Once upon a time we experienced a moment of stress. This could have been triggered by a myriad of things such as a moment of loss, or being bullied, a moment where we felt rejected, or generally felt overwhelmed, out of control, helpless and hopeless.
In yoga, we recognize that everything is interdependent and that nothing is separate. If we are to acknowledge that how we respond to stressful moments is an experience of our minds, our bodies and our emotions, we’ll develop greater awareness for when/where/how/why we are triggered. Learning to develop the awareness of our internal processing is key in determining our ability to self regulate.
What happens in moments of stress, is that we experience a visceral reaction within the body. The body contracts, and the nervous system records the trauma and the response as a way to better adapt for “next time.” Like the way mountains once carved out the pathways for a river to form, our mental, emotional, and physical response to stress has an electrical chain like reaction that gets imprinted into our nervous system and forms a very personalized neural pathway. Now, if we experience something remotely similar to our initial trauma, our body forms the same contraction in the body and the nervous system prepares itself again for fight/flight/freeze/fold.
How we respond to stress is similar but the ways in which we cope with stress or manifest it expresses itself in our own personalized ways. There are two distinct ways I like to describe how we manage with this sort of emotional/physical and mental imbalance.
One way to deal with stress is to neglect. We disassociate from the stress because it is uncomfortable, painful even. We’ll do whatever we can to avoid what typically triggers our stress to ultimately avoid processing the feelings, thoughts and sensations that come with it. For example, maybe money is a trigger for you so you avoid looking at your bank account at all costs. You might remove yourself from having to deal with your money even though it is a stressful topic for you to confront. You also may avoid spending,
The second way stress can manifest itself is through over-excessiveness. The same person who is afraid to deal with their finances might be an over-spender, and indulge in shopping sprees, gambling, or over using their credit card.
Both ways can be seen as a coping mechanism for their triggers. Take a moment to reflect on what typically triggers your stress and the ways in which you typically tend to manage yourself in those moments? What might be your go to healing vice in the face of stress?
What we are ultimately needing in these moments of stress, is the need to feel safe and secure. If we can develop the skill of identifying our stress, we give ourselves access to coping consciously. There are ways to create new neural pathways in the psyche and that is through awareness and mindful action. We have the ability to let go of our old stories and self identifications to build a happier, healthier and more connected life.
Below I have listed 5 practical ways for stabilizing the nervous system in moments of stress so that you can feel grounded, safe and self reliant. Remember that you always have the power condition the mind/body/spirit to unlearn it’s old coping patterns, be at peace with where you are and ultimately come home to the safe space within you.
Pause + Feel
Use the pause as an opportunity to gather information on where you are present to sensation in the body. This will allow you to map out what your typical stress response is in your own body. Check your heart rate, check where you are holding tension, be specific and most importantly, observe the depth and rhythm of your breathing. What thoughts are you present to? What feelings? What sensations? All of this is vital information in learning and understanding your stress. Get into present time so that you can acknowledge your internal landscape.
When we’re triggered and that physiological reaction gets turned on, our breath becomes short and sharp. The first step in a moment like this is to pause and come back into a more conscious breath. We want to find neutrality in the body and the breath is the gateway into our parasympathetic nervous system, aka our relaxation response. Equal length inhales and exhales communicates to the rest of the body and the mind that there is nothing threatening our sense of safety. Any time we are not conscious of the breath, its rhythm and depth begins to deviate away from its most optimal state. Practice having your breath lead you vs your mind in a stressful moment. Take a breath in and count to four and breathe out for a count of four. Your breath is the direct line to slowing down your heart rate and will sending oxygen to the body and the brain to clarify whatever might be blocking your awareness.
Listen and converse with yourself. It might sound like an odd phenomena but in a moment of stress we want to be in relationship with ourselves, and even more so, in a relationship with our stress. Beneath a challenging moment there is an opportunity to listen to the deeper wisdom within. Listen to voice that is reacting to the stress. What is he/she saying? What are you saying to yourself in this moment? Now listen to the side of yourself that is there to comfort, is there to support and is there to empower you to remember your truth. The truth that exists beneath the circumstances and is unmoved by conflict. By attending to and acknowledging our inner voice, we strengthen our ability to hear it. Ways to develop the inner voice is the create and repeat a mantra (small phrase) that empowers you to move through your stress in a loving way. Also consider that just listening to ourselves can be just enough to feel safe again.
Sometimes internally processing can be a clear way to cope with our stress experience and sometimes the energy is so heightened, we need to let it out. A very practical way to cope with our stress is to express the energy outwardly through action. That could look like engaging in exercise, moving your body in some capacity, journaling, singing, yelling, crying, cooking, cleaning, bathing, etc. Come up with a list of ways that you can get your built up energy out in an appropriate way. Anything done unconsciously, risks being done excessively and addictively, as a way to deflect our stress instead of manage it. Moderation here is key.
Channel your stress in the right direction
Rather than denying yourself your stress, what would it look like for you to channel it in ways that provides growth and effective change. For me a sure fire way to cope with stress these days is to write down lists on what I feel overwhelmed by and tackle them accordingly. The nervous system loves to be able to predict and assess the future, so there are no unknowns, by giving the thoughts in your head a place on a page, you’ll provide the “plan” and “direction” your system is seeking. I have been able to channel my stress into developing my personal and professional life by understanding that my stress can be assessed differently. By using step 1,2,3,+ 4 you can begin to build a process for how you direct your stress energy. Stress operates off of electrical impulses in the body. Imagine if you were able to use that charge to your advantage? When you’re in a moment of overwhelm, check in on the self deprecating energy that is actually calling for you attention. Transform the stress into an opportunity for insight and personal development.