How Do We Release Stress from the Body?
Photo courtesy of Neil Krug
Growing up, John Amaral had severe asthma, allergies, and eczema that caused his body to react in hives. He was wheezing. He was using an inhaler. But if someone asked him how he felt, he’d reply that he felt fine. “I was in such a fight-or-flight state that I’d learned how to disconnect from my body,” he says. “I had been conditioned to not express and not tune in to what I was actually feeling.”
Today, Amaral is an energy practitioner who works with people stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Amaral describes it as being in a chronic state of stress that turns energy into stored tension. When your body is reacting to stressful situations—either emotional or physical—you go into survival mode, says Amaral. And without a proper way to release this energy, he says it gets held in your body. And he believes it could manifest as physical symptoms like tension.
You could call it energy healing. Amaral says his work is more practical than that, though, and that anyone can learn to tune in to their energy. Through his practice, the Energy Flow Formula, he works with people to help them listen to their bodies, to find the places where energy is stuck, and to get them to release it. We asked him questions about all of this. But you should also see for yourself: Watch Amaral do his energetic bodywork on our Netflix show, The goop Lab, streaming on January 24. And if you’re curious for more, he’s developed a free seven-day challenge where you’ll go through each of the energy centers and learn how to use the Energy Flow Formula. It begins on February 17, and you can sign up here.
A Q&A with John Amaral, DC
At the most foundational level, energy is the ability to do work. Every single thing that we do, think, feel, and experience is somehow based on energy because energy is what keeps the body alive. It’s what keeps all our metabolic functions going. There are different types of energy: We have kinetic energy, which is energy in motion. We have biochemical energy, which reflects our metabolic processes. We have heat energy, or thermal energy. We have electromagnetic energy; we have electrical energy. The body uses virtually all those types of energy, and you can measure an electromagnetic field that is on the body.
If energy is the ability to do work, then energy work or energetic bodywork is working with the stuff of the universe and helping us understand how to use it more effectively and efficiently. How do we get more work done with less effort? How do we have a more effortless experience of life? How do we feel more liberated, more in the flow, more in the zone? We feel that when energy is flowing freely in our bodies.
What I’ve recognized in twenty-five years of working with people is that our world has become a very connected one. We’re on our phones and computers and social media. We’re more connected to the world in that way more than ever.
There’s also more disconnection from what would be a natural, healthy flow and rhythm of energy. People’s circadian rhythms are thrown off because they’re up late with blue-light screens. Every head is down, so the body’s slumped. The flow of your breathing and the natural expression of how your body would move if you were really tuned in to it get put into the background.
So many people are living in a state of fight-or-flight. They’re living in a reactive state where the body’s stressed. There’s a constant low-grade stress going on. The body goes into fight-or-flight from things like physical injury or emotional stress. It could even be the perception that something might happen that puts people in a high-stress state. Other stressors could include emotionally challenging situations, foods you might be eating, and fumes or environmental toxins you might be taking in.
You might be trying to work around all of those different types of stressors, whether real or perceived, but they can put the body into fight-or-flight mode, which will then bind up your energy. Most people don’t even know it because they’ve lost a reference point to what a natural state of ease and flow would be. They don’t realize they’re holding tension in the muscles, spine, and diaphragm or that they’re not breathing deeply. They don’t feel it anymore because it’s just become the baseline.
HOW TO LISTEN
TO YOUR BODY
Here are three steps from Amaral to help you connect to the energy within and around your body.
Step one: Do a scan or an evaluation of where in or around your body you feel flow, where in and around your body you feel tension. Where do you feel pain or discomfort?
Take your hands and run them along your body. Find where it feels good to touch your body, where it feels comforting or peaceful. Locate a place, like your heart, solar plexus, belly, leg, or head, for example. If you’re stressed or feeling discomfort, go to the place where you would self-soothe first.
Step two: Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth gently. This is a breath that grounds you and helps you connect. When people are stressed out, says Amaral, they tend to breathe in and out through the mouth. Slow your breathing down by breathing gently into your nose and out through your mouth and put your hands on that place on your body where you feel safe, comforted, or at ease (step one).
Step three: Keep gently breathing into your nose, out through your mouth. And as you breathe in and out, allow yourself to make a sound of release as you let it out. It might be a whimper or a long sigh. It might be peaceful, or it might be a sound of frustration. Whatever it is, let it out.
What you’re doing, says Amaral, is looking for the sound or vibration that matches the quality of that part of you. All three steps together are meant to help build a bridge between your body and your mind so that you can focus on the parts that feel disconnected. “It’s almost like holding up a mirror to that energy in your body and letting your brain recognize that there’s something there beyond just the physical experience,” says Amaral. “The sound lets that energy begin to move, and you’ll find that a tremendous amount of energy can release very quickly.”
