In the West we live in an adrenalised world, presenting a bewildering variety of options: there are endless things to buy, media to consume, experiences to be had. There are endless distractions: phones pinging 24/7, scary news and a sense of the world on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Those of us lucky enough to have work seem trapped on an endless hamster wheel of juggling work, family and friends, leaving little or no time for relaxation and contemplation. Those without work or in low paid jobs need all their resources to find shelter and food. On top of all that, Social Media presents images of golden people apparently living perfect care-free lives. If it wasn’t hard enough to cope with all this, we can often feel FOMO, ‘Fear of Missing out’: a sense that we just aren’t up to the grade. And even more this year, we have had to deal with fears of death, illness, loss of connection with loved ones, home-schooling, kids losing out on education, job loss and financial insecurity. Our culture creates an environment where we need to fit in, where money and possessions become a symbol of personal value. We are inculcated to toe the line, and this tends to cut us off from our deeper sense of aliveness meaning and joy.
What is Stress
We actually need stress in our lives to make us get up, provide for ourselves and move towards meaningful activity. Our bodies produce hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which enable us to activate and move towards our goals. Stress is useful until it reaches a tipping point, where we feel we haven’t got the resources to deal with demands from our environment. At this stage cortisol goes mad and runs loose in our bodies. If we start from a calm base, once the stress producing event has passed, our bodies return to normal and we can relax. However, if we are chronically stressed, this doesn’t happen and it seems we are in a constant state of hyperarousal, leading to poor sleep, poor concentration, feeling panicked and unwell.
Stress is a very unpleasant mental and physical experience and sometimes we use less than skilful means of coping with it.
- We may cut off from it, avoid the feeling and become numb
- We may become hyper-activated and treat every drama as a crisis
- We may freeze altogether and feel stuck and helpless
- We may engage in self-medication: overindulgence in alcohol, drug-taking, smoking, over-eating, workaholism, extreme dangerous sports, obsessive consumption of media or games etc.
We often feel short of time and that there is too much to do and we need to hurry up. This takes us away from our inner experience. In fact, we need to do the exact opposite and slow down. I invite you to join me in taking a deep breath and a pause. When we remember to pause and take some time to be with ourselves, this is NEVER time wasted.
Working with stress in a skilful way
Here are a few suggestions of how you can begin to work with stress. Some may suit you more than others. Each person is different and has different ways of being:
Stop what you are doing. Give yourself permission to be with yourself for a while. When you do this, you may get unhelpful voices saying you shouldn’t be doing this, this is not productive, or you don’t know how to tune in. Listen to these voices but know they are the voices of your internal saboteur who is a bit scared of change and make an intention to carry on.
Lie down in a warm and comfortable place and curl up under a blanket. Allow yourself to feel supported by the ground underneath you. Put your hand on your belly and take some deeper breaths. What do you notice? Is your heart rate fast? Are you hot or cold? Have you got knots in your stomach? Do you feel tightness in your diaphragm? Perhaps you feel numb? Fear sometimes has a numbing and paralysing effect. Don’t judge any of your sensations, but adopt a patient and listening attitude. By having the intention to be kind and patient to yourself – even if you don’t feel kind – you can open up some space. When scared, we tend to turn to our minds to work out a solution, but this eludes us. With patient listening, we begin to get to know our fears and we cease to criticise but see them more as information about our inner lives. We then tune into our inner wisdom and wait for the answer to come. What do I need? What is going to support me? If nothing comes right now, it’s alright. Trust that it is alright not to know and that the answers will come.
A word of caution:
If we are really scared and alone, focusing on the inner world can result in feeling more scared. If you are experiencing this, don’t judge yourself; everyone is different. Part of the work is recognising this and finding what works for you. Find a different way: one suggestion is to decide to focus your mind on something outside yourself, for instance watching the second hand go around on a clock; staring into the flame of a candle; listening to any sounds in the environment, knitting, crocheting, doing mindful colouring or listening to meditative music or binaural beats.
Our parents may have been subject to all sorts of pressures and fears when we were very small. They may not have known exactly how to handle us and to give us an in- built sense of security. We sometimes need to learn to re-parent ourselves. This can take many forms, but whatever we do, we go about it with the attitude of being a loving parent looking after a cherished inner child. Again, you may not feel like doing this, or it feels artificial when you don’t like yourself in this very moment. There is an old saying: ‘First we do and then we become’ or alternatively ‘Fake it until you make it’.
