To Stress Or Not To Stress? ~By Naomi Chuah, RCST, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist~
Stress, Completing the Stress Response, And Feeling Calm
Walking in the woods the other day, I was expecting to feel nature’s calm. But the mosquitos found me, and I swear there was a cloud of them following me down the trail. I could feel my stress hormones mount and my breath becoming shallow as I quickened my steps and flailed my arms at the annoying little bloodsuckers.
As a practitioner working with stress and trauma, I am always thinking about the nervous system and calming the stress response. And I tend to look to nature as a guide. Spending time with nature though, one will quickly realize calm is not always on the agenda. Even tiny birds, if watched carefully, move quickly and decisively at high speeds. The big trees though? Oh my. I could sit with them and feel their calm forever. Until the storm comes. Then it’s a different story, and I get caught up in the huge powerful movements, the crashing of branches, huge rushes of air and water moving through the landscape. It’s heady, and I enjoy until the penny drops and I realize the destruction at the other end.
What gives? We live in a crushingly beautiful and sometimes chaotic landscape, especially lately.
Are we always supposed to feel relaxed? I certainly like to feel calm, have spent a lot of my life chasing “calm”, and enjoy facilitating a calm feeling for others. In Craniosacral Therapy, a calm body state can lead to less pain, less tension, better circulation, and a less sensitized nervous system. TRE, works with tension in a way that can lead to calm and/or a more energized state. In the long scope of our stories, calm is not everything. We would all be soft puddles on the floor incapable of movement if there was no tension in our bodies. If a child is raised in total protection and calm, their resources to negotiate the world around them when grown tend to be limited.
In fact, one of our nervous system’s needs is “novelty”(1). Novelty sounds pretty similar to excitement, and excitement sounds pretty close to a fun kind of stress. So what I’m taking a while to get to, is that, in fact, some stress and tension is healthy for our bodies. It enables us to move in a balanced fashion and engage with the world around us.
What happens when stress levels mount, sometimes in the span of a week, sometimes in the span of years? This, as we all know, does not feel good.
Steven Porges, who writes The Polyvagal Theory, did studies with newborn babies. He used heart rate to study their stress response to normal stimuli, predicts which babies will be more resilient to stress. As we can imagine, it’s not the babies who have a big response to stress and the response stays big for a long time, who tend to be stress resilient. However, it’s also not the babies who have little response to stress, who’s heart rate stays low, who tend to be stress resilient. It’s the babies who’s heart rate quickens in a stress response, then comes back to base in a reasonable amount of time. It’s about completing the stress response, and coming back to base.
Where does this leave us? Especially those of us who weren’t born into the naturally resilient spectrum? Or for the naturally resilient, what if there has been enough stress to overwhelm your natural resilience? Fortunately, we can help ourselves and each other. Sometimes it’s quick and simple, sometimes it’s a long journey of relearning how to feel, how to be ok with feelings, how to move feelings through, how to help ourselves and let others help us.
I’m in bodywork for a reason, it’s changed my life. My edge lately has been allowing some tension, stress and excitement into my life. As well as the calm. But I can tell you, it’s been worth it.
Our clinic offers multiple kinds of therapies. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all, it’s about finding the therapy that works best for you, and sometimes even finding the therapist who practices it in the way that works best for you. That’s why we sometimes refer clients to each other, and sometimes we refer out of clinic if that is the best option for our client.
There’s a podcast I would like to recommend, one that Kim Brandt, RMT with us, passed on to me. In it Brene Brown Interviews Emily and Amelia Nagoski on “Burnout and how to Complete the Stress Cycle". This podcast gives a fresh perspective on stress and offers some doable strategies to move stress through one’s body after the stressful situation has completed.
Because, stress is not bad. But we do need to know how to move it through our bodies so we can come home to calm.
1. Alane K Daugherty, Ph.D, The Science of Novelty, Psychology Today, available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/healing-stress-the-inside-out/202201/the-science-novelty#:~:text=A%20sense%20of%20novelty%20activates,in%20the%20time%20of%20COVID.
Photo by: Erop KameneB