So much has been written on the subject of fear! Yet very few of us get to really understand it! If we did we would be free of inhibitions, doubts, illness and so many other negatives states of being and we would be able to express ourselves freely. We live in a society where fear is the norm, whether it be fear of doing something wrong, fear of how others see us, fear of losing loved ones or our job, fear of being attacked, of losing money, of not being able to pay the bills, of being alone, fear of change, of being criticised and the list goes on. On so many levels we are afraid, and those fears mentioned are just the obvious ones.
If we take a much closer look at ourselves and our personal lives, we might say on a superficial level, "I'm not afraid, I don't fear anything per say..." but is that really true?
I ask this question because in my work, week after week, I see people who are afraid of the sound of their own voice, afraid of the sound that comes out, afraid that it's not good enough, afraid that it sounds wrong, afraid that they sound stupid, afraid that they look ridiculous when they are singing (or sounding), afraid that if they take a deep breath and open themselves holding their head high, feeling their personal strength and power, someone might ask them who they think they are to be doing such a thing!
On the other extreme you have those that are afraid that they might "do" it wrong, they are so self critical that everything is perfect. They have trained themselves to swallow the feeling of self doubt and do the task anyway, but the fear continues to seep out on a physical level with tension and frustration at making any small "mistake."
I work from the perspective that our voice is the most natural thing about us. For the majority of us, when we are born we cry, scream, wail, coo, gurgle and giggle. This is how we communicate. We don't question these sounds we just "sound" them. I've mentioned this in previous blogs, but if you have the opportunity to look at a baby's stomach when s/he is crying, you will see that the sound is being produced like a type of squeeze box from the diaphragm. This is a human breathing and sounding the way nature intended. Likewise look at a dog when he barks, or a horse when she brays, the sound is being produced from the body.
I will restate that sentence, these sounds are being produced from the body, not some mystical muscle in the throat.
Our ability to sound is an emotional reaction on some level, whether we are laughing, sobbing or screaming with pain. Yet through speech and the way we are expected to speak after a certain age, we are encouraged to suppress natural emotions and not show our true feelings. We are even led to believe in some situations that it is a weakness to show emotion in our speech, hiding behind our words.
Most of us have experienced not being able to contain our emotions, whether it's being ecstatically happy about something, or so sad that our words can no longer cover the fluctuations of tone in our voice. The sensation of holding back tears is heard in the inflection of the voice and often felt as a pain in the throat.
There are of course situations when we do have to "control" our reactions as we have the intelligence to understand the consequences of situations. However we must be aware, for our own personal health and happiness that too much suppression leads to lack of sensitivity and expression. Eventually if we suppress our sensitivity and ability to express for too long, we become closed and cold. We may then look to other stimulants to help us "feel" again, whether it be our love life, sex, alcohol, drugs, food or lack of it and so on.
Some people have been forced to close down and not to feel the pain that life has presented them with, because of abuse and other despicable events and in these severe cases it is a matter of survival. Better to survive and not feel, than to die of the pain of feeling too much, and surely if we allow ourselves to feel, how will we ever forget what happened to us if the pain is there as a reminder?
For me the concept of the human body is not a rigid one. I see myself as a mass of vibrating particles being held together, just like everything else physical. You remember? This is the thing we all learnt in Physics classes at school...that everything we perceive as solid is in fact a mass of vibrating particles. This isn't hocus pocus, this is scientific fact.
So, I am made of matter, therefore if you break me down, you will eventually be able to measure the particles in my more solid parts and the particles in the fluid part of me (on average about 70%). As humans we are just matter. This means that our thoughts (non matter, therefore energy) are created from that matter and as a large part of us is made up of fluid, we can easily change and reform. Our feelings and thoughts are a product of who we are and what we experience, but nothing is concrete in the human body, it can be moved and changed.
Therefore, our past feelings, fears and experiences, if still haunting us and our minds in the present moment, must be shiftable! But how do we shift them?
Let's turn our minds back to the new born baby who screams and cries without any care of what others may think. If the baby feels a pain of hunger or wind, that pain is translated into sound and is released from the body, it also sends a signal to the mother that her child is feeling discomfort, she can then act on this signal in its early stage and solve the problem of the hunger. The baby feels better and the so does the mother as the problem has been resolved before it can escalate to something more serious. The child's voice was used to express the problem and give it a release from the physical pain....and then everything returned to normal.
As adults we might not want to scream and shout all the time, but we do need to reconnect with our ability to identify when we are unhappy, express this to ourselves and/or those around us that might be the cause of the unhappiness, and then work it out of our system so that it is over and dealt with and does not linger, causing us future pain and fear of pain.
