capacity we call 'emotional complexity.' These mixed emotional states help us avoid the dramatic ups and downs that younger people have, and they also help us exercise more control over what we feel. Mixed emotions are easier to manage than purely positive or purely negative emotions. Thus, emotionally speaking, life just feels better. Better control over emotions and enhanced complexity means more enriched daily experiences. People with more emotional complexity also have a longer healthspan." 

In other words, people who experience mixed emotional states enjoy good health longer before the effects of aging set in.

But how does Rolfing, a therapy that improves posture, also slow the aging process?

I describe it as follows: Our bodies are the vessel for our experiences, and for our emotions. In Buddhism, there is talk of "inner space," the place where we find inner peace. Years of observing my clients in my bodywork practice have taught me that our physical bodies correspond to this spiritual space. Specifically, the visceral space in front of your spine (i.e. the belly) and higher up where the neck meets the skull (i.e. "headspace") are the physical correlates of our spiritual inner space. Rolfing is a bodywork therapy that improves posture and our relationship to gravity. It does this by releasing and opening areas of the body that are compressed, tight, and shortened. Basically, Rolfing makes the body more spacious.

When I first see a client, I can tell from their posture how well their systems can process stress. When we're physically squished, we don't have adequate space to contain all emotions, or all truths. When the body's inner space is tight, the result is a one-sided, overly simplified view of the world that doesn't lead to a satisfactory understanding. Sometimes the mind ping-pongs between narrow thoughts, "It's like this, but also like that, but I don't mean to sound like this, but I want to say that...," in an effort to verbally describe the un-describable everythingness of the Universe, but there's only space for one truth. On an emotional level, unconscious feelings get crowded out, squirting out sideways -- think of stepping on a toothpaste tube. We then see uncanny incidents where our worst fears come true. Tension in our relationships build as we project our repressed emotions on other people.  

However, when our bodies are balanced and our physical inner space is optimized, we can operate full-time from the elegant motto: YES, IT ALL IS. We are spacious. We are contained. We don't repress scary thoughts because we can see how there's always a silver lining. 

Does it reduce stress levels? Indeed. 
Does it help us to more thoroughly assess life situations because we're not hiding from scary thoughts? Definitely.
Does it keep us healthier, younger, and more pleasant as people? Yes.

This discussion is part of an upcoming book I'm writing on how to stay younger and healthier longer through Rolfing Structural Integration. Contact me if you have any questions or would like to come in for a free talk about any mind-body questions you might have! Audrey