In the past few weeks, we’ve explored how our brain handles stress and trauma; we’ve learned about polyvagal theory; and we’ve learned that simply understanding our body’s response to stress will help us to avoid its negative effects. Now, it’s time to dive into some physical practices we can use to move through a stress response.
Now that we’ve learned about the way our bodies respond to stress, you’ve probably had some time to think about how stress feels in your own body. Maybe it’s a tightness in your neck, shoulders, chest or jaw (tooth-grinders, anyone?); or maybe you tend to tense up in your hip flexors. Some people feel stress in their digestive system– from butterflies to straight-up GI distress. You might feel an excess of energy– an inability to sit still, or irritability, a feeling that you need to do something. This is the fight-or-flight response.
Or, you might feel tired, sluggish, depressed, sleepy, numb, disconnected– the freeze response.
One of the best tools we have at our disposal for working with our body and mind to handle stress is learning to recognize what we’re experiencing, and to remember that your body is here to take care of you. This isn’t always easy when we’re feeling caught up in a stress response, but there are some accessible, safe ways to do this that we can train ourselves to do. Let’s try one now.
Coming Home To Your Resources Practice: Read the instructions first, and then give this a try. Look away from your screen and let your eyes track around the space that you’re in. What do you see? Can you notice anything that feels pleasant to look at? Try naming it to yourself: white door, red pillow, blue mat. For many of us, this will have an immediately calming effect. Keep your eyes open, and see if you can feel the surface that you are sitting on. Where are you in contact with it? Can you feel your hips or your legs, and how they are supported? Finally, notice your breathing. Feel that your body is breathing. Simply bringing your awareness to your breath can help you to notice what is happening, and is a reminder of your own internal resources. You might simply stay with these three resources: visual objects to see with your eyes, sensation of support under the body, and the breath. Or, if you like, now you can start to notice any other sensations in the body. Where do you feel tension, or tightness? Where is your body breathing? Is it high in your chest? If you feel overwhelmed or you don’t want to do this type of inquiry, return to one of your three resources and feel that as you breathe.
Whether you are experiencing acute stress (something really difficult is happening to you right now), or you’re under the effects of chronic stress (a pandemic, for example), your body is going to do its best to provide you with the resources you need to handle the stress you’re under. Our neuroception (ability to perceive threat) has told our system that there’s a problem, and now it’s up to our body to do something with the energy so that we can move through the response, discharge the energy, and return to our rest-and-digest state.
Of course, the problem is that the stress may not always be something that we can respond to by fighting or fleeing. If we have a fight with a co-worker, we probably won’t resort to fisticuffs. Nor can we run away from some stress, especially when it’s unrelenting and recurring.
So, how do we deal with this pent-up energy? We can use physical movement to discharge the energy. We can easily see this in animals. The other day I was walking with my dog, Ava. Parked on the street was a Truly Nolan truck– the one with the big mouse ears on top. She stopped and growled at it. After a moment, she backed up, walked away, and shook herself all over. It was as though it had never happened. We can do this, too:
Shaking Practice: I often include this as part of my yoga classes. It’s easy: you just begin to lightly shake out the hands and wrists. Let the movement increase naturally, shaking out the arms, leaning forward or back if seated, or rocking side to side. If the arms want to move away from the body or overhead, see how that feels. If standing you can shake out the legs and feed, too, and move around naturally as you do. When you feel like you’ve had enough, stop. Notice how you’re breathing, and whether or not you feel anything different in the body. Are you breathing more easily? Does any tension in your body feel different? Do you feel as though you have more energy, or less? Do you have any impulse to move in a different way? Do you want to connect with others, or smile, or laugh? All of these are signs that your ventral vagal complex is coming back online– you’re dropping out of fight or flight.
Of course, shaking is not the only way to move through a fight-or-flight response. Some people go for a run, or move through a physical yoga practice, or find a different practice that works for them. But shaking is a quick, easy way to move some energy when you don’t have time, room, or the ability to do something else.
What if you are stuck in a freeze response? For many years, this was my go-to response to stress. I would fall asleep at the first sign of conflict (no, I’m not joking!). As we’ve learned, these responses can look different on everyone, but if you find yourself feeling a little bit sleepy, spacey, numb, or lethargic, you might try being a little bit playful with yourself.
Challenge Your Balance Practice: Depending on your ability to balance, you will need to make this more or less challenging for yourself. Personally, I like to do this one with a yoga block. It’s easy– take off your shoes, if you’re able, and step onto a yoga block with one foot. Lift your other foot away from the ground so the knee is bent in front of you. If you find balance easy here, you may need to challenge yourself a little bit more by moving your floating leg around in the air, or by looking around the room. Treat it as a playful exercise– it is! If standing is not an option, you can challenge yourself by tossing a small ball in the air and catching it. Let it be easy enough that you can be successful (don’t deliberately make the ball hard to catch!), but challenging enough that you require some alertness.
Challenging your balance is a way of “waking up” your body from the freeze response. Priority number one for your body is not to let you fall over (or to get hit in the face with a ball), so it will bring your senses back online to help you stay safe. After either of these challenge exercises, as with the shaking exercise, take a moment or two to see how you feel. Can you notice your pulse moving differently, or your breath? Do you feel a different level of energy?
My invitation to you is that you try playing with these different exercises, and come up with your own variations. Or, let me know what’s already working for you! Once we understand the basic physiology of stress, and especially, how your unique body responds to it, we can become really skillful at managing our own stress response.