Feeling fear is a good thing IF we can identify it as an emotion that rises within us to guide our way and show us that something isn't right. It is a temporary emotion and should be used as a guide. It is not something that we should feel all the time.
Cavemen of yore would sense something was wrong in the field, look over their shoulder, see a big bear, feel fear which would produce adrenalin into their system and give them an extra spring in their step as they legged it back to safety.
Nowadays we feel fear in the present based on past events, and we use these past events to predict how we think the future will materialise, release adrenalin, fail to act on the reason why we are afraid and neglect to burn off the adrenalin. Adrenalin left in our body causes stress, anger, insomnia, high blood pressure and so many other "unexplainable" illnesses and disorders.
So why are we feeling so afraid? That is what we need to work out. Why do I meet so many people that are afraid of singing, embarrassed by the mere suggestion that they should sing? Why do happy little toddlers sing quite naturally and at what point are they made to feel daft for doing this? Even the new born baby strings a line of gurgles and coos together when happy which is the start of the natural process of singing.
Singing is a natural and necessary action for our health and wellbeing and something we have done from birth. It helps us release our negative emotions, our pain and our fears as if we were a crying baby again.
People , or adults in particular tell me over and over that they were told to be quiet, shut up, not sing as they were deemed "out of tune." Some are afraid even of speaking their thoughts, as a critical upbringing has made them careful of the things they choose to give voice to for fear of being made to feel worthless. So fair enough, I completely understand it. But if we know that our body releases fear, tension and adrenalin by sounding with the voice, whether it's screaming, crying or laughing, these being the extremes, if we know singing can bring us the same relief as shouting, but is a more pleasurable experience, why are so many of us afraid to do it and afraid of what might come out? And WHY do we care?
The baby just sounds, the dog just barks...the human thinks and then decides if the vocalisation is good enough.
Here's a few interesting facts;
1. The inside of our mouth contains little sensors which are activated when we breathe through our mouth causing adrenalin to be released into the body.
2. A sudden intake of air, like a gasp alerts the body's nervous system to a potential problem and it also releases adrenalin into the system.
3. When adrenalin is released into your body you are on high alert. Your heart rate will increase and your breathing will become more shallow. If this adrenalin is not burnt off you will feel anxious, unable to rest, irritable, unwell, suffer a possible upset stomach, acid reflux, headaches, neck and shoulder stiffness etc.
4. Learning to control your breath helps you press the "reset" button on your body. You can control your nervous system, your mind, your heart rate and communicate more effectively when you breathe as nature intended, the way you did when you were born. Concentrate on the out breath, most people hold too much stale air in the lungs. In situations of stress, breathe out first, and then back in.
5. Using your voice expressively, like singing for example, has many proven health benefits a bit like yoga. It helps to control and calm your breathing, energising you and releasing any residual adrenalin that might have built up in your system from the day, helping you to release tension, de-stress and make clear decisions.
6. When you breathe more effectively and sing, you change your state of mind, existing in the present moment, forgetting about past experiences and fears. When you allow your body to return to this child like state you can clear your mind and relax, safely and without being afraid. Sing things you love, this adds to the feel good factor.
7. Fear is a warning sign, listen to it, and act accordingly. Then LET IT GO.
I was alerted to a quote in FHM Magazine (February 2014) by Petr Cech Chelsea FC Goalkeeper which said,
"To deal with that kind of pressure, we are taught breathing exercises in our training schedule...it's the key to absolutely everything...it helps you sleep. It is simply balanced breathing....controlling your heart rate and clearing your thoughts."
Petr Cech, Chelsea FC Goalkeeper in an interview with FHM Magazine February 2014
Being a professional opera singer, breathing was something I had to focus on in order to produce my voice and in producing my voice I found an inner calm and focus which enabled me to actually get up in front of people and perform. Often, while I was waiting to go on stage, I would be nervously shivering, wondering how on earth I was going to sing feeling like that, but as soon as I engaged by breath, support and voice, the shivering went away, and I was catapulted in to the present moment of the performance. I suppose I began to take this for granted. It was just what I did.
It wasn't until I started working with people with illness or disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress, stuttering, Dystonia and muscle spasms that I realised how most clients didn't understand the process of breathing, let alone how their body actually worked, but not only that, so few realised how simple health problems and day to day issues could be eased or even cured with a small adjustment to how they thought about breathing and then some exercises to build strength.
Even a simple ailment such as a tension headache would respond to diaphragmatic breathing as by expanding the upper body to allow efficient inhalation and exhalation, muscles and ligaments of the back, neck and shoulders would be encouraged to gently stretch allowing blood circulation to the area.
