Relationship decisions: Is it my heart’s guidance, or simply my trauma talking?

When you allow a lover to really get close, to rub up on your tender spots, do you tend to fight, flee, or freeze? Do you avoid or cling?

Ignited by a series of interactions I’ve had and witnessed recently, I’m sparkling with insight about that critical decision-making moment in a relationship. I feel excited to outline some specific ways that a vocal/sound/mantra practice can help us transform our patterns towards embodying the intimacy we all yearn for.

1. Foundational self-awareness

First of all, when we have a self-awareness practice that cultivates the gap between thought and word, word and action, we give ourselves hope of empowerment. If we’re able to recognize discomfort, even for a nanosecond, we give ourselves a chance to make a decision that reflects new learning rather than old patterns.

(#1 preventative maintenance tip: Keep meditating, chanting, and practicing deep yoga & breath awareness to build your awareness muscle!)

2. Listening to the heart

In my 5 years as the resident life coaching expert at about.com (2005-2010), I got some version of the same query hundreds of times: “How do I know when it’s my heart’s true intuition speaking to me, and not just my fear?”

To answer this in a relationship context, we have to unpack our intimacy patterning. (Best explained in the book Attached, about the science of adult attachment by Amir Levine.) If you have any relationship trauma at all, whether from early childhood or from previous partners (and let’s face it, who doesn’t!?) knowing your attachment style is an extraordinary framework for filtering out our trauma response from our heart’s deeper longing for secure intimacy.

Otherwise, “listening to your heart” at that critical juncture in a relationship could very well be the stress alarm voice of your trauma telling you to detach and stay safe (avoidant), or to cling on for dear life (anxious).

3. Reading stress signals

In order to tell whether you’re in your stress response (and probably acting out your attachment style), it’s important to know:

  1. How important it is to make long term decisions about your relationship from your parasympathetic (healing) state, rather than your sympathetic (stress) state.
  2. How to read your body’s healing vs. stress signals, both in the immediate, temporary situations as well as the deeper chronic lifestyle indicators.

Did you know that we are receptive, curious, and open to new learning only when we’re in our parasympathetic rest/digest/repair system? If our goal is to listen to our deepest heart voice, it could be argued that that voice can only be heard when we feel truly safe.

When we’re stressed, every sensory input is perceived as a threat! Our organs cinch close to our spine, our limbs flood with blood to power running or fighting, our vision narrows and scans the horizon back and forth for threat, and our hearing sharpens to trigger defensive/protective action faster than our conscious mind can compute. Logic and empathetic listening get hijacked by primal fear.

From this threat lens, the only guidance our internal systems can possibly produce is towards protection. Our fight/flight/freeze leads to temporary relief from the perceived threat. (Thank you, primal brain, for keeping us safe from tigers!) However, in relationships, our attachment patterns developed from previous traumas can keep us repeating the same unsatisfying intimacy cycle. If we’re unaware of the difference between our stress response and our healing response, we can get stuck in a frustrating, exhausting, hopeless loop.

At critical juncture points in a relationship, taking guidance cues from our knee-jerk stress response cuts us off from the deeper learning potential that we could access if we had just a moment’s pause to determine our stress level. (See #1 re: self-awareness)

If we want to begin to explore new relationship territory beyond our trauma patterns, both partners need to establish themselves in the parasympathetic system first.

Then we can make a decision from a rested, digested, whole place of open curiosity. Here’s a quick chart that’ll help you and your partner self-assess when you’re in your sympathetic response.

