How to feel more supported and secure

For many of us it's easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the challenges and demands of our lives. Some seem to swim through life without too much trouble, but many others feel that they could do with a little more inner and outer support and security — or else may take pride in their self-reliance and dogged determination while paying a price in terms of stress and isolation!

Human beings evolved with a wonderful system to physically support and carry us  — and this in turn would have been held within the container of a supportive group or tribe. Today few of us fully experience this free flowing support on either an outer or inner level, and many carry wounds which can be traced to a diminished sense of community and loss of contact with our bodies.  As a result we may feel a lack of trust in ourselves and a nagging sense of doubt and insecurity in our relationship with the world.

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Security has an inner and an outer aspect. We get literal support from our physical structure, and from the experience of being embodied—and also social support from our relationships. These two sources of support are interrelated and inseparable. If we don’t feel a fundamental sense of physical security and support within ourselves it's hard to feel safe and secure enough to receive support from others. And it’s hard to access this physical feeling of support in ourselves if we are not giving and receiving practical and emotional support from our culture and those around us.

Inner security

Our inner sense of security starts with feeling a secure and relaxed sense of self—and our most fundamental sense of ourselves starts with the body. We may think that ‘ourself’ is a product of our mind, but it is only through sensation, feeling and contact that we know we exist in the world at all. Our sense of selfhood develops from being a body interacting with itself and the environment. So a true feeling of security is only possible if the sensations and feelings we receive from the body give us a feeling of safety. If the messages we receive from the body are not confidence giving (for example if we are constantly getting messages that the body is unbalanced, fixed, rigid, collapsed, incompetent, precarious or untrustworthy) then this will profoundly how we experience ourselves and our relationship to the world.

A question of trust

The body’s sense of security is fundamentally related to our relationship with gravity. We are upright and (uniquely) unstable creatures, and this brings us into a very different relationship to the ground than other animals. We need to feel secure, safe and competent even while balanced precariously on two legs — and from this balanced place be open and responsive, leaving our limbs free to do all the tasks which are part of living and survival for human beings. 

This is a tall order. When we first come into the world we are not able to support ourselves in any way at all. We are not only dependant on care-givers for food and nourishment, but also for physical support. A new-born horse can stand and run within 30 minutes, but for the first month of our lives we cannot even support our head and it needs to be held for us — and it takes up to four months for us to be able to hold our head against gravity when upright. 

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In the first few months of life it is essential that we are held, and that we sense it is safe to let go and relax into that holding. In time our postural support and balance systems develop and start to activate. These systems enable us to fulfil one of our fundamental tasks, which is to be learn to be supported in the earth’s gravitational field. To accomplish this they make use of deep muscles of postural support, controlled predominantly by ‘lower-level’ and largely involuntary/unconscious parts of the nervous system—including simple reflexes in the muscles and spinal column and the cerebellum in the brain. If all is working as it should, the balance/postural system is there for us to—in a sense—gently lean on. So long as there is a general intention to be upright and supported it will effortlessly and efficiently support us in a balanced, dynamic upright state. We don’t have to do posture, we just need the intention or wish and then to get out of the way and allow the system to work as should. This means that, when all is well, uprightness and relaxed poise feels like letting go.

However, to be able to let go into support like this implies an ability to trust. We have to be able to trust that our (neurologically low level) postural system will support us if we let go of higher level control. For some people this is fairly easy but for many others it is not. From the earliest age, and throughout life, we receive messages about trust and trustworthiness, and a sense as to whether it is safe to let go. As babies we need constant, dependable physical support to relax into, and if that is not forthcoming—or is qualified by, say, an anxious or overly demanding caregiver, we may have a question mark near the centre of our being about whether or not it is really safe to let go and trust in support. Later in life this impression may be contradicted by good experiences—or it may be reinforced by further experiences of lack of safety throughout our lives. 

If our primary experience is that is not safe to let go, it is likely that this lack of trust will find physical expression in us gripping with our large movement (phasic) muscles in an attempt to grab support rather than relaxing into the safety and security of our postural system. Instead of allowing fluid, dynamic uprightness we lock ourselves into position by holding parts of ourselves rigidly in relation to each other.

Trust in relationship

As well as needing to trust ourselves we also need to be able to have faith that is possible to respond freely to other people in order to create and maintain relationships in which we are able to give and receive support. Much of human relating happens way below the level of speech and reason. As essentially tribal animals, our nervous systems are highly tuned and responsive to each other and we pick up and respond to the subtlest physical cues from those around us, much of the time unconsciously. Our bodies are continually communicating with each other whether we’re aware of it or not. 

To relate freely and easily to each other there needs to be freedom for this unconscious dance to happen at a physical level. When we are unable to relax into the support of our postural system it becomes harder to connect with others. It may feel that we subtly keep people at arms length, or find it hard to fully settle and relax into each other's company. One reason that alcohol is so enjoyable for many is that it temporarily releases the muscular holding we carry with us and allows us to respond more freely to others—albeit often with a diminished level of consciousness and presence!