I would find myself teaching friends deep breathing exercises to practise throughout the day in order to relieve stress and stress related symptoms. I would ask them to observe what they were doing with their tongue during times of tension...were they gripping their jaw tightly, did they grind their teeth at night time? So many people couldn't answer these questions, because they lacked simple body awareness, until they went away for a week, observed their themselves and found all manner of tensions they were doing without even knowing it!
Examples of this were things like gritting their teeth whilst driving at 70mph on the motorway, or pulling their tongue back into their throat whilst talking with an authoritative figure, like a manager at work. Some people couldn't believe they were able to hold so much tension in their body, without being consciously aware. The problem is, all these small tension habits all over the body, which are usually emotionally charged, gradually build until one day we are stuck. It always amazes me when people are surprised they have slipped a disc in their back, or wake up with a frozen shoulder!
I think that's it really. It's about being aware of the physical self and the things it gets up to when we are not paying attention, because these things can seem really simple and harmless, but actually when they build up, for several hours a day, several days a week, we can see that they start to impair out natural functions.
Let's take for example gritting our teeth. Try it now. Grit your upper and lower back teeth together. Where do you feel the tension?
In the jaw itself definitely, but what about the forgotten bone behind the ears, linking to the muscles and ligaments at the base of the skull, and the throat? Apply this type of tension on a daily basis in situations of stress (and some people really are stressed all day!) and what do you get? At the very least you get a headache, but if that headache persists because your jaw tension is present, because you are suffering from mild anxiety due to small life challenges perhaps at home or at work, what happens? You most likely start to take pain killers, or go to the doctor who tries to appease you by prescribing something stronger, or sending you for tests.
Instead, what you could have done is been aware of how you are feeling and the affect this was having on your body. You could have identified areas of tension in the moment and how once triggered this set off a chain of related muscles which caused the tension to spread.
At this point, you would have been aware that your body was starting to release adrenalin into your system, a perfectly natural protective response to tension in case you needed to engage in a fight or flight situation and that breathing techniques or physical exercise at this point would be the only way to burn off this adrenalin, which later in the day, if not gotten rid of, would make you feel irritable, depressed or possibly give you a sleepless night.
Learning to be aware of ourselves and our tendencies and learning to listen to our bodies is the first step. Although having said that, as soon as you start some sort of breath training and awareness, it becomes easier to listen.
So, this week, challenge yourself to listen to your breath. We use such a small amount of our lung capacity on a daily basis, it's no wonder that as a nation we have the physical and emotional issues that we do. If you have the opportunity, observe a new born baby crying and notice how their breathing from a tiny little diaphragm catapults a huge vocal cry out of their body. If you don't have a baby to hand, observe the dog barking. The diaphragmatic action is the same.
Failing that, think of the last time you ran screaming, probably as a child being chased across the playground at school! You would have used your whole body to make that high pitched sound which could be heard down the road.
Observe your breathing when you are upset or crying, and notice how your diaphragm plays a huge part in sobbing, or if you are laughing uncontrollably, what area starts to feel tired? Yes that's it, the diaphragm!
Even when you let out a big yawn notice the breath you take as you breathe in at the start...it's impossible to do a superficial yawn! Whilst we are on the subject of yawning be aware that it is your body's natural way of releasing tension, the more you can instigate yawning in a stressful situation the more you will stay calm and alert, and it's an absolute crime that children in school are made to feel they are doing something wrong when they yawn in the classroom! How many people feel it is rude to yawn??!!! If we can possibly find any more natural processes to repress and hide, we might really be able to screw up our bodies! I jest, but am very serious!
To practise breath awareness and tension release have a go at this exercise:
1. Take a deep breath through your nose and imagine you a filling up with air all the way down to your belly.
2. Breathe out all the air by dropping your mouth open and letting your tongue hang forward and out of your mouth (like a dog when its panting). Breathe all the air out until you don't have any left, and then breathe out a bit more...leave your mouth and tongue open and relaxed and draw the air in again through your nose, repeating step 1.
3. Practise a cycle of 3 breaths like this after breakfast, lunch and dinner and before you go to sleep. Use these 3 breaths whenever you feel angry, sad, embarrassed, tense, and so on, and especially if you have to make a decision about something.
If you are not used to breathing in this way, go carefully, and never do more than three at a time until you build up strength. If you feel light headed sit down. Breathing the way nature intended is a powerful force and should not be undertaken lightly. Do the above exercise at your own risk, and who knows, something amazing might happen......
Alexandra Rigazzi-Tarling, my journey into Singing and Sound for healing body, mind and spirit of all beings.