This is a powerful one this week...
Our emotions have a physical response in our bodies. Our emotions; anger, sadness, despair, hope, joy, all live inside our bodies. They start, they have a middle and they have an end. It’s like entering a tunnel, and suffering comes when we get stuck in the tunnel; mentally and physically.
Ah, I thought they were all in my head.
So yeah, I did actually full on cry listening to this this morning.
It felt shit, vulnerable and full-on painful. To realise the disconnection from our bodies that we have - and my body that I have - because I live in a perpetual stress cycle that isn't released or ended, BUT that I actually can choose to end it feels like a REVELATION to me.
Things like insomnia, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome or digestive discomfort symptoms, constant high-level anxiety, the collapse/illness we feel after making it through something tough, isn't because we suddenly got ill, but because we were ill with stress all along, storing it in our bodies. Maybe you've experienced this - when we finally stop, finally our immune systems are heard and we have to take the time to recover - because we now we have no choice but to go to bed!
Although I've practiced yoga, breathwork and exercised consistently for years, my experience of stress has actually been the biggest gateway into learning about my body.
I never realised my body needs a stimulus to know the danger is over and it's now safe. I never knew our emotions are a full physical experience with a beginning, middle and end - and that I can orchestrate the end. Our mind might register we've done the stressful thing, but our body has no way of knowing that until we move through it.
We used to have this physical stimulus that meant our body realised we were safe and could complete the stress cycle. If we sensed our danger in the environment in our evolutionary past, then we’d likely fight, flee or freeze. This movement - and cessation of movement - is the signal our body needs to realise that we are now safe and to downregulate all those processes in the body that allowed us to make the response in the first place.
The issue is, in our modern world, our stressors don’t have this physical component. Notifications of news and social media, submitting our tax return, meeting a work deadline - we mentally know we have done it. Clicked the button. Get the job done. But our body has not had a physical signal that the stressor has gone. So we live in this constant stress, stuck in the tunnel, because our body doesn’t know we can safely exit. Some of us stay stuck in that constant state of fight or flight or days, weeks and months.
So how can we allow our bodies to complete the stress cycle?
1. Moving our bodies.
Any sort of physical movement is a way for our body to clear the stress from its systems. Like running away from the physical danger, the movement allows the body to begin to realise safety and down-regulate. If you’re not in a situation when you can go punch something, go for a full workout or run, then try shaking it out. The type of shaking where you let your limbs be heavy and wobbly.
One of my most favourite (and employed!) techniques is a long hug where you each hold your own centre of gravity for a good twenty seconds (plus!). Granted, this one has been more difficult for many of us during the pandemic, but physical touch for yourself can have the same effect. Self-soothing practices such as rubbing/stroking your skin, or holding yourself in a hug can help.
3. Positive social interaction
Be aware of the nature of your social interactions; if you’re using social interaction to justify a sitting in a negative story, making an excuse etc, then it’s not the type of interaction that will help you complete a stress cycle. But, sharing our emotions, our experience with a trusted person who can sit with us through that, is powerful. And when we are there for someone in that context, our job isn’t to turn the light on and try and fix it for them, it’s to sit in the dark with them.
Breath is the most powerful down-regulator of our body. And when we invest in a breathing practice, it can change our experience of life. I know from my own practice, I notice that anxiety causes me to breathe shallow into the chest and hold my breath; it can become so pronounced that it can feel a struggle to breathe. Many of us aren’t even aware of how poorly we are breathing (I know I wasn’t a year or so ago!) and I love to work with my clients on this! Consciously practicing deeper, slower breathing is a powerful way to signal to our body that we are safe. Try breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4, with a hand on belly to increase the connection with your breath.
Doing something creative can help your body complete the stress cycle - and please note you are creative. Everyone is, in their own way. Sometimes we lose our own connection to creativity after years of productivity, being serious and adulting, but we can tap back into it. What did you enjoy doing as a child? You do not need to be good at it, it does not need to be perfect. Create a story, a picture, a knitted item - or daydream! We forget how our imagination is ultimately creativity.
Most of our adult laughter is social laughter, with the purpose of being accepted and making others feel comfortable. The type of laughter than completes the stress cycle is the deep belly, uncontrollable, shaking laughter that we’re a little out of control with. Watch something funny, let the spontaneous laughter arise and notice the difference!
We think we can breathe - but we don't breathe well
We think we can handle stress - but we don't handle it well
We think we can power through - until we break down
We think we're strong - until we're strong for too long
We think we’re ok - until we are so totally not.
Many of us always have some of these techniques ingrained into our days and lives, so for many of us it’s not necessarily about doing anything different. But maybe if we’re more aware of how our body experiences life, we can be more intentional with how we use these techniques to improve how we feel.
I’m not a researcher or expert in this area, and am sharing this with you because I’m learning about it myself; as a human with a deep interest in feeling better and sharing what she’s learning. For further information, I encourage you to listen to this:
Or for further reading: Burnout: Solve your Stress Cycle by Emily & Amelia Nagoski