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You’re probably familiar with isometric exercises, where a muscle or muscle group is contracted in an isolated state. But have you heard of emotional isometrics? While not widely practiced, according to psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, the core elements of emotional isometrics have been part of the mainstream discussion of psychological processes for quite a while.
“Emotional isometrics can be summarized by thinking about the myriad of physical and psychological processes that take place in our muscles and organs during ‘fight or flight’…and taking advantage of these mind-body loops to shift our physical states abruptly during moments of extreme stress to a calmer homeostasis.”
[Read: “20 Affirmations for Managing Stress.”]
Dr. Khurana also notes that emotional isometrics “are not about feeling better per se, but about moving faster into a parasympathetic state of ‘rest and digest.’”
Some of the theories in the field of emotional isometrics are evocative of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder. Both modalities teach skills that help one tolerate moments of distress, specifically the TIPP technique (temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation).
The key difference between the two modalities is that DBT focuses on the face while emotional isometrics extends beyond facial muscles and involves the whole body.
According to Dr. Khurana, emotional isometrics can be taught to patients under carefully designed conditions that gradually elicit higher levels of emotion and physical response. “A trained practitioner can help point out how subtle changes in tensing muscles and releasing them (including smaller movements in facial muscles) can help patients alter their initial sympathetic response to a situation.” This can allow them to calmly verbalize their feelings.
A trained practitioner needs to be able to understand how a specific client expresses the same emotion in a variety of movements and actions using a variety of body parts. Those groupings will vary in the same person in different situations as well as between people. Armed with this knowledge, the emotional isometrics practitioner can read the client’s body and offer tailored adjustments and guidance.
[Read: “Your Body is Talking. Are You Listening?”]
In session with a trained practitioner, a client repeats the same isometric contractions and relaxations of a specific muscle as part of a set. This serves to elicit a familiar feeling (often one that a patient struggles with). Then the practitioner has the client function this same muscle in an opposing isometric way to facilitate healing/recovery from that difficult emotion.
In her practice, Dr. Khurana believes that anyone can benefit from this work. “Emotional isometrics does not exclude any part of the population. Even young children can benefit from their caretakers modulating their facial expressions, bodily responses, and tensile strength of their bodies if they are holding their child. This is part of the reciprocal interplay that happens between children and their caretakers.”
This practice helps to decrease the amount of cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone, in one’s body, thus preventing the body from getting worn out. In other words, clients learn how to slow down their chemistry so they can realize and actually address the issue at hand.
Therein lies the challenge. Often, it can be difficult to slow down in one’s speedy modern-day life to realize all of the physical and psychological elements that create your emotions and responses to both mundane and difficult experiences.
A sense of mindfulness can also be hard to cultivate. Slowing down, paying attention to one’s heart rate, thoughts, breathing, and body parts can be particularly difficult when one is in the midst of what feels like another crisis.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Try the “Ultimate De-Stressing Daily Routine.”
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