Six Things to Reduce Stress at a Stoplight

I have been teaching Feldenkrais for twenty years now and I have noticed that people don't have a lot of time to get unstuck from painful habits. We love to ignore our experience and push hard until something breaks down. Yet, you might be surprised by how shifting habits of stress can be as simple as directing your attention to a few small things throughout the day.

Here is my service dog, Eppie, sitting in my car, the yellow jelly bean. Eppie does not have workplace stress. Note the soft eyes and relaxed face and neck.

Most of us live with stress but we don't know what to do about it, or it feels too overwhelming to shift.  In fact, three out of five Americans have work-related neck pain at the end of the day, and two out of five have stressed-out eyes and hurting hands. (Check this site on workplace stress for more shocking statistics.)

Use these six reminders to reduce stress and improve your overall health. If you do one a day for six days, you will be better than you were six days ago!

1. For the upper back: Imagine there are eyes just below your collar bones. Where are they gazing? Can you move your ribs a half an inch up and down to change the gaze of those eyes? If you are not sure where I am talking about, put your fingers on the breastbone and move your ribs so that the hands move. Can you make a small circle with the eyes just below the collar bones? Imagine that they are looking at something on your dash and drawing a circle there.

2. For the jaw and neck: At a stoplight, gently hold your jaw bone in both hands with the fingers on top and the thumbs underneath. Tilt your head back and keep the jaw bone in one place so that your mouth opens but your skull separates from the jaw. Return to neutral and do it a few more times, each time imagining the skull tilting away from the jaw. The jaw is actually static, although it feels like you are opening the mouth, but from a different place than you usually use.

3. For the neck and eyes: Test turning your head gently right and left without strain. How far do you go? Notice this, then pause in the middle. Focus your eyes on an object in front of you. Keep your eyes there and slowly turn the head right a few times, effectively moving the head relative to the eyes. A very novel experience! Go slowly so you are not cheating yourself. The eye muscles are not used to this. Pause and test turning the head right and left. Which is easier? Then do the left side.

4. For the neck and spine: When you check your blind spot, think of turning from the sit bones in your pelvis instead of from just the neck. You have 24 lovely vertebrae. To quote a famous man, ask not what you can do for your vertebrae, ask what your vertebrae can do for you. Invite all of them to turn even as you move your head. Scoot from your pelvis as you turn. Imagine and sense and visualize all the vertebrae.

5. For the hands and arms: (a) How hard are you gripping the steering wheel? How hard do you need to grip it? (b) And are your thumbs wrapped around the wheel or could you tuck the thumbs in with the rest of the fingers (non-opposable thumbs)? This is a much easier, safer, and less strained way to drive. (c) Lastly, consider the push-and-pull threading method of turning the wheel instead of crossing the mid-line when you turn. This is taught in defensive driving schools, to law enforcement, and it is standard in Europe, where I got my driver's license in Wales. If you are across the mid-line and you need to correct a turn, you are way too far over to do it effectively.

6. For the eyes and face: Notice the eyes. Blink a few times. How hard do you press the eyelids together? Can you create a nicer quality to the eyelids touching? Can you do this and separate the teeth so that the lower jaw is hanging a little in gravity? Notice the tongue. Is it glued to the side of the mouth? Soften the jaw, tongue, and teeth and repeat blinking the eyes. Notice it is very hard to soften the eyelids while holding the breath. Could your breath be soft? Now squeeze your eyes together powerfully, as if to press the eyeballs deeper into the skull. Hold the pressure and count to ten. This releases a great deal of muscular tension as well activates a kind of cleansing process for the eyes. Do this four times if you can. Then blink the eyes gently again.

Want the audio for these lessons? Each exploration is between one and two minutes.

download audio here.