Let's Talk About Stress ~By Naomi Chuah, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist~
I’ve been ruminating for a while on what to write about, and the subject of stress keeps presenting itself. I like to be positive, but I’ve learned the value of naming a topic directly for what it is. As we come out of the past few months of heightened virus awareness, it seems very few have remained untouched in some way. There are those affected directly by the virus with all the ramifications. Of us remaining there has been uncertainty in a variety of ways: whether around the virus, around work, school, finances, and when and how to connect with those we love. How does this affect our bodies? For a lot of us, stress!
I have spent a good deal of time devoted to the study of trauma, but for the purpose of this article I will mostly use the term stress: stress does sound a little more positive and not everyone would describe their stress situation as trauma. Even so, a build up of stress in the body can produce a similar physical symptomology as trauma.
How does our body process stress? First off, stress is a normal part of life. We are wired for it. And to be alive is to experience stress, anxiety, joy, excitement, anger, contentment, love, peace, and all the other emotions that are present in a well lived life.
On a normal day we run aprox 70% on fight/flight nervous system. You may ask, “What? Isn’t that a scary part of our nervous system, a part that we want to stay out of?” Well, it’s also the part of our nervous system that gets us out of bed in the morning, lets us do our work, get excited, and care for those we love. This part of the system has also recently been coined “attend and befriend“. Originally the research was done on white males only. As research has widened, more understanding on the variety of ways of how we express this part of this nervous system has come to light. So when stress revs up, there is often a drive to connect and soothe others (attend/befriend) to find safety, or a reaction deep in the brain that jacks up our diaphragm, starts our heart racing, and pumps blood to our limbs that enables us to fight or flee. A lot of life these days doesn’t call for fighting or fleeing, so this urge can turn into a driving anxiety- a physical drive that can be verbally aggressive and/or an anxiety that drives us to “do” something about our stress. Even when we know we have done all we can do, the brain may go a hundred miles an hour and the body can have trouble slowing down.
Another part of our nervous system is called “freeze"; the part that kicks in when the caring, fighting or flight has not been able to resolve our perceived danger. Our fascia contracts, our bodies become less fluid, and it becomes harder to act; a kind of numbing or dissociation that happens when the body tones down sensation to “wait out” the perceived danger. Again, the freeze part of our nervous system has great diversity and also exhibits more pleasurable sensations called “freeze without fear”. This happens when we enjoy a good meal in good company, and also with procreation and when nursing a baby.
What I’ve often noticed in life and when doing cranio is that generally the lines are blurred. Each person has their own way of reacting when stressed. One person may go straight from normal to freeze when stressed, and another person may live much of their life in a semi ramped up fight/flight state. Or another may be living with the brakes and gas on at the same time, fascia clamped down around bones in freeze while nerves are shooting flight messages like grinding sparks.
I think it is important to honor our bodies and our ways of survival. Even when it’s not quite what we want to feel, these nervous system states have got us this far, and they are legitimate ways of being.
Understanding stress, trauma, and how our nervous systems are fundamentally wired to attune to safety by checking in with others, whether by touch or by being profoundly seen and heard by another, is foundational to how Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy works. Our fascia literally responds to our environment, and will soften when it feels safe, allowing more blood flow and informing our central nervous system with softer messages.
A very primal way of understanding stress and the effects that attuned and caring touch has on a very physical level, is to ponder what happens to a baby’s body during birth.
Babies when born only survive when touched by a caregiver, and only get nourishment through the attunement of another. First let’s remember that it’s a healthy baby that gets to scream their discomfort and distress upon their entrance. Then, as baby wriggles up the front of their parent and suckles the breast, bones in the baby’s head that were so recently squashed, overlapped and retracted in fascia from the monstrous effort that is birth, suddenly soften, expanding outwards as embrace between parent and child set off cascades of oxytocin and endorphins. At the same time the suckling of milk exerts a gentle internal pressure, also expanding the bones outward. We perceive ourselves through the touch of another.
What are all the ways to acknowledge and soothe stress? Probably there are as many ways as there are people. Learning how to tolerate and even befriend internal sensation is important. Connection to nature is huge and can bring healing to both us and land. We learn to come to terms with our stories by telling our stories and by hearing the stories of other's. Craniosacral therapy, massage, reiki, and counselling, are all high on my list of favorites. Dancing, yoga, and walking, are all ways for us to feel our bodies and to help us build a healthy sense of embodiment.
Finishing a hot shower with a cold blast, we wake up, reminded that we can tolerate the comfortable and the surprising in a renewed surge, gulping lungfulls of air and stepping forward into life.
Photo Credit: Tamara Garcevic
Some recommended reads:
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indiginous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Ways to connect to and learn from Nature)
The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,
by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD (Understanding Trauma)