Calm Down in The New Year
It is hard to experience joy when you are in a state of fear or perceived danger that triggers your stress response. Unfortunately, most people work and live in this survival mode resulting in a body flowing full of stress chemicals (such as adrenaline and cortisol). Many people even sleep stressed, gritting their teeth, waking up with sore muscles, and still feeling tired! And that’s assuming they can even fall asleep. Then people try to relieve stress through distraction tactics (alcohol, drugs, work, or other coping habits). One of our first, and we believe most important, areas of focus when working with clients is becoming aware of this perpetual fear state and learning how to self-soothe and self-regulate. We teach people to look out for feelings of anxiety, tension, anger, irritability, numbness, and/or shut-down as those are frequently connected to being in a fear state and signal an important need for regulation and comfort. The need for regulation is often overlooked because it is undervalued (at first) and most people aren’t taught the necessary skills to address.
So how do we meet our need for regulation? First it is helpful to differentiate when we are really in physical danger versus when our bodies are reacting, erroneously, as if they are in physical danger. A real physical threat, for example, would be a child living in an abusive home actively being smacked by his mother or father. However, more often the physical threat is perceived. For example, that child may connect dinner time to always getting yelled at or smacked because that is when his/her parents come home, often upset and aggressive. The child may develop a fear around dinner despite that not being the actual threat. The stress response is intended to address imminent threats in the present moment (a tiger about to attack you). Unfortunately, we have confused our system so that now we can also stimulate a stress response to a perceived threat or in reaction to a fear about the future (not having enough money to be able to pay for college or retire). But because that is a trigger that elicits an ongoing “stress” and not a tiger that comes and goes in the present, we can get stuck living with the stress response turned on.
We know that bathing in stress chemicals when a physical threat is not truly imminent is unhealthy. It’s like pulling your internal fire alarm when there is no fire. Can you imagine trying to live with the fire alarm constantly on? Any problem that isn’t an imminent physical threat, that doesn’t require immediate action will almost always be better served without a stress response, no matter how worrisome. In fact, you have more access to the creative parts of your brain (that will help you identify innovative strategies to solve problems) when you are NOT in a stress response. Bathing your nervous system in stress chemicals gets your body ready for action not creativity. Furthermore, it is hard to connect to your feelings and actual needs in a given moment when your body is experiencing the stress response. Your body is focused on one need only, survival and mitigating the “threat” as quickly as possible. It doesn’t care about long term impact or creative win-win solutions, rather it cares about making the “pain” go away as quickly and as easily as possible. That is what makes certain choices like drinking or taking drugs to address stress so alluring - they may remove the immediate feeling of threat but they do not address underlying needs and therefore are not only ineffective in the long run but extremely costly (both to overall wellbeing and finances).
Clearly, being in the stress response to meet most needs in our lives is not in our best interest. So then how do we calm a nervous system that is reflexively going into the stress response to solve all problems and stresses? After all it is not like you decide to have the stress response, it just seems to happen. The answer is to learn how to sooth your body around the fear and neutralize the associated stress and intensity or tension. Once you destimulate your nervous system and find some calm, then you can focus on different, more effective, and less costly strategies to meet the needs coming up in the moment. I used productivity to meet my need for security and used to run around like there was a bomb about to go off, trying to get so much done as fast as possible. Talk about stress! I remember when I first started working on de-stimulating my nervous system...That was the first time I realized I was reading a “How to Relax” audiobook at 2x speed. I was being intense and stressed about trying to not be intense and stressed!
You can’t think your way out of a feeling problem. No matter how much someone explains to your thinking brain that you don’t need to be stressed, it just won’t help. To de-stimulate your nervous system and start winding down your stress response you need to self-soothe your own body like you would a scared child. One way to do this is through cognitive soothing and somatic sensing, a fancy way of saying that you are going to tell yourself that you are safe and okay while noticing sensations in your body. You can do this at some regular interval so that it becomes habit and your body cultivates regular messaging that it is safe. Some people enjoy rubbing their hand or leg soothingly at the same time to connect the sounds, thoughts, and feelings together (the more senses you include the deeper the message penetrates). The goal is simply to think, talk, feel, and act in a soothing manner, simply reminding your body that it is safe (aka there is no danger).
We find the acronym reSTORE very helpful. As you connect to a prominent sensation in your body (maybe you notice tightness or heaviness somewhere in your body) you then say/think to yourself what is listed below...helping to connect the present moment to safety (aka NOT dangerous):
Re: is for repeating this at some regular interval.
S: is for “Safe” - I am safe and there is no threat right now
T: is for “Time” - There is time to do whatever I need to do right now
O: is for “Okay” - Everything is okay the way it is for the moment right now
R: is for “Room” - There is room to move however I need to right now and not feel contracted
E: is for “Expansive” - Feel the expansiveness come over my body right now and relax in the moment
I enjoy taking 20 seconds at least once per hour (but you can pick whatever frequency works for you) to stop what I am doing and think/say/feel to myself that I am safe, there is time, everything is okay, there is room, and then feel the expansiveness open up in my body. I don’t just think the words, I feel the words deep in my body as I feel a warmth spread throughout. It really does feel like the adrenaline and tension just dissolve away. I sometimes picture the liquid stress chemicals getting absorbed back into the sponge (adrenal glands). It doesn’t feel like a chore, as it is quite powerful and feels absolutely wonderful. It is also quick so my efficiency brain can easily go along with it. The beauty of this exercise is that the more you do it, the more your body starts to build this habit and default experience, actually craving the time to check in and calm your own body. Everyone has a need to self-regulate and when we satisfy that need with a simple exercise like this, it feels rejuvenating. You start to replace your default feelings of tension and stress with a default felt sense of safety and relaxation. What’s more, you can do this simple exercise anytime whether you are in the middle of a phone call, on a plane, or you are walking into a room full of people (maybe stimulating some social anxiety). It is so powerful and simple at the same time, requiring nothing but your own consciousness and persistence. Try it right now and see what we are talking about!