By Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D.
We all know that stressful situations cause us to tense up. Our bodies contract to protect us; this is a good thing. Tensing up only becomes a problem if we cannot relax when the stressor is gone. Just as ice is built to melt, our bodies are built to unwind.
However, situations of unrelenting stress–start-up founders and social entrepreneurs, you know what I am talking about!–do not allow us the breathing space to unwind. Instead, we keep on contracting and accumulating tension in the body. Eventually we can develop chronic rigidities that undermine our health and our effectiveness.
Unwinding from chronic stress means restoring fluidity to the body so that our energy can flow with ease and purpose. Our wise animal bodies know all kinds of ways to let go. We can trust our body’s natural impulses to yawn, sigh, cry, laugh, shake, or twitch, etc.
Unfortunately, the dominant culture in North America expects us to minimize or censor these impulses, especially around other people.
Unwinding from chronic stress means restoring fluidity to the body so that our energy can flow with ease and purpose.
What Does Unwinding Look Like?
Unwinding involves releasing energy or emotion from the body. Sometimes unwinding happens through voluntary expressive practices like singing, drawing, painting, or dancing, etc. More often unwinding is involuntary.
In addition to yawning, sighing, crying, laughing, shaking, and twitching, our bodies spontaneously release accumulated stress (and trauma) through sweating, coughing, burping, yelling, jaw-trembling and teeth chattering. Our culture views these involuntary energy releases as impolite or inappropriate unless they occur in private. We are expected to clamp down on these behaviors in the presence of others.
It always amazes me how thoroughly and consistently cultural norms of politeness in North America obstruct unwinding. Let’s look at yawning, for example. When we yawn around others, they ask us if we are bored or tired. Maybe that is why most of my clients stifle their yawns.
Did you know that when you yawn, you release tension stored in your jaw, throat, lips, tongue, palate, ears, and even your chest and scalp? A series of yawns can create profound relaxation in the chest, throat and face. The practice of allowing yawns, especially full, wide-open yawns is so rare that I’ve developed a slogan for my coaching clients: “Yawning before talking.” That means, when a yawn shows up, it is time to drop everything and let as many yawns come as want to.
Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself. I invite you to stop reading for a moment. Note your energy level, and any tension in your body. Now invite yourself to yawn a few times. Don’t force the yawns, just allow them. Feel yourself yawning, and then check out your energy and tension levels again. How do you feel now? What happens if you yawn some more?
When we allow ourselves to yawn as many times as we need to, the jaw opens wider and wider. The eyes may water. Each yawn becomes softer and easier. Your mind might get quieter. Over weeks or months, your jaw muscles can relax. You may stop grinding your teeth. This is true softening, true unwinding. All this potential healing is present in our yawns, and it is free. To think we stifle this process on a regular basis, in the name of politeness!
Unwinding is Impolite and Messy
Here are some other ways the dominant culture stifles body wisdom for the sake of conformity or politeness:
- It is not okay to cry in most workplaces.
- Coughing is seen as a disruption–you are expected to leave the room and take it elsewhere. While coughing can indicate that you are ill, it is just as likely that your throat is trying to release pent up energy or emotion.
- If you shake or waggle your foot for more than a few seconds, people comment on it.
- If you tremble, you are seen as weak, crazy or out of control.
- It’s okay to laugh briefly, but not too loud or too long.
- We even carry this censoring into our intimate relationships and our alone time. For example, we have been taught to be so afraid (or ashamed) of our teeth chattering uncontrollably, that many of us will not even allow it in private. This is unfortunate. There is so much *free* healing built right into our bodies that we do not allow!
This is a waste of our body-wisdom. Our bodies know what they need to do, and when to do it.
Tips for Unwinding
If our natural impulses to express and unwind have been stifled, we may need to learn how to support unwinding in ourselves and others. Here are some tips:
Create Some Unwinding Time/Space
Create a situation that works for you. Pick a place you feel comfortable and safe, free from all distractions (put your phone away!). If time pressure stresses you out, then give yourself all the time you need to yawn, yell, sweat, cry, shake, laugh, etc. Talk to yourself in a kind, encouraging way. Trust your body to know how long it needs to unwind.
Or you can set aside a specific amount of time to unwind. Set an alarm for 30 – 60 minutes so you can relax your grip on time for the moment. Either way, do not censor or try to “make sense” of what your body does. Unwinding is unwinding. That is all the sense it needs to make. Just relax and let it happen. Don’t worry–when you have finished unwinding, your rational mind will come online again, I promise!
Make sure you are in a safe place to unwind, and that you feel safe internally. Establishing a sense of safety in the body is the foundation for unwinding. When the body knows it is held and supported, it is much more willing to let go. Here is one somatic tool for creating safety within your body:
Simple things can release stress. Try taking a big breath in. Hold it for a second, and exhale with a sigh. If you like how this feels, repeat it, and see how it affects you. Or try a very tiny yawn or two. If this feels good, allow more yawns. You can also make a “hmmmmm” sound that vibrates in your throat. If you like it, do it some more. Let your body take the unwinding from there.
Take Breaks; Don’t Push Yourself
Finally, there is no need to force expression or unwinding. Do not push for a big catharsis. Unwinding does not have to be dramatic to be effective; in fact, it is often subtle and quiet. Your mind does not get to dictate what “should” happen, or how long you need to yawn, shake, etc. You will not unwind faster by forcing things. By the same token, it is not helpful to impose interpretations or meanings onto your spontaneous body sounds and movements. If an insight wants to emerge, let it emerge on its own; you do not need search for it.
Unwinding has its own pace and timing. Many of us have learned this truth when we have lost a loved one. Grief has its own mysterious rhythm and pace. Intense sadness comes and goes. You may find yourself crying for a few minutes at random moments throughout the day or week. Let the tears come, and when they are done, let them go. This also applies to yawns, or whole-body shudders. Don’t try to schedule or make sense of them. Let them ebb and flow.
I invite you to make time for unwinding. Set aside some sacred space for your body to be impolite and messy. Let yourself move and make noise. And when the unwinding is done, do something else. Rest. Sleep. Drink water. Work. Go for a walk. Watch a stupid movie.
Let me know how it goes…
Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D. (East West Psychology) is an Impact Hub Oakland Member, a somatic educator and intuitive who designs “befriend your body” training and coaching sessions for people who are transforming our world. Dr. Tarakali teaches clients how to tap into body wisdom to shift reactivity and stress into creative agency and social change. She passionately practices Generative Somatics, Intuitive Reading, Energy Bodywork and Tibetan Buddhism.