Whether or not they predict the weather, we can learn a lot from a marmot about responding to stress and anxiety. When a groundhog perceives danger, it gets uptight: it tenses and hoists itself up to get a clear lay of the land while its heart beats faster with adrenaline.
But when the threat passes, it grounds, settling back down on its haunches, relaxing its posture, softening its gaze, and calming its heartbeat. These outward behaviors are responses to the rodent’s autonomic nervous system, which revs it up in response to threats and relaxes it when it feels safe.
Humans have an autonomic nervous system as well. Just like the groundhog, when we are feeling anxiety or stress we feel like we are being drawn tightly upward: our shoulders lift, our eyes widen, our jaws clench, and we breathe from the top of our chest. Being uptight in response to danger evolved in our ancestors because, just like the groundhog, our they needed to be poised in a tense, hyper-responsive state when faced with danger so they could either defend themselves, run for cover, or remain coiled in hiding.
But being constantly tensed and alert uses a lot of energy and puts our body’s self-maintenance on hold, so, like the groundhog, we also evolved to settle down toward the ground when we feel the trouble has passed. Our shoulders loosen downward, our breath comes from deep in the belly, and, if we are really relaxed, we might even feel like our whole bodies release to the ground. We yield to gravity rather than fighting it. Feeling connected with the earth, our bodies can return to their everyday restorative functions, including resting, digesting, and procreating.
Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. While groundhogs, and other animals, are able to transition fluidly from a state of anxiety necessary to their immediate survival to a state of calm that is necessary for their long term health, many humans are stuck in a low-grade uptight state and have trouble relaxing, largely because our threats are not predators that come and go, but long-term, low-grade fears and challenges. Anxiety and stress about our jobs, our families, our social systems, and the future is certainly legitimate, but the uptight state that anxiety creates in our bodies doesn’t help us address those challenges and actually causes physical problems if we remain in it for long periods of time. Fortunately, there are techniques that helps us relax us down a bit when we are feeling uptight.
Grounding: Contact & Awareness
One of the basic ways to elicit a relaxation response is by doing what animals in nature do when a threat has passed, and let our weight and our awareness relax to the ground. We call this grounding, in yoga, tai chi and other mindfulness traditions because it is consciously yielding to gravity rather than remaining uptight and fighting against it. The recipe here is 1) stable contact with the ground and 2) resting the attention on places your body contacts the ground. Here are some examples of grounding techniques:
- Notice all of your points of contact with the ground. That’s it. If your mind wanders to other things, that’s OK. Just bring the attention back to those points of contact. You can do this almost anywhere and anytime, but some good times to practice are before bed, while standing in line, or while sitting in a waiting room.
- Imagine that you have roots that grow down into the earth from whatever part of your body is exerting the most pressure on the ground: your feet (if standing), your sit bones (if you are sitting), or your heals, hips, shoulder blades and head (if you are lying down). Imagine that they go down as deep as you are tall–feel like your roots are digging down into the ground.
- Take a walk. This can be outside or just inside your home. Focus on how your feet feel as they make contact with the ground. If your mind wanders, that’s fine, just come back to the feeling of the feet.
One final thing to note is that our body’s range from uptight to grounded is a dial rather than an on/off switch. Often the practice of grounding lowers us down a few degrees, and with time, we can learn to establish a calmer baseline so that stress doesn’t elevate us as much, and we can remain more consistently grounded. This can give us some control over our instinctual responses to stress, which helps us to be calm in our interactions with others and get the rest we need to maintain good health.
** Edit – I found this rather humorous description of a “Groundhog” pose online after a friend pointed out that it was a thing. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this, but I found it amusing, and I think you will too: http://www.prajnayoga.net/asana-anatomy-focus/groundhog-asana/