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STRESS & THE SELF

Updated: May 12


How to make even our challenging experiences a story of enhanced connection and capacity.



Stress is a sense of being overloaded, overwhelmed and harried. Things are out of balance, and we feel like they are out of our control. Stress can come in the form of physical, emotional, mental or chemical (including hormonal) stress, and we have typically thought of our body having a reaction to this, such that the stress occurs first and the reaction after. This is what we call homeostasis.

Scientists in the last decade have been discovering, however, that our brain is more of an integrated network, placed to predict stressful events and relay information back to the important ‘sub-stations’ so that the stress is ameliorated, balance endures, and homeostatic interventions are less intense. This is called allostasis; we have capacity for resilience and regeneration.

When prediction misses the mark, we experience dysregulation (metabolically or emotionally) and this is allostatic load. This is the precursor to dysfunction, disease and depression.

One of the key researchers and writers on allostasis said this about it,


“The predictions that initiate your actions don’t appear out of nowhere.. Your brain predicts your actions based on your past experiences.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2020.


And it doesn’t just stop there because somewhere along the network, the event we experience is also felt. That is, while our physiology is doing it’s thing, we have a mental and emotional response, known as affect.


“Your brain summarises what’s going on with your body in the moment, and you feel that summary as affect. [ ] It also reaffirms that your body is part of your mind – not in some gauzy, mystical way but in a tangible, biological way.” Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2020



The thing about mental and emotional stress is that we have an inner dialogue and a meaning we have made from past experiences. For example, your last boss was dismissive of your efforts, and called out people’s mistakes and opportunities-for-learning in a group of people (exposing and shaming). So, it can feel like something horrid is about to happen if your lovely new boss has an announcement to make, or asks you to comment on something. The sooner we check out our body sensations, the emotions underneath them, and the old story in contrast with the current reality, then the quicker we can become comfortable and trusting of our ability to recognise and rise to problems, feel valued by our new boss and enjoy our time at work.

So we can check out our sensations, emotions and update our meaning, so that our mental and emotional response and experience right now is less stressful and more manageable.


There are, of course, those experiences that are not just personal to ourselves, but are cultural and systemic. None of us live in a vacuum. These experiences still have a strong personal quality; and the meaning and broader consequence cannot be changed by only our awareness and internal sense-making. Oppression in all forms is an example of this.


Physical stress

We can also check out and update our predictions and their emotional affect about physical stress – say a tough workout, or a sore back at the end of a long day. We have an inner dialogue that creates our meaning of those experiences. We can check out that dialogue, that meaning and our current reality – and have the chance to ‘dysregulate’ the dysregulation message of “not okay”. That is, we can update and learn that if something aches it may simply need more varied mid-range movement, as opposed to immobilisation because your dad had a disc prolapse, or you pulled a hamstring in high school. Increasingly, osteopaths, physiotherapists and chiropractors are using language that supports clear understanding of injury mechanism and safe movement patterns, even when you have pain. And a good personal trainer can help here, too.


All of our experiences and interactions come with an inner dialogue that is both emotional and physiological. Our body pays attention, mostly out of our conscious awareness. And the way it begins to communicate with us is through the functions of the nervous system known as

interoception, exteroception, proprioception, neuroception and autonomic function.

Together, these elements give us embodied self-awareness, allowing us to take the fairly imprecise affect, and make clearer meaning of it.



INTEROCEPTION

sensations which arise as a result of prediction, and are generated by lungs, gut, heart, skin, immune and endocrine systems

EXTEROCEPTION

information that we get from our external environment – 5 senses

PROPRIOCEPTION

our sense of balance and position, predominantly arising from our joints

NEUROCEPTION

this refers to the neurobiological ‘vasovagal’ mechanism, which predicts safety or risk, and how social and interactive we can be.

AUTONOMIC

fight or flight , freeze or flop


Here’s How To Connect with The Conversation of our Body & Mind

Begin to pay attention to the inner dialogue; it can feel like a flutter in your tummy, a tightness in your chest, a knotted ball in your belly, disconnected limbs, heat, fog, swirling or even just a vague absence.

First anchor yourself:

Focus on a colour or a sound. Name that.

Name the sensations you feel – knot, fog, tightness.

Pause – into that space, you can inject more conscious awareness.

Name the emotions you feel underneath that – uncertainty, confusion, frustration, sadness, fear, joy that I’m afraid to feel, anger that I’m not allowed to feel.

Remind yourself that this is one part of you, and even if it’s a little uncomfortable, you are inherently valuable and okay.


If becoming more aware of these sensations is very overwhelming, consider getting some

support from a mental health practitioner, or trauma-sensitive breathwork practitioner.


These brain predictions, and the physiological and affective responses to them, have served a purpose in the past; they helped you to understand and navigate a previous environment or relationship. Are you somewhere different now? Are you different now? Use that reality to enable you to make sense of the past and the present, and take the opportunity you have created by consciously giving time and space to the experience, to make new meanings of old sensations.



Move

If our body becomes rigid, so does our mind. Enjoy varied movements and practice a few postures everyday that allow the breath to move differently. This will help to increase comfortable and efficient movement patterns, as well as increasing your body’s sense-making, and thus your mind’s, sense of safety.

How to include posture and breathing strategies that optimize body mechanics and so increase safety and efficient predictive regulation – 3 exercises



Many of us live on our toes; this means we are in fight and flight. We are so busy moving forward, even rushing from one task to another, that we never fully feel our heels on the ground or their capacity to accept our body weight against the solidity of the ground.

So, this is a great place to start, and we really can practice this in lots of different positions.


This is my favourite way to connect our body to our emotions and read our own internal responses as they express physically.

And the key to bridging the body and the emotions is the breath.

Here are my top 3 exercises to get grounded, organise our body position, and access a sense of safety.


If you are very mobile, or very anxious, use lots of props, like bolsters, cushions, blocks and blankets. These help to let the nervous system know how to navigate the environment and predict an experience of safety as you expand your body movement.


Bridge (click to take you to the video - password: BreathPower. Don't feel you need to use a weight.)


Side-lying table top Slide (Password: BreathPower)


Split squat (Password: BreathPower)



THE KEY IN ALL MOVEMENTS

50% pressure in your heel, 30% big toe side and 20% in out two toes

As you ground the heel, let the weight of your leg drop into your ankle

Create a slight traction on your heel towards your bottom – let this tilt your bottom under (flattening your back more to the ground. This isn’t a forced movement so don’t squeeze your butt or actively curve your back)

Breathe out really slowly (slower than that even!) and relax your belly, allowing your ribs to move down and back as you let all the air out. This will, ironically, actually give you great abs!

Breathe in with a sipping, soft breath, into your upper back.

Start with 3 breaths, 5, 8, 10. Then 2 rounds, four times a week. You will feel great!


Perform each individual exercise holding these elements.

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