Saturday, July 23, 2022

Stress relief

    I'm reading the book When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, by Gabor Maté. It's all about the ways that repressed emotional stress is a major contributing factor to many kinds of serious illness. The title refers especially to the coping strategy of avoiding confrontation, people-pleasing, taking care of other people at the cost of the self. We know that emotion happens in the brain, and affects the whole nervous system, which in turn affects a whole series of other systems. If we don't learn to properly regulate our nervous system -- including managing stressful emotions -- it can make us vulnerable to a whole lot of health problems. 

    People across the neurodiversity spectrum are especially vulnerable to stress. We tend to react more intensely, to slighter triggers, and to have a harder time calming back down. If self-regulation is harder for us than for neurotypical people, it's natural that we would also be more likely to develop coping strategies that are unhealthy in the long term. 

    "Masking" is one of those, and a silver lining of staying at home during the pandemic, for a lot of people, was learning to live without their public masks. Now that we're mostly back to working, schooling, and socializing out in the world, a lot of people report anxiety, and I'm guessing that the need to take the mask up again is a major cause. Masking, people-pleasing, avoiding confrontation, and staying in our comfort zone so as not to risk failure, all of these are appropriate in some situations. But when they become habitual patterns, they hurt us. Acute stress becomes chronic stress when situations are just avoided, and not resolved.

    I know I've been writing often here about learning how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, which is what we have to do if we want to keep acute stress from turning chronic. So, here are some things I want to offer up as places to start. 

1.     Find someone safe to unmask with. If you don't have people you can really show up with, warts, cracks and all, this is step one. I've always been safe with my family, but I needed someone who hadn't always known me, who could help me question my assumptions about who I thought I was. My spiritual director has been that safe person for me over the past 6 years, and it has done me a world of good.

    If you don't have someone you want to take that risk with, try to find a therapist, and be prepared to try more than one until you find one you have good rapport with. Well-run peer support groups are also excellent. Just remember what you're there for -- you're not there to impress anyone, you're there to get support, and that means you have to be honest and vulnerable. 

2.    When we get triggered, when our senses perceive a potential threat, our nervous systems naturally react before our conscious minds have time to evaluate the situation. That's why you jump when someone comes up behind you without you hearing them approach. That's exactly the way it's supposed to work, because if there's a real threat, instant response -- fight, flight, freeze, or fawn -- might keep us alive. But for most of us, real threats are pretty rare. The ability of the nervous system to return to normal, once the mind kicks in and recognizes that there is not actually a man-eating tiger rushing at us, is something that most people develop naturally in childhood. Many of us on the spectrum, as well as many neurotypical people who suffered abuse, neglect, or other trauma in childhood, have a harder time with it. And as long as we're on high alert, our brains literally will not be able to rationally assess the situation. 

    This is what I've learned so far about self-soothing. We can "talk back" to the nervous system, by sending it messages of calming to counteract the involuntary threat response. Some things to try:

  • Deliberately breathing more slowly and deeply
  • Walking, or rocking, or just surreptitiously tapping your leg under the conference room table, in a slow and steady rhythm
  • Count to ten, evenly. Then back down to one, and again until you feel yourself getting calmer.
  • Speak soothing words to yourself, in a soothing tone of voice (out loud or in your mind), the way you would soothe an upset child ("it's OK, honey, it's OK, I've got you, don't worry.").
  • Get connected to nature, even if it's just watering your plants, or looking out the window at a tree, or jumping over to YouTube for a nature documentary (but not the man-eating tiger kind).
  • Ask for a hug, if someone appropriate and safe is with you, or cuddle a pet. Or hug yourself, or at least stroke your arm, get some skin contact even if it's your own.

    These are all things that we are biologically wired to be calmed by. Really. Try it.

3.    Once my heart rate slows down somewhat and I'm thinking clearly again, then I can start to think about what triggered me. Why did I react the way I did? What was so upsetting? This is a really important step. But the answers might not be the first things I think of. I might have to get into my journal and write and write before I get below the surface and tap into what's really going on here.

    It helps to do this as soon as possible after I've started to calm down, so that the uncomfortable truth is less likely to be re-buried in denial. But when I first started doing this work, it might not occur to me what was going on until days afterward. Still, I would do the "brain dump," get all my thoughts about the situation down in words, and pick through it to figure out what happened. And with practice, I started to catch it earlier. Now, I can often see the warning signs even before I get to the point of blowing up. Then I can take steps to protect myself from stress before it overwhelms me. Sometimes that's as simple as putting on my noise-canceling headphones as soon as a lawnmower starts up outside my window.

4.    Some stressors can't be dealt with by putting on headphones. Some can't be made to go away. We don't always have great options. But often we have more agency than we think.

  • We can practice saying "no" to things other people want from us.
  • We can ask for help, or feedback.
  • We can try something new, and tolerate doing it badly for a while, and even risk failing at it altogether. 
  • We can walk away.

    We might not always like the consequences of our choices, but in most cases we do at least have some. But in order to be empowered to make them, we have to learn to tolerate the hard feelings they bring up. Because shying away from stress in the moment doesn't resolve it, and unresolved stress has consequences of its own. We can do hard things! And it's worth it.

∞∞∞  PEACE  ∞∞∞

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