For those of you who don’t know, I have a “twice-gifted” child. He is very, very smart—and is diagnosed with high-functioning autism, formerly called Asperger’s syndrome; as well as anxiety disorder and ADHD. In the pursuit of good parenting and fighting the school system, I feel I have read enough for a third master’s degree! A lot of the literature on neurobiology, self-regulation, anxiety disorder—all seems to cross-pollinate with my tango teaching.
For those of you who are introverted and/or suffer from social anxiety, here are a few tips from my reading for helping navigate the choppy waters of Argentine tango dancing.
Breathing to reset the vagus nerve
The body responds to the mind, but the mind also responds to the body. This is not a one-way road! The vagus nerve connects the brain to most of the organs in the body. This nerve communicates both in- and out-going communication to/from the brain. In a nutshell, if the brain evaluates a situation as safe, stress hormone levels are affected, and the entire body relaxes. However, we can trick the brain into relaxing by starting with the body.
In order to reduce anxiety, we need to breathe a specific way. Exhale ALL THE WAY until you reach apnea. You can tell if you have exhaled all the way because you can no longer make noise if you try to talk. The brain interprets this body feeling to mean that no danger is nearby, and subsequently, lowers the level of anxiety in the body. If you would like the 300-page version of this, Stephen W. Porges’ book, The Polyvagal Theory, is a great read, but takes a while as it is very dense.
When you work on reducing anxiety at tango events, consider taking a moment between tandas to breathe. After all, having someone exhale strongly and then hold that for a few counts, could make your partner panic! Try doing your vagus nerve reset before you leave the house; in the car before you enter the milonga; while you change your shoes; or in emergency trips to the restroom to refocus yourself.
An added bonus to breathing this way: you access your deepest core muscles, which makes you dance better!
Find your anti-panic button
For a lot of us, making mistakes while dancing causes us to freeze up and panic. Our bodies have an older survival mechanism than fight or flight: it’s immobility. Think of a lizard frozen, not moving, trying to avoid the notice of a snake! We go to this place under stress.
It’s not that tango creates all the trauma, but we store trauma in our bodies, and tango uses our body—in close proximity to other people, and so can trigger body memories. Also, the wish to dance perfectly can get in the way and make us panic as well. In order to get better at tango, we have to work through these panic moments, rather than running away.
What’s your silver bullet?
What is the sense that helps you relax the most? Smell? Taste? Sight? Feel? Sound? Pick something that you REALLY like, so that you have that ready to help you relax. For example, I have a friend who loves the color of lavender flowers. It would help her to just think of lavender flowers to relax in the moment. Perhaps you have a favorite scent? Mmm, chocolate! Whatever works for you as an instant relaxing cue will work.
There are a lot of useful ideas in Trauma-Proofing Your Kids by Peter Levine and Maggie Cline. You can trauma-proof yourself! Also, The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process by Devid Berceli is an interesting read.
Wiggle your toes!
Being present in your body is a real gift. It can be hard to just stay present and “be with that” if what we feel is uncomfortable/panicky/freaking out. What I do is get into my body, balance, and into my grounding, is: I wiggle my toes. That helps me relax, gets me on balance, and reminds me I am moving in my body even when not traveling around the room. It’s my shorthand to get me back dancing instead of freaking out or processing what I just did wrong. It doesn’t matter: we are on to the next move. Time to enjoy being able-bodied and present!
How do YOU stay present, in your body, in a relaxed state? Other people might benefit from your suggestions! Comment on the blog so that folks can try YOUR ideas!