Restorative Yoga is an excellent re-parenting activity. In this type of yoga, we do the same poses as active yoga, but we use a whole range of cushions blankets and bolsters to take as much strain as possible off our bodies and nervous systems. Symbolically we swaddle and nurture our bodies giving ourselves love and care. Our nervous systems send messages to our brains that loving activity is happening: our minds are soothed, and our body/mind does not feel it has to hold on so tightly and tensions and worries may melt away or at least feel more manageable.
We are often told to Let go of our tensions. In Body Psychotherapy we know that that stress becomes held in muscular and skeletal patterns and these become so habitual that we don’t even know we are holding them. The patterns are rigidified and held in place as a kind of defence against a real or imagined threat. They are unconscious and we can’t just let go of them with our willpower. When wild animals are hunted, they often freeze and ‘play dead’ to avoid being captured. When their hunter is off the scent, they come out of the freeze state by shaking throughout their body. Dr David Berceli, the inventor of Trauma Releasing Exercise (TRE), has produced a whole protocol of shaking as a way of reducing trauma and anxiety. It can therefore be a really powerful stress busting activity to do a modified form of TRE. To do this, put on your favourite music and shake out your body. Go through each part, your arms, neck, torso, legs and feet. If you’re feeling uninhibited, you can make some sound too. Roar like a lion. We hold a lot of tension in our neck, throat and mouths. Look up Lion’s breath on Yoga videos and connect with your inner lioness. This may help you bi-pass your body’s defensive armour.
Nature has its rhythms and seasons. We humans are part of nature too and have our own rhythms: night/day, inbreath/outbreath, activity/rest, youth and age to mention a few. We mainly live a life alienated from our roots and natural rhythms. Walking in nature and noticing the colours, shapes, smells and feeling of the different seasons, feeling the breeze on our skin and the wind in our hair all have a calming effect on our nervous system. Grounding is a great way to reduce stress and when we are outside, we really feel our feet on the ground and can gain a sense that we are supported as part of nature. Stress and anxiety are products of the dysregulation of our natural rhythms and getting in tune with nature is a vibrant way of helping to re-set and rebalance.
Find what you love to do
Get absorbed in an activity, any activity as long as it is legal, and you enjoy it! Absorbing the mind in something you love, does wonders for overthinking, catastrophising and other forms of stress-inducing mental activity. Artists talk about ‘Being on the Zone’ When we are truly absorbed in what we are doing, we find ourselves in the present and our nervous systems will regulate, bringing our stress levels down.
Talk to someone
It is a cliché that a problem shared is a problem halved and cliches gain currency because they encapsulate truths: often worry, stress and anxiety is about feeling alone and unsupported with life’s ups and downs. I am happy to observe that recently, there has been a lot less stigma about being open with vulnerability. Covid showed us how important it is to be kind and make time for each other. People fear burdening others with their concerns, but often are surprised about how helpful some friends can be. Opening up can also make others feel they can open up too and lead to a realisation of our common humanity. Of course, there might be times in your life when you need more consistent support or you don’t have close friends on whom you can rely, and that is where professional counselling and psychotherapy can help.
Make friends with your fears
After breath and body work, you will be in a calmer place where you can enquire more fruitfully about your experience. This is very different from ruminating or over-thinking. People enjoy different ways of working, some people like to draw or work with visualisation or images, some like to write others just to let ideas percolate, some like to imagine they are in the presence of a wise older person.
- What am I frightened of?
- Is it a real or imagined fear?
- If you decide it’s real how do you know it is?
- Is it something I can or can’t do something about?
- What course of action will best support me?
When you do this, be kind to yourself and act as if you were in contact with a valued friend.
Tell yourself it is OK to feel vulnerable; it just makes you a member of the human race. When we come face to face with our fears, we make a relationship with them and we feel they are no longer controlling us and keeping us stuck, but have valuable information for us. When we feel the sensations of fear in our bodies and stop avoiding them and wishing them gone but stay with them in a kindly accepting way, they often subside and become less painful as sensations. This opens up a space in us, to see what it is we really need. Feeling fear is part of being human, having a relationship with it means we can be more alive with more options. It leads eventually to experiencing the polarities to fear: joy, courage and fearlessness.