By Caralee Frederic, LCSW | Certified Gottman Therapist | Couples Workshop Presenter
A Relaxed Body Can Strengthen Relationships
“A relaxed body creates secure attachment.” That is my favorite quote from a two-day trauma training I just attended with Dr. J. Eric Gentry, an internationally recognized leader in the field of disaster and clinical traumatology.
Think about how knowing this can change the nature of our relationships, especially with our spouses and children! “A relaxed body creates secure attachment.” A basic adult task, Gentry says, is to be able to self-regulate in the face of a perceived threat or adversity. What we know from relationship research is when we’re in conflict, and our brains trigger the “fight/flight” response, it leads us to perceive the person in front of us, usually a loved one, as an enemy to defend against.
Because of my training to become a Certified Gottman Therapist, I am already very familiar with the importance of self-soothing to counter the physiological responses of emotional flooding and defensive behaviors, to be more effective in our conversations. I’ve been converted for years to the enormous benefits of learning to be still in my own body and to regulate my physical and emotional reactions — and to teaching these skills to my clients.
But I just hadn’t consciously put together the link between being relaxed and creating secure attachment until I attended Dr. Gentry’s training.
What is secure attachment? It’s the good stuff in a relationship. We tend to think of it in terms of mother-child bonding, but it also applies to couples’ or other close relationships. It’s the ability to soothe a crying baby, an upset friend, child or teen, a frustrated spouse.
Secure Attachment vs. Insecure Attachment
Secure attachment is what I’m seeking when I go to my best friend, my favorite cousin, or my Dad because I’m anxious or upset. I know they have my back. They will be on my side no matter what, and really know how to listen to me. It’s the secure base that makes exploring, growing, and soaring possible. It is knowing you can come to the your home base during stressful times.
An insecure attachment — anxious or avoidant — is often at the root of much of the bad stuff in life. It occurs when we are not able to notice, manage, or use our emotions well. The underlying message is “it’s dangerous to connect”. Our emotions, therefore, get in the way of having those crucial conversations and acting effectively to get what we need or want. Insecure attachment makes day-to-day interactions difficult. Moreover, insecure attachment can make life unbearable when a relationship is dealing with addictions, betrayals, emotional or psychological disorders.
Healing Negative Events
How do we a relax body on purpose, when we need to? With practice, we can learn to relax our bodies in a very short amount of time, in minutes as opposed to hours.
For most of us, it will be a lifelong challenge to practice being relaxed. The good news is that we can all learn to be more mindful of intentionally relaxing in the face of challenging emotions or events. This pairing of relaxation with adverse events or emotions is “what heals trauma” per Dr. Gentry, who also cited Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, another noted trauma expert.
“So what if I’m not traumatized? Do I need to do this hard work to stay relaxed?” Yes! We all have what are called “negative learning events.” If we have a repetition of a particular negative message about ourself, our relationships or life, these can intrude into our current life and relationships.
Learning to stay in a relaxed state is necessary before confronting trauma, and before having those “hard conversations” where we tend to get flooded and overwhelmed with emotions.
Practicing a Relaxed State
So what are these “simple, but not easy” things we can practice? You’d lose interest in this blog if I were to explain all that I learned at the the training. However, you can still get better at having a relaxed body and creating secure attachment by practicing some form of self-regulation. Dr. Gentry says we need to do this 200 times a day. Yes, you read that correctly — 200 times a day! But even if you can’t begin to imagine practicing that often, just get started somewhere to start changing the way you show up in your relationships. Here are a few things you can try the next time you become aware of tension in your body or upset emotions:
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing. Clasp your hands behind your head and lean back, as you breathe. This automatically shifts your breathing into diaphragmatic breathing: the deep, belly breaths we need to signal to our brains that we are OK and not under threat of attack.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Starting at your toes, tighten each group of muscles as you inhale; then, relax as you exhale. Do this as you slowing focusing on each muscle group as you progressively move up through your body, from toes, to ankles, calves, thighs, buttocks/pelvic area, abdomen, lower, middle and upper back, chest, shoulders, neck, face.
- Trusting your skeletal system. We know that our skeleton is rigid and that our muscles are flexible. Tense muscles are working very hard to hold us together. For 5 seconds, see if you can trust only your skeletal system to hold you up. You may want to close your eyes as you do this.
Strengthen Family Bonds
The timing of this conference was perfect! Later this week, I’ll be talking to a room full of parents who have asked me for tips on how to have “those hard conversations” with our kids and spouses. “Hard” conversations such as: a violation of home rules; sex, drugs and suicide; disappointments; frustrations; in-laws; the budget; death…to name a few. Really, any conversation where strong emotions may show up for one or both people.
In addition to a sampling of the skill sets I typically introduce, you can be sure we’ll be talking about the vital importance of learning to relax our bodies during hard conversations, both to create, and strengthen, secure attachments in families!