Years ago I read about a fascinating psychology study. Research subjects were instructed to watch a short film clip while holding a pencil in their mouths. As I remember it, the film had no words and it showed a man going through some kind of bumbling mishap or confusion. Some of the subjects were instructed to hold the pencil cross-ways, so that it stretched their mouth wide. Some were instructed to hold it using the end of the pencil, so that their mouth formed a tight, tiny “o” shape. A high percentage of those who held the pencil cross-ways thought the film clip was funny. Those who pinched the pencil in their mouths tightly thought the film clip was tragic and painful.
Make those two shapes with your mouth. What do they feel like? The one stretched wide feels like a smile, and the little “o” feels like a frown. Just holding their mouths in these shapes affected the mood of the study subject to such an extent it changed their attitude about what they saw.
It’s astonishing how much our moods are affected by what we do physically.
This past week I was feeling stuck, anxious. Then I did some video taping on Friday night and ended up with a cramp in my neck all out of proportion to that work. It was so painful I couldn’t fully rotate my head. After massage and painkillers failed to help, I decided I needed to dance. So I put on headphones and listened to some great music and even though I wasn’t quite in the mood, I started to move to the beats. Then I decided to start dancing as if I was totally feeling it, closing my eyes and chasing the rhythms with my hands and letting them course through my body. Before I knew it, the sound and motion had put a smile on my face and I was no longer thinking about moving – I was just dancing, feeling inside the flow, feeling free from stuck feelings. And I kept going for well over an hour. In the end, the knot in my neck disappeared and I found myself more able to think through some of the issues that had me so anxious. The issues were still there, but I had a different attitude now, one that was more likely to help me get out of them.
Our emotions rarely (if ever) show up alone. Usually they’re in bundles or layers. And sometimes that outer layer acts like a lock on getting through all of what lies underneath. I’ve seen people who are feeling caught in a particular emotion be able to shift how they feel simply by changing how they’re sitting or standing or walking.
The next time I’m feeling stuck, if a thought or an emotion starts looping in my head and I can’t seem to think of anything else and can’t find a way out of it, I’m going to remember to stretch a little, to allow my body to take on some of the burden from my head – and then release it.