Their bodies are holding a lot of tension, which is really just bound up energy. When your body is stressed, you begin to contract, and your breath gets shallower. You can’t breathe deeply because your body’s in reaction. The nerve tissues inside the spinal cord and all the nerves coming from your brain get stretched and compressed.
When energy starts building up because the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, that means there’s tension building up. The shoulders might start rounding, and the spine starts arching. Your heart rate increases, you start creating cortisol, and then you’re creating an environment of stress. You’re getting ready to fight or run away, or there’s the third option, which is to freeze. We hold it, bind up, and lock down. Energy is binding up and being stored in different parts of your body. It’s like packaging up energy and holding it in places like our jaw, shoulders, back, neck, pelvis, or legs. The body goes, I don’t have the capacity to deal with this right now. The brain goes, I can’t deal with this information, so we’ll just store it somewhere. Different people hold it in different places.
If you don’t come out of that survival mode, it takes more effort and affects your ability to do work in the world. It takes more energy, you get less work done, and you get less of a sense of ease and fulfillment.
People tend to come to me with either a symptom or a challenge. A lot of people know me as someone who can help them enhance their performance, so my clients include professional athletes, thought leaders, entertainers, and entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily have a dramatic physical symptom or disease, but they feel challenged. A lot of times, those people are looking for an explosion of creativity, or they want to feel more at peace. Everything is awesome, but they don’t feel relaxed. They don’t feel in flow. They feel like they’re working hard, and it feels like a grind.
People who come to me with physical symptoms might be getting migraines, or they’re grinding their teeth. They have tension in their jaw and neck. Maybe they have some anxiety, and they feel as if they’re constantly navigating an anxious feeling or an ache. I’ve worked with amputees, people with spinal cord injuries, and people who’ve had severe ankle sprain from an auto accident, for example.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who came in because there was some kind of physical trauma, including sexual, and they felt like the trauma was still held in their body.
A lot of times people don’t realize those connections, though, and they just have a physical symptom. They come in, and they say, “My lower back is seizing up.” We start to do a little work, and we find that there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty and fear that they’re going through around a relationship or around their job. Or they find that as something releases from their neck, they realize that they were holding unexpressed feelings and that they didn’t articulate or express something to a significant other or to their boss or whoever it was.
People oftentimes don’t know how to connect the dots between what’s going on in their life and what’s happening in their bodies. They feel the physical body, and they feel tension building up. They feel discomfort or symptoms, but they’re having difficulty bridging what’s going on in their inner world and what’s going on in the outer world.
My approach and my objective are to help people get out of that fight-or-flight state and to remember or learn how to experience more flow. In that state of flow, you think differently, you’re more creative, and you’re less reactive. You start coming up with new decisions, and new things come into your life. You’re more instinctive, and you’re more in sync with yourself. The direction of your life and the choices you’ll make can change dramatically, but sometimes it happens subtly. A lot of times, people wake up and they realize, Wow, I didn’t even know I was so stressed. I had no idea that I was holding energy in my body.
When I’m working on someone, I’m looking to find the receptivity in their field of energy that allows me to start a conversation or an interaction with their energy. People might feel when I’m working in the field of energy around their body that they’re shaking and emotions are coming out. It’s energy that’s been held and not experienced or expressed. I might be two or three feet off the body doing something with my hands—which looks like I’m waving my hands over them—and then their body might start to move. They might start to cry; their body might start to shake.
To simplify it: Imagine you’re sitting on the subway, and you feel something, so you look over, and someone’s looking at you. You can tell or feel when people are looking at you. There’s an energy that we can feel. We communicate largely through physiology, through feeling qualities and changes in the environment around us and within us. Our sensory systems—our little centers in our skin and our body—can pick up changes and fluctuations in the environment around us. When someone comes into a certain space around our body, we can feel that shift, and we know whether it feels good to us or feels uncomfortable to us. Think about when you are attracted to someone. You feel their energy, or you like their vibe. There’s something magnetic about them, and you want to move toward them.
If you feel like you don’t like somebody, there’s something uncomfortable about it. You feel a kind of friction, like an uncomfortable vibe that makes you want to move away. That’s happening on an energetic level. We feel resonance and dissonance, which are energetic phenomena. Resonance is when two waves are in sync with each other. Dissonance is when two waves cancel each other out. That’s what attracts us to move in different directions in life.
You feel at one with your body; you feel connected to your body; you feel free and moving. Things are happening around you. There’s synchronicity. You feel plugged in. You feel like the right things and the right people are coming into your life. The right opportunities present themselves.
The journey from a state of fight-or-flight is an inner journey that requires awareness of yourself and what’s happening inside of you. It’s shining the light onto your situation instead of working harder to try not to feel certain things. Then we move into true transformation where we feel more empowered, more fulfilled, and more capable.
John Amaral, DC, is a somatic energy practitioner, author, and educator. Amaral is the founder of the Energy Flow Formula and the Body Centered Leadership programs, which are designed to help participants create and sustain new levels of energy, clarity, and fulfillment.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.