Support for the journey

Changing our patterns of trust, support and relating is a challenge and a journey. We may need to both look at our relationship to ourselves and our internal sense of support, and grow into new ways of finding trust and connection with others. We may need to let go of feelings and beliefs from the past which cause us to feel unsafe and unsupported and which no longer serve us. As our physical sense of support increases we find that our relationship to other people changes too. Increasingly we are more able to respond to and be supported by others while having a greater capacity to respond to them and offer support in turn. And as our relationships become more mutually trusting and supportive we find a deeper level of belief in ourselves and are more able to relax and let go so that we can gently ‘lean’ on the natural physical support our organism offers. As always, change in one aspect of a pattern is reflected in change in an other. Step by step life becomes easier, we feel more secure, and life begins to flow....

Letting Go of Stress: a Contradiction and a Misunderstanding.

Do you ever wish you could be less stressed, tense and internally ‘noisy’? Have you ever tried to de-stress and quieten yourself down but without much success? 

When we want to quieten down but find it difficult there are often two things which are getting in the way: the first is that there is a contradiction in the way we are setting about things which we may not be aware of. The second is that there is often a specific faulty belief about the situation which — even if we understand the contradiction — can stymy our best efforts to change.

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The Contradiction

Being caught in a feeling of stress and tension is a bit of a ‘double bind’. If your nervous system is in a buzzy, over-stimulated state (which for many of us is the case a lot of the time) then you tend to lose touch with your innate ability to stop. When an organism becomes over-stimulated it becomes excessively hooked into that function of the nervous system which is to do with ‘action’ — with instigating and initiating things. The nervous system has another, complementary function, which enables us to ‘stop’, withhold consent or refrain from acting — but when we are in a highly over-stimulated state it becomes much harder to access this.

Take a moment now to think about quietening down and notice the response to that idea. I’ll bet at some level (perhaps quite subtle) there is a feeling of effort or strain. We want to do something to quieten down — but that doing is in itself not quiet. Our contradiction is that we want to be quieter but because we are over-stimulated the only mode of action which seems to be open to us is to do more — to chase this quietness; and the chasing is in itself more noise.  Though we believe at some level that our efforts will help (or we wouldn’t do them) we are actually putting even more stress into our system.  This compulsive wish to do something to get the result we want is like an endless chain. Noticing that we are doing it we probably then want to do something else in response. And again in response to noticing that! 

So what is the way out of our conundrum? How can we be more present and quiet without the search itself causing internal effort, noise and stress? There is a clue in a very old Hindu practice called ‘net-neti’. Neti-neti is a Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘not this, not that’. It forms the basis of a form of meditation in which ultimate reality is seen as something entirely beyond our everyday experience. Being beyond what we know, this reality can only be sought indirectly by noticing everything that it is not. When all these other things have been removed (negated) then what is left is the thing we are seeking. 

At a more down to earth level, neti-neti can help us in our wish to quieten down because we have a similar problem to the meditator: we want to approach something (quietness) but the only tool it seems we have at our disposal (‘doing’, effort and trying) are the opposite of what we want. So we need to change our focus from chasing the desired result (i.e. a quiet nervous system) to simply noticing the responses inside us which are not quietness. As the philosopher Krishnamurti noted, when we really see what is going on, the seeing is itself intelligence and right action. Our actions are always a reflection of our understanding. As we begin to notice and understand that our search for quietness is, in fact, more noise, this greater understanding allied to a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down, is itself enough to start things changing. Furthermore, as our organism quietens down a little it has more and more access to that function of the nervous system which enables it to ‘stop’, or refrain from doing things. As we notice and understand our habitual, effortful responses it is easier and easier for our system to ‘not go there’. A virtuous cycle is established.

The Misunderstanding

So much for the contradiction. I also promised you a misunderstanding, and there is a big one which, even when we have understood the problem, can still catch us out. This is that we may not understand that an over-stimulated nervous system takes time to settle. We tend to think that change should work like a ‘switch’, when in fact it is often more like a process. The body-mind is a highly complex system of feedback loops, chemical reactions, tension responses, habits etc. Like an engine with a big flywheel all this complexity takes some time to slow down — even after we cut off the petrol! 

Our trouble is that another side effect of our over-stimulated state is that it tends to make us anxious for quick results to prove to ourselves that we are on the right track. In our eagerness we keep checking to see if things have quietened down yet, and then get despondent because it is not happening. But often the problem is that we simply don’t understand that it takes a little time. It may take some days or weeks to allow an over-stimulated organism to calm down. Rather than chasing instant change ‘in the moment’ we need to see ourselves as engaging in a wise process in which we are allowing our bodies and minds to gradually grow in understanding and quieten down in their own time. 

What else can help?

Having a few sessions with an Alexander teacher is a powerful way to help ‘kick start’ this process of quietening the nervous system. The teacher is able to use their presence and touch to help your own system to quieten down. This can really help you to become aware of your responses and can help nudge you out of the cycle of doing and effort that keeps you caught in the trap. As you proceed, a teacher can help keep you on track, and offer guidance to avoid the pitfalls along the way….