I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.
Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves.
3 Types of Stress
Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.
- Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
- Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
- Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
What does a zebra have to do with me?
The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:
- The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
- We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
- We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.
How does chronic stress impact our bodies?
When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.
Adjust the thermostat
The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?
- Issues with digestion
- Relationship difficulties
- Sleep difficulties
We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.
The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.
Resources for Stress Relief:
- 4-7-8 breathing – calms the nervous system and improved breathing
- Emotional Freedom Tapping – clears emotional blocks and calms the nervous system
- Compassionate Self-Talk – compassionately addresses the habit of negative self-criticism
- Compassion and Anger – Calm the threat system physio-biologically with compassion toward self
- The Benefits of Cultivating Gratitude for Stress Relief
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:
- Alleviate Negative Emotions
- Reduce Food Cravings
- Reduce or Eliminate Pain
- And Implement Positive Goals
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.
Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing a positive affirmation: “Even though I am ______________, I accept myself.” This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.
The light stream is a relaxation meditation used to calm distressing sensations in the body. It is also a body scan that allows you to be compassionate and mindful of what you are experiencing and feeling in this present moment. This is an adaptation of Francine Shapiro’s original Light Stream.
A loving kindness prayer uses words and images to evoke feelings of loving kindness toward oneself and others. According to the article, “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving Kindness Meditation Today,” a consistent practice of a Loving Kindness meditation can decrease symptoms of PTSD, improve wellbeing, and bolster the immune system.
The following Loving-Kindness meditation is inspired by the virtues celebrated during the weeks of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This form of a prayer focuses on God’s loving kindness toward us and how we then become a vessel of His love toward others.
What is EMDR?
The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilizing this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems.
What happens when you are traumatized?
Most of the time, your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatized by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to distress (e.g. childhood neglect), your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being “unprocessed”. Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a “raw” and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated with emotions and physical sensations, which are disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories. The limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited. EMDR helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a very natural way.
What is an EMDR session like?
EMDR utilizes the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment and development of a treatment plan, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated simply by asking you to watch the therapist’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings.
With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.
What can EMDR be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:
- anxiety and panic attacks
- sleep problems
- grief and loss
- pain, including phantom limb pain performance anxiety
- feelings of worthlessness/low self-esteem
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts that sometimes occur during sessions.
How long does treatment take?
EMDR can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer psychotherapy treatment plan. EMDR can be easily integrated with other approaches in which your therapist might be trained, such as Psychodynamic psychotherapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or Cognitive Behavior Therapy. For best effects, EMDR sessions during the actual reprocessing phases of treatment usually last from 60 to 90 minutes. Positive effects have been seen after one session of EMDR.
Will I will remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.
What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?
EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now over nineteen controlled studies into EMDR, making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, and The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, Department of Defense, Veteran’s Administration, insurance companies, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD. For further information about EMDR, point your Internet browser to www.emdria.org or www.emdr.com .
Adapted from information at www.getselfhelp.co.uk and www.thetraumacentre.com
Light-Stream: The light stream is a relaxation meditation used to calm distressing sensations in the body. It is also a body scan that allows you to be compassionate and mindful of what you are experiencing and feeling in this present moment. This is an adaptation of Francine Shapiro’s original Light Stream.
Our stress response is a normal reaction to threat. But, sometimes it can feel overwhelming. BBC’s Brainsmart video, “Managing Stress” has some great tips to help balance the stress on a daily basis:
“Stress is stressful, but if you understand a little bit about what it is. You will be better able to deal with it.”