Healthy stress forces us to overcome challenges that can help better our lives: going back to school for a career we want; putting ourselves on the frontline when part of us would rather sit in the bleachers instead of risking falling on our knees; interviewing for a dream job or an acting role we really want to land; asking someone we have a crush on to go on a date with us, etc. Embracing life-affirming stressful situations pushes us out of our comfort zone and helps us actualize who we want and choose to be. Healthy stress helps us integrate aspect of our personality and hidden talents that would otherwise remain disowned. Healthy stress is very good… until it’s not.
When the stress we face is too intense and overwhelming, when the challenges we are taking on are beyond our learning curve or ability to adapt, and when this lasts for too long, stress flips from being a stimulating force to a detrimental and harmful toxicity. When our nervous system is overwhelmed with too much stress hormones we can’t think as clearly, sleep as deeply, remain as resilient as we need and want to be. And our general health can suffer profoundly. Science shows us that even the health of our future offsprings will suffer if we don’t stop and mend the harm done. When we consider our health challenges from this angle, it is easy to see that many of our modern health problems (digestive issues, headaches, muscle pains, sleeplessness, tightness in the chest, anxiety attacks, etc.) are often caused by too much unprocessed and unreleased toxic stress. This becomes even more obvious–as mentioned in the video above–when we remember the effect of stress on our HPA (Hypothalamus–Pituitary–Adrenal) axis.
So, what can we do to process our stress when it becomes too much for us to cope with?
Continued from Newsletter...
Stress has a tendency to take us out of our body and make us loose contact with our environment, especially the ground, which supports us. Next time you feel “out of your zone” and that you are about to flip your lid, take a few minutes to feel your feet making contact with the floor, or the ground underneath you, or whatever surface your body can rest on or lean against. If you are sitting, bring your attention to all parts of your body that are making contact with what you are sitting on, or that you are touching. Pay attention to your arm making contact with the armrest of the chair, your butt with the sofa, the texture of the rug or grass underneath your feet. Slowly and mindfully refocus on the felt sensation of the texture, the temperature, the softness or rigidity of what you are touching. Pay attention to the brightness or dullness of the space you are in. Become aware of what you like and what attracts you in your immediate surrounding: the color of the painting on the wall, the shape of the lamp, the texture or pattern of the carpet, the sounds that surround you, the shape of the clouds, etc.
As you do this simple exercise, notice what happens inside of you, yes, in your body. Are the sensations and emotions you are feeling in your body pleasant, neutral or unpleasant? Chase the “feel good” sensations and stay with them. Let them grow. If there are no “feel good” or at the very least “feel neutral” sensations to be found, look again. Look for them! Are the extremities of your fingers and toes tensed? Is the tip of your nose neutral? Are the upper parts of your ears aware of the stress you are feeling right now? As silly as these questions might sound, you’ll soon realize that there are places in your body, which are not affected by your stressful situations. Find them and remember them! They can become oases of calm in periods of high toxic stress.
When life throws too much at you, anchor yourself in these feel good and neutral places in your body. As you do this, notice if your breathing pattern changes without willing it or forcing it. It most often does! Notice if you feel a letting go, a discharging of the “too much”. Pay attention if your muscles are relaxing, your extremities are tingling, your stomach is gurgling, and if you have a greater awareness of your “here-and-now”; all signs of your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repair) coming back online and of your body returning to homeostasis. Of stress being released. Yawning, for example, is one of the many ways our bodies discharge stress. So, if you find yourself yawning, just let it be and please, don’t try to control it. Maybe this is why yawning is so contagious!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©