When you are feeling stressed and anxious, what’s your strategy? If you’re like many of us, you head home to hide under your covers. What if I told you the cure was at the cocktail party?
Humans have evolved to survive in large part through social engagement and connection. When we are in a safe place with people who are familiar to us, our nervous systems enter into a specific state of calm, alert engagement. It feels really good to be in this state--it’s one of the reasons we all crave connection so deeply. When the nervous system perceives a threat, however, even an imaginary one, our survival systems overwhelm our ability to get there.
Stephen Porges, who developed the Polyvagal theory of nervous system function, explains in an interview with Ravi Dykema that we feel these states “in our organs,” and that information is sent up to the brain stem through the vagus nerve. It happens at the physical, experiential level, so you can’t reason yourself into calm or out of anxiety. Luckily, there are tools that can help. Here are three:
Go Back to Basics
Loud music, bright lights, and new places can switch on your stress/survival systems. If you can help it, choose comfortable, familiar places for interaction. If you can’t, and you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, find a quiet place to take a breath (every party has a bathroom!). It helps to bring a friend--even one friendly face can be enough to indicate safety to your nervous system.
According to Porges, the facial muscles play a key part here. Human facial expressions are designed for social communication--including listening. “We forget that listening is actually a ‘motor’ act,” says Porges, “and involves tensing muscles in the middle ear. The middle ear muscles are regulated by the facial nerve, a nerve that also regulates eyelid lifting. When you are interested in what someone is saying, you lift your eyelids and simultaneously your middle ear muscles tense. Now you are prepared to hear their voice, even in noisy environments.”
Further, the area of the brain that governs these facial muscles also manages the heart and lungs. It’s more than just a cliche--when you are calm, it’s easier to speak from your heart. Plus, the act of speaking, itself, can calm the heart.
Pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises, can address the face and lungs at the same time, and helps reset the nervous system. Sitali is a discreet one: sip a long inhale through pursed lips, then close your mouth and exhale naturally through your nose. Repeat as needed.
Fake It ‘til You Make It
The very fact of being social can calm our social anxiety. Showing up is the hardest part. Most people have at least some social anxiety, but once we get together to eat, drink, and converse, we are activating the facial muscles that help us socially engage. No wonder parties often congregate in the kitchen.
When we choose to deal with our anxieties by isolating, we may turn to social media like Facebook as a “safer” form of social interaction. Without the eye contact, physical listening, and facial expressions, though, we can’t access the connected state we crave. If a party seems like too much, start small and phone a friend. Just don’t forget to smile--they may not be able to see you, but you’ll feel it in your organs, and the rest may happen on its own.