As a psychotherapist I believe it is a good idea to explore our inner terrain and all the richness therein. It is especially useful to know how to connect with inner feelings of safety, calm, and trust. Here is an exercise to help us make these connections. You may have done this exercise or similar ones many times, or it may be new to you. Either way, I hope you will be pleased to find it here on our blog.
I first did this exercise years ago while sitting with 200-300 people listening to Tara Brach, PhD, a local, well known psychologist and Buddhist teacher. I noticed that I was a bit reluctant to make this simple gesture of placing my hand on my heart. But I closed my eyes and gave it a try. Doing the exercise was both tender and powerful. I felt calm and cherished with a sense of spaciousness in mind and body.
I have since shared the exercise many times with clients. You may be experiencing reluctance right now. Or you may be curious but need to know why and how it works. It’s okay to skip ahead and read on. Then come back and give it a try.
The Hand on Heart Exercise
(You can read it over and do it alone; you can do it with another person; you can do it with Tara Brach or other teachers online. It’s good to do in a quiet place when you have five or ten minutes.)
Place your hand on your heart (eyes open or closed) and pay attention to the sensations that happen with this self touch. Notice sensations as opposed to thoughts which activate a different part of the brain. You may notice warmth from your hand, a light or gentle weight, a shift in your breath, or tightness, or constriction. Let your shoulders relax. Just take some time to become aware of your sensations. Notice how you know you are breathing. Do you notice the movement of air around your nostrils; air hitting the back of your throat; or the rise and fall of your chest; the movement of your diaphragm? Now take a few more settling breaths, allowing the breath to find its effortless and steady rhythm.
Next, recall a moment with a person with whom you felt safe and loved. You may think of the unconditional love you received from a grandparent or a dear friend, someone who supported you when coming out, someone you revere, a trusted teacher, a spiritual figure. Someone living or who has died. You may recall a pet. Or you may think of a safe and serene place such as being in nature or being in your own bed. It is okay to image a favorite cartoon figure or a children’s book character. Now focus on the person or place you have chosen. Allow that memory or scene to deepen, taking your time to recall that experience using all your senses.
With your hand still touching your heart, slowly let go of the image knowing you can revisit any time. Savor the positive sensations and feelings in the body. You may notice warmth, the beginning of a smile, a more relaxed state. Give yourself 30 seconds or so to savor and absorb this sensation of well being. And then, when you are ready, open your eyes.
The next part is for your prefrontal cortex.
The Benefits of This Exercise
It increases relaxation and reduces stress It steadies the heart rate, bringing a state of equilibrium It increases alertness and clarity of thought It creates more internal spaciousness It shifts our biochemistry It helps us trust ourselves It builds resilience
Why It Works
This exercise releases oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that induces a sense of well being. We know that the quickest way to release oxytocin is to be touched by someone we trust. When this isn’t possible, we can gently touch and soothe ourselves. Neuroscientists have repeatedly shown that even remembering or imagining a safe, trusting person is enough to release small, regular amounts of oxytocin.
Oxytocin counteracts cortisol, the stress hormone.
Scientists have coined the term “neuroplasticity” which means that the brain is built to change in response to experience. One could say we are literally shaping our brains when we focus on positive experiences. Neuroscientists also say that “neurons that fire together wire together.” I imagine the exercise building and reinforcing healthy pathways in our brain circuitry.
By relaxing the breath we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system, steadying the heart rate, and finding equilibrium. By holding this calm state for a few moments we are allowing these sensations to flood the body and mind. We are building new circuitry and developing resilience. When we simultaneously touch our hearts and hold positive thoughts we are connecting the body and mind. We are using the most immediate and direct path to safety, calmness, and our inner refuge.
Thank you for reading this. Good luck in repeatedly visiting yourself, strengthening pathways of safety, unconditional love and resilience, and sculpting your inner world.
Two books I recommend:
True Refuge by Tara Brach, PhD.
Bouncing Back, Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well -Being by Linda Graham, MFT.
If you would like to talk more about being in tune with yourself,