Information & Practices to Build Your Capacity for Handling Stress
Every time I open Facebook, it happens. Facebook feels like the news – which is mostly bad, definitely over-exaggerated, and of course, there’s the fake stuff. Just this morning, I saw a post that caused me to gasp. My stomach clenched, my eyes widened, I was shake-y and I felt my anger building. I glanced at the comments and many pointed out that the photo was from an incident over a year ago. Still a shocking image, but it had been shared to curate outrage. I’ve learned to limit my time on Facebook and take long breaks in order to save my body from the unnecessary stress.
These days, our nervous systems are under assault. If we can take a moment to understand what’s happening to our physiology, it will enable us to take an active role in managing stress and the way we feel.
Our most basic human need is safety. When our nervous system detects that our safety is under threat, our body quickly (and unconsciously) mobilizes our stress response, which takes us into fight or flight mode.
- Fight Mode harnesses our healthy aggression to physically fight, punch, or kick the enemy. But when there’s no physical enemy to fight off, this energy can manifest as anger or rage. We may feel an impulse to fight with the people we love or shout our disgust on social media. Reading posts or seeing shocking images on TV or social media may cause you to go into Fight Mode. Seen any angry or reactive posts on Facebook lately?
- Flight Mode is your system’s survival energy gathered up to help you run away fast. With no enemy present, that same energy can manifest as walking away or hiding from others. This can manifest as distracting ourselves in order to cope with the body sensations associated with wanting to run. How do you cope when you want to run?
- Freeze Mode happens when our nervous system senses that fight or flight will not be useful. Unconsciously, we are slowed way down. (freeze is similar to ‘playing possum’). Our body shifts in such a way as to use up as little of its resources as possible and we “collapse”. Collapse, when there is no threat, may look like lots and lots of sleep, spacing out with TV, depression, helplessness, and avoidance of others. Freeze Mode is a healthy mechanism for keeping us safe. However, too much or feeling stuck in freeze can get in the way of an active life where we are moving forward in a healthy way.
These three survival modes happen automatically. Basically, when your biological safety is facing real risk, your nervous system will take over by mobilizing survival energy, which gives us the physical power to vanquish threat or reserve resources when we can’t fight or flee. Think of the stories of a mom lifting a car that fell on her child. Her body gathered its resources so she could save her child – seemingly without effort or conscious “trying” on her part. Our bodies are simply AMAZING and they will go to work to help save us in the face of threats to our safety. After a threat, our nervous system tries to discharge any remaining energy that was not used up by fighting or fleeing. However, humans are often socialized to suppress the natural process of discharge. Lack of discharge can leave trauma energy “stuck” in the nervous system.
The NEGATIVITY BIAS
There are likely no lions, tigers, or bears chasing you. Yet on an unconscious level our body and brain are scanning for threats on-goingly. The wonderland that is our body is ready to mobilize instantaneously to help us flee from or slay the tiger. Our adaptation has kept the threat seeking mechanism in place. For those stuck with trauma energy in their body, the constant search for threat can keep re-triggering the threat stress response even when there is no threat present. This can be re-traumatizing and is a tax on our bodies!
The GOOD NEWS
The neocortex (higher brain), when not in survival mode, enables us to consciously choose whether or not we expose ourself to unnecessary stresses like the news, certain social media, toxic people, upsetting or frightening TV or movies, etc. It also gives us the ability to practice various methods of soothing and settling of our nervous system so we can build capacity enabling more flexibility for handling the stresses and true threats that come our way.
SETTLING & REGULATING
The more we practice, the more agile, settled, and peaceful we become, which increases capacity to handle life with ease. Settling your nervous system translates into a more easy and peaceful YOU. Life becomes more joyful and fulfilling. Below are some practices you can try. I recommend checking in with yourself before you start and then checking in again after you try each of these. If you feel a bit more relaxed afterward, this may be an indication that your nervous system has settled. You may want to continue that particular practice!
If you have difficulty with these or they make you feel more stressed, don’t do them! If these practices are overwhelming, this may indicate you have accumulated stress or trauma trapped in your nervous system. In this case, you may want to schedule a Discovery Session with me to see if Somatic Experiencing will be helpful.
Please be gentle and kind with yourself while you try these out.
HERE & NOW PRACTICES
- Slow down. Whatever you’re doing, slow it down and see if you feel different. If it feels better, do more of this!
- Close social media, the news, turn off the TV. Take yourself away from things that are agitating!
- Feel your feet on the ground, notice your back against the chair or couch. Simply notice yourself.
- Shift your attention out into your surroundings. Orient yourself to anything that is neutral or pleasant around you.
- Without changing your breathing, bring your attention to following your in breath and out breath. Try this for 5 seconds. Increase your time bit by bit.
- Feel the air on your skin. Notice the sounds around you.
- Bring your attention to a pet or to something in nature.
- Connect with someone who is soothing, peaceful, or in any way relaxing for you.
- Resource Yourself – Notice the people, objects, animals, activities, etc. that are pleasant for you. Any time you feel stress, shift your attention to one or more of these resources.
Repeat any of these that relax you and give you more peace. Slowly increase your time with each one. Practice often!
Tracking Sensation Practice – If you already have experience with attending to your body and tracking the sensations in your body, try switching back and forth for a few seconds each between the above Here & Now Practices and back to tracking body sensations. If you’re not experienced with tracking sensations, please do not try this without the support of a professional.
All the practices listed are based in Somatic Experiencing® (SE) and some are based in mindfulness. SE is a gentle method that works with the body at the nervous system level to release trapped stress and trauma. If you’d like to try SE, set up a 30 minute complimentary session with me.