When someone comes to me stressed, anxious, upset, and generally freaking out, I do not under any circumstances suggest that this person relax. Having both witnessed and received this response to freak-outs over the years, I have learned that this usually well-intended remark is almost never helpful and often annoying.
Telling people to relax does not engender relaxation, although compassion and listening tend to be welcome. Deep breaths also help.
What is even more helpful sounds a bit weird at first.
In fact, when I suggest it to people in the midst of mild to full-fledged freak-outs who want to stop freaking out, I often get the are-you-nuts stare with the are-you-serious? question.
I don’t blame them because I thought it was a little nutty myself at first. Surprisingly effective, but nutty. And counterintuitive in the sense that it’s not what most of us naturally do or want to do when we’re freaking out.
Of course, it helps that most people who are freaking out and really don’t want to be freaking out are open to just about anything to stop freaking out.
But only if they really want to stop freaking out. Because you know there are occasions when a good freak-out is warranted and wanted. This is not useful for those occasions.
However, when you really want to stop freaking out, this is just the thing:
Did you know that cats purr for two reasons? Cats purr 1) when they are content, and 2) when they need soothing to induce a state of contentment. It seems purring is both the result of happy cat contentment and the means to happy cat contentment.
(If you’re wondering why we’re suddenly talking about felines, it’s a relevant tangent, although this question flung non-sequitor style across the tracks of a freak-out can be quite effective in derailing run-away freaking trains of thought. If this sounds like gobbledegoo to you, it should be purrfectly clear in a moment. Yes, I did just make a silly pun, but I digress...)
Humming is to humans what purring is to cats.
While we human beings don’t have an innate ability to purr, happily, all human beings can hum. Frequently, we hum to ourselves when we're relaxed and happy without even realizing it. The connection between happiness and humming even shows up in our language in common expressions, such as "this place is really humming" (as in vibrantly happening) or "humdinger of a day" (as in remarkable day).
Sometimes, we also hum to ourselves when we’re anxious or afraid. Much like the tendency to listen to music or turn on the TV, humming can be a welcome distraction from uncomfortable, ho-hum, humdrum, bah humbug-ish thoughts and feelings.
However, because humming occurs within us as well as without, humming actually shifts our state of being, channeling challenging emotional energy through and beyond. Humming induces the rest and relaxation response by actively engaging our parasympathetic nervous system. Our breaths lengthen. Our emotions calm. Our minds quiet.
This is why humming is particularly useful when we’re freaking out or somewhere in the emotional vicinity of freaking out. Humming is soothing, which is why mamas throughout the world hum lullabies to their wee ones, and hum-alongs are used in all cultures to generate comraderie and induce altered states.
Our vocal chords are one of the most effective instruments we have at our disposal to soothe and stabilize ourselves.
Every cell in our bodies responds to the various frequencies generated by every sound we make, whether speaking, singing, chanting, or humming.
When we use our vocal chords more consciously, like tuning an instrument, we can harmonize body and mind. We become more centered, grounded, and balanced. The dissonance of our experience is relieved when we attune to the underlying vibrational resonance of well-being always available to us with a little conscious effort.
Whether we want to calm our emotions, shift our energy, or quiet our minds, so we can hear ourselves think, humming is an easy vocal practice that anyone can do practically anywhere. It's actually one of the shortest paths to bliss that I know.
Give it a try.
Sit in a comfortable, upright position. Close your eyes if you like. Relax your jaw. Inhale deeply and make an mmmmm sound with lips closed as you exhale.
Begin with a single note and notice how the sound vibrates through your body. Notice where the sound flows freely and any places where it may feel a little stuck. See if you can hum into the stuck places and relieve the stuckness.
Do this for at least ten breaths, and for as long as it takes to feel more relaxed, calm, even wonderfully content.
To intensify the experience, you may use your thumbs to gently cover your ears, index fingers to cover your eyelids, middle fingers resting lightly on your two nostrils, ring fingers above the upper lip and the little fingers under the lower lip.
You may also choose to simply cover your ears with your thumbs and cover your face with your palms with your little fingertips touching, but resting along either side of your nose.
Notice how you feel after humming.
Next time you're feeling a little or a lot freaked, even if it's the last thing you feel like doing, invite your freak-out to hum along.
It won't solve all your problems, but it will help you balance your emotional state, so you can think more clearly, and it's much better than a pity party.
Meanwhile, engage in some regular preventative humming to maintain a greater state of well-being that makes freakouts less likely to occur. When you are in your car, instead of turning on the radio, hum and see how you feel when you arrive at your destination.
Hum in airplanes. Hum in the shower or on the way to work. Hum at work.
For those of you working in open floor plans, humming doesn’t have to be loud or complex to be effective—a simple, subtle hum beneath the din of the phones, copiers, computers, or the everyday hustle and bustle of the room can achieve the same results. It's a good idea to be mindful of others, but figure out a way to make it a regular practice.
Like many of us, the last person I introduced humming to was doubtful that it would do any good, but was willing to give it a try.
She felt better within five minutes of humming together, but remained unconvinced. I suggested that she just experiment for the rest of the week by humming whenever she felt overwhelmed.
Later that same week, she rang, and said, "Ok, so it actually works! I've been humming. A lot. I was even humming in the shower today feeling so much better when my five-year-old burst in the bathroom and told me to 'please stop making that annoying noise again.'"
Happily, even five-year-olds can learn to like the "humming game that makes mommy a happy cat." That said, it is probably good to remember that the humming that helps you stay sane may drive others crazy.
So if you can't get others to hum-along, hum quietly. Hum considerately. But hum. After all, the world needs more happy cats.