Squeeze Stress Away. Thank you, Dorothy Sarnoff

Squeeze Stress Away. Thank you, Dorothy Sarnoff

We have talked about the power of muscles before. At that time we focused on the profound and positive affects of relaxing muscles.  If we turn off muscle tension, we quiet a large collection of heavy working brain wiring. That tells the brain, “Hey, nothing much is happening….relax.”

This time, we will look at the power we can have over stress when muscles are strongly flexed.

The Sarnoff Squeeze

Singer and actress Dorothy Sarnoff (NYT bio) noticed that Yul Brynner was up to some strange stuff during breaks when they performed together on Broadway in the King and I. Brenner would push hard against a wall back stage, grunting like he wanted to shove it over. “What are you doing?” Sarnoff asked. “It helps me control my nervousness,” Brynner explained.

When Sarnoff gave a try later, she found it indeed worked. Pushing hard against a wall pulled her away from stage jitters and gave her a burst of energy that made her feel strong and ready to go.

Knowing that pushing a wall is not always practical, she searched for a more portable and discret technique. Her solution came to be known as the Sarnoff Squeeze.

-Standing or sitting, slowly breathe in and as you are about to exhale, contract  the “6-pack abs” muscle group. Exhale slowly and steadily as you continue to squeeze. You don’t have to hold your breath. When you are done exhaling, let go of your muscles and  inhale normally. Repeat a few more times.

-Assess how you feel. More calm? More focused? More energized? If not, repeat a few more times contracting and squeezing what Sarnoff called the “vital triangle” muscles.

The Big Squeeze Explored and Expanded

Yul Brynner and Dorothy Sarnoff reasoned that hard muscle use stopped the flow of stress hormones from being released and that is why the calming effect came on. Actually, the shift in mind-body states the actors experienced were caused by a change in blood pressure. In the late 1960’s, the U.S. Air Force commissioned Dr. Ronald L. Wiley, a cardiopulmonary physiologist, to be part of a study to help increase G-tolerance in F-16 pilots. Big changes in acceleration experienced in military flying causes dips in blood pressure to the point that pilots will pass out. Wiley found that he could increase g-force tolerance by teaching pilots to conduct handgrip exercises as they were going into high g-force turns.  Muscle tightening causes blood pressure to rise and to get to the higher pressure, the heart has got to pump faster. This explains Sarnoff’s “burst of energy and strength”.

More recent research on muscle tightening also may explain the effects of the Sarnoff Squeeze.  Iris Hung and Aparna Labroo found (study) that when study participants tightened muscles, willpower increased and the experience of  pain decreased. Additional research hints that any muscle group might work because clenched calves and tight biceps worked as well as clenched fists.

Anxious or angry? Try a Squeeze: Sarnoff’s 6-pack abs, a fist, a bicep, a calf, or other muscle groups of your choosing.


Scientific American Podcast on muscles for willpower – Episode 1065 October 20, 2010

Never Be Nervous Again audio book narrated by Dorothy Sarnoff at BN.com – read

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