“Wait, what?” I said in complete and utter shock “Did you say that stress is causing this?”
“Oh yes” the doctor said calmly and with a part sympathetic, part annoyed smile on his face, “very much so and you need to take action immediately or it will just get worse. It’s time to slow down and reevaluate your lifestyle.”
“Ugh,” I replied. And then I swore, “Shit, shit, shit.”
I mean how could I be stressed? I knew so much about stress! In fact, I fancied myself a bit of an expert in the area. For six years I worked in the Northeast, on a large state university campus as a Wellness Counselor and Educator. My area of specialty was stress management and I counseled students individually to help them identify, reduce and manage stress using a variety of evidence-influenced techniques. I also developed workshops, groups and guest lectured in classes all over campus about the importance of stress reduction. I even co-taught a course through the Biology department entitled “Stressed Out: The Science and Nature of Human Stress.” So for real, I knew a thing or two about it and could not believe my ears when the doctor gave me his diagnosis. My adrenals, which are part of the endocrine system, are two triangular shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys and are responsible for regulating stress and metabolism. They were working overtime and as a result of my busy lifestyle and an unknown gluten allergy, my body was in a state of perpetual fight or flight. Like a car running out of gas and driving on fumes, I needed to slow down, pull over and fill up my tank… quick!
Several months earlier I noticed a great deal of hair shedding in the shower and in my hairbrush. I used to have this wild mane of long wavy hair and at first I didn’t give it too much thought until my hair stylist said something. “What’s going on?” she asked with a concerned look on her face as she pulled hair from her comb, “Are you stressed?” I wondered out loud about the possibly of an iron deficiency or that perhaps I needed to get better about taking my vitamins. I definitely did not think I was stressed.
But you know what they say about hindsight being 20/20. Looking in the rearview mirror, I can see clearly now that I was extremely busy with starting a private practice, family responsibilities and what seemed like an everlasting home renovation project. Some days I wouldn’t get home until late, scarf down leftovers for dinner and then collapse into bed. As I took inventory of my life and circumstances, I realized that what was going on was a whole bunch of everything. Even though I enjoyed my work and my comings and goings, I usually felt pressed for time, always racing from one obligation to the next. If you asked me how I was, I usually responded, with a bright smile on my face, “Great, just busy!” I was trying to make time for everything and as a result my resources were tapped, my cup was empty and my hair and health issues were the physical manifestations of this.
Somehow, without even noticing it, my time had become consumed by do-ing. I had not made enough time in my life to simply be.
I didn’t realize I was over-stressed because I had incorrectly associated being “stressed out” with being emotionally overwhelmed, pathologically anxious or depressed. When my clients ended up in my office, they were usually at their wits’ end, crying, under duress, unable to function and in need of immediate support and intervention. I liked my life and felt happy living it; I enjoyed my day-to-day responsibilities and caring for my family members. But if I’m honest, I also felt tired. It never dawned on me that I was doing harm to myself until I was forced with the choice to evaluate and change or to ignore my body and experience an ongoing decline in my health. I truly believed I was wholeheartedly living, scheduling in time for vigorous exercise and visits with friends, but the twice-weekly power yoga classes, good time management and organization skills were just not enough. In fact in some ways it was part of the problem. I barely made any time for intentional stillness, relaxation and leisure or paid much attention to the more subtle ways tension developed or expressed in my body.
For some of us, our emotional or behavioral response to stress is the indicator that we have reached our threshold. For others however, it is the breakdown of the body. And yet others experience a combination of the two. Point being, there are many variables when it comes to understanding how stress uniquely affects you. Interestingly enough, while there are general evidence-influenced guidelines for managing stress, in my experience the most effective protocols are the ones that are tailored toward the individual. Not all stress is bad, but it can result in negative outcomes if we don’t take the time to understand it. A customized method is the most effective if it includes a basic education on the biology of human stress and an understanding of how your body uniquely perceives, receives and processes it.
