The stress around you and the stress within you are two different things.
Stress is a reality of life and contrary to what you might think, it’s not bad for you. Getting stuck in it is the problem.
We are designed to go through stress and then come back to safety and calm, in a fluid manner. And then do it all over again.
We tend to see stress as mental, but stress is physiological. Meaning, it happens in your body. Yes, the starting point could be your mind, but it quickly turns into a body response (whether we are aware or not).
The physiology of stress is something we don’t normally consider, at least not as much as our desire to remove the stressor (what’s causing the stress).
We tend to believe that if the stressor goes away, the stress goes away. But the stressor is only one side of the coin.
The flip side is our stress response: Fight, flight, or freeze.
We are no different than animals in that regard.
I’ll give you an example.
I have a history of breast cancer. This year’s MRI showed something suspicious. Not only on the breast, but it mentioned something in my liver.
Imagine the level of stress it caused me. To take it further, it took a whole month to learn that what they saw was benign. The stressor -the health scare- lasted for an entire month.
I navigated this period to the best of my ability. I allowed myself to cry, I had support from loved ones, tried not to indulge in worst case scenarios, etc. Nevertheless, I was aware of the stress in my body. It felt like I was holding my breath constantly. It felt like freeze. I couldn’t concentrate, I wasn’t in the mood to do much, etc.
Then when I got the good news, I was grateful and ecstatic.
And after a few days, I got TMJ (jaw) pain, which is very painful.
Why now? I wondered.
Intuitively, I realized the accumulated stress in my body was showing up now when it felt “safe,” but with the pain I couldn’t think beyond that.
Serendipitously, I listened to a Brené Brown podcast episode where “completing the stress cycle” was discussed.
Guests Emily and Amelia Nagoski talked about their book “Burnout, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”
They made the distinction “stress vs stressor.” When the stressor is gone, we think we should be fine, but our bodies are “activated,” and we must complete the stress cycle – not only to feel better, but to prevent burnout in the long run.
This made so much sense.
As a mind-body coach, I understand we are a nervous system. I also know that our bodies talk to us and if we don’t pay attention, it raises the volume.
I knew I had to deal with residual stress, but I wasn’t seeing it in terms of “getting stuck in the middle of a stress cycle.”
As the Nagoski sisters recommend in their book, I upped my physical activity and connected with people I love. I gave my husband (and my dog) long hugs, laughed as much as I could, and concentrated on doing breathwork.
All those are evidence-based ways to “complete the stress cycle,” not unlike prey shaking after surviving a predator attack.
And I got better. Not immediately, but much faster than last time I had a TMJ pain crisis.
The world has trained us to deal with stressors, but it has neglected to train us to deal with what is happening within us.
What happens within us is our bodies’ need to go back to safety and calm. Also called the state of “rest, and digest.”
And make it a habit and a priority.
“Wellness happens when your body is a place of safety for you, even when your body is not necessarily in as safe place.”
-Emily Nagosky, PhD. and Amelia Nagoski PhD.