Open Hands

Today's Skill of the Month is a rather clever tool to use when negative things are coming your way. This skill again comes from DBT and in that format, Dr. Marsha Linehan refers to it as "Willing Hands". I call it "Open Hands" because it actually helps you to know what it is you're trying to do--keep your hands open.

When we are under stress, one of the first bodily reactions that many people experience is a tightening--either the muscles of the neck and shoulders, arms, hands or tightening of the jaw or face. This physical response is part of the sympathetic nervous system response--the fight or flight response. Our bodies are physically preparing to fight by clenching and tightening our muscles.

This skill, then, is to engage the opposite response by intentionally opening our hands and turning them palms up. You can think of it as a sort of "willingness to receive". This will probably seem counter-intuitive if our bodies are preparing to fight--we want to keep OUT stuff, not take it in! However, this is a skill that we would use when there really is no danger at hand.

Why would we want to do this? If we look back at that sympathetic nervous system preparing our body for a fight or flight, we see that our focus becomes quite narrow--our body is preparing to sprint away or fight, pouncing like a cat, we are springs ready to release that potential energy in whatever way is needed. That's perfect if we're being chased by a wild animal--letting a wild animal in will potentially cause our untimely death. This process, however, is not so effective if there is no threat to our physical safety. For example, if your boss calls you into his office your sympathetic nervous system may become active because you're now faced with uncertainty and stress. You may clench your jaw or tighten your fists as you walk to that office. In this state, whatever he says to you (positive or negative) may be a bit harder for you to take in because you're preparing for a potential fight--your defenses are way up! If, instead of giving in to the instinct to allow the sympathetic nervous system to do its job, you "remind" yourself that your boss isn't likely to hit you or do anything physical to you--the worst he might do is yell at you or fire you--you will be in a much better position to hear what he has to say, make educated and intelligent comments in a calm and rational way and hopefully resolve whatever issue it was that he called you in to address. This "reminder" can take the form of Open Hands. It is a physical action that indicates a psychological willingness or openness of our consciousness. It allows us to better prepare for a verbal altercation by allowing our logical brain to remain functioning. It helps us to focus on facts and helps to keep our emotions in check.

This skill, like most I've discussed, is one that is wise to practice regularly. Even if you're being exposed to very non-threatening stimuli--a conversation with your child's teacher for example--try intentionally opening your hands and laying them face up on your lap. Notice when you clench them or have the desire to do so and gently remind yourself to keep them open. Two things may happen. First, you're preventing or limiting an escalation of the sympathetic nervous system and second, you're opening your mind to the inflow of information--you're better at taking it in and better at coming up with possible solutions--you're physically lowering your defenses.

I hope you'll give this skill a try! You have nothing to lose but your defensiveness!