While I had spent several years teaching others about stress reduction and management, I inadvertently overlooked the unassuming, yet crucial indicators and states of being that ultimately affected my health and wellness.
We live in a time when the stress we have is different than the types of stress our ancestors experienced. There are many reasons for this, but significant changes are due to the developments in technology as well as changes in our economy, quality of food and environment. Our society has assumed a set of values that directly and indirectly encourage us to do and consume more. This has a psychological impact, which often results in unconscious or conscious functioning like excessive busyness or over-achieving. I refer to this modern day stress as “sneaky” stress because unlike being faced with an immediate danger, it seeps in slowly and gradually builds. Before you know it, you feel like you can barely keep your head above water. You are operating on such a high plateau that something as simple as stubbing your toe causes you to burst into tears and long for a grand escape to a tropical island where you can lay on the beach and do nothing-forever!
All day we receive messages and information from external sources, not to mention the challenging yet incredibly rewarding work we do with our clients. Without awareness, these various experiences, tasks, responsibilities and obligations cause us to default into a receptive autopilot state. It’s in this state that we unconsciously hold our breath (or the breath becomes shallow) and clench our muscles in attempt to protect ourselves from perceived threats or guard from overstimulation. In doing so we send a signal to the brain that we are under fire. The brain in turn responds by alerting the adrenal glands and activating our fight-or-flight response. They begin to produce the hormone adrenaline and won’t stop unless they receive another message from the body that we are safe.
Adrenaline is what calls the body to action by increasing blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism. It prepares the muscles for battle, for exertion. In short amounts, it sharpens our senses, helps us adhere to deadlines and aids in the ability to multitask. But if we don’t ever communicate to ourselves that we are no longer being threatened or under attack, the adrenal system will keep working, continuing to produce hormones that are only meant to provide triage and short-term refuge.
What I failed to recognize was how often I made my adrenal system work during my regular routine. Throughout the day, even during the most mundane of tasks, I held my breath and clenched my muscles. My schedule was full and rigid and this type of tightening and constriction occurred while at the dry cleaners, checking my email, driving to and from work, thinking about my to do list, making dinner, washing the dishes and even (incoming vulnerable moment!) while listening to clients. Adding insult to injury, it was not uncommon for me to skip breaks or work while eating lunch, rarely giving myself downtime. I fell into a sympathetic dominant state, a state in which the body, for the majority of time, believes it has to fight or flee and is constantly on guard. I wasn’t doing enough to regularly signal to my body that I was indeed safe. And so, like a faithful, ever vigilant Secret Service Agent, my nervous system kept watch.
Over time it becomes hard for many of us to slow down because so often we come to believe that it’s normal to live in an overly vigilant condition. This state of perpetual busyness can essentially develop into a bad habit; we become attached to it for one reason or another and cannot always change easily. When I was told to slow down, reduce my workload and commitments, I panicked. How could I cut back on my responsibilities? What about money? Each thing seemed equally as important as the next. With time, practice and regular, intentional self reflection, I was able to “trim the fat” so to speak, and let go of things that no longer served me, making room for new, healthy and sustainable habits to emerge. But first I had to give myself permission to slow down and believe in the value of doing so.
In 2013 I relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, a thriving community I consider to be better aligned with my interests and values. There was a waiting period while I obtained my state professional counseling license, so I used this time to immerse myself in contemplative practices by starting a yoga teacher-training program. At this point I had been practicing yoga for well over a decade, experiencing many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. Professionally, I had the desire to enhance my skills and better understand the intersection between yoga and psychotherapy. To my surprise, the training supplied me with so much more than an intellectual understanding of the ancient practice. It proved to be a mind-blowing exploration of my own body, resulting in a complete paradigm shift. By developing a felt sense, or a somatic knowing, I left the training finally able to fully grasp and integrate concepts around the subtle form, the breath