IMMEDIATE INDICATORS OF TEMPORARY STRESS

 

Parasympathetic

Sympathetic

Pulse

mellow, slower, rhythmic

pounding, faster, irregular

Breath

deep, slow, unforced

shallow, fast, restricted

Hands

relaxed, open, expressive

tense, clenched, aggressive

Jaw

relaxed, open, expressive

tense, clenched, aggressive

Vocal Resonance

lower pitched, resonating all the way down through the pelvic floor

higher pitched, from a tense throat

Posture

shoulders and chest open

either shoulders hunched forward (hide) or puffed chest (fight)

Front/Back Body Awareness

ease in the skin of the back body as the front body remains relaxed and open to new and pleasurable sensation

back body tensed and prickly to protect the soft front body core from harm

DEEPER INDICATORS OF CHRONIC STRESS

   

Digestion

Light and clearheaded, good bowel movements, low inflammation,

irritable, constipated, and achy/dull

Mental State

Stable, consistent, unagitated

confused, dull, overwhelmed, easily influenced by external factors

It’s worth repeating:
When you’re stressed (either temporary or chronic), the only direction your internal guidance system will point is towards protection. If either you or your partner are stressed, it’s not a good time to speak words which will have a lasting effect on your relationship, nor is it a good time to make long-term decisions!

4. Cultivating Resilience

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could consciously flip the switch from stress to healing? The speed with which we recover from stress and switch back into our parasympathetic circuitry depends largely on the health of our Vagus nerve.

Lucky for us, the time-tested wisdom of yoga and Ayurveda provides us with a variety of tools that are now being “validated” by modern science!  (Note: A distinction must be made here between modern Western “gym yoga” and other unsubstantial cultural appropriations, and the rich wholistic lifestyle method of transformation that is the full yogic potential.)

There are a number of ways to improve our vagal tone (see articles). Many of the top doctor-recommended strategies are covered by a regular sound-based practice combined with yogic lifestyle methods, below:

  1. Elongated exhalation (singing, toning, and chanting train us to control and lengthen our exhale).
  2. Humming and singing (the vibration of our voice “massages” our Vagus nerve, which is accessed through the back of the palate/base of the skull).
  3. Group singing (increased resonance in a room full of singing people enhances the therapeutic effect).
  4. Mantra meditation (repeated Auṁ chanting deactivates the limbic system) (Ref: at levels comparable to antidepressants in FMRI studies by Dr. Hemant Bhargav).

Additional tools for honing your relationship life skills (yet to receive significant research funding*):

  1. Self-massage and long, slow stretching as taught in our Heart of Sound yogāsana for the yoga of sound classes allows the fascia to release accumulated tension.
  2. Mantra repetition helps increase awareness and discernment of mental patterns by highlighting the different functions of the mind.
  3. Any sound-based practice (mantra meditation, vocal toning, or group chanting / kīrtan), when we focus on resting in the silence between the sounds, also helps us elongate the gap between thought and word, word and action.
  4. Vocal resonance skills make us intimately aware of our sympathetic/parasympathetic body signals (see #3). Consciously changing how we produce our voice sound can help us train ourselves to relax in the face of (non-life-threatening) stress.
  5. Regular gentle cleansing and mono-fasting can give a chronically overloaded digestive system a rest. Cleansing stimulates metabolism, tissue cleansing, and repair, giving our immune system a much-needed boost.

Conclusion

If you’ve previously lacked these invaluable life skills, like most of us, you’ve probably unconsciously sabotaged an otherwise potentially loving relationship. I hope this has been as helpful for you and your partner to read as it has for me to write. (I’m right there with you in my attempt to practice my skills, make mistakes, and try again!)

When you find yourself triggered and at a critical juncture point in a relationship, here’s a step-by-step you can try:

  1. Pause, and take space and time to establish yourself in safety.
  2. Employ solo self-care methods (see #4 above), or engage the support of your partner if you have the ability to negotiate a strategy together.
  3. Hang out and rest/digest/repair in your parasympathetic system until you feel resilience bouncing you back towards open curiosity and creative new learning.
  4. Proceed with listening to your own deep heart’s yearning. What is truly alive in you? What’s important to you? What do you want to experience with your partner?
  5. Then extend that open, curious, listening awareness to hear your partner’s feelings and needs. (If you get triggered and go into stress response, pause again!)
  6. Strategize the next steps for your relationship with creativity, care, and consideration for all parties.

Even micro-pauses can help give you traction to change old patterns with new awareness. In yoga, we can celebrate that it’s always a practice, not a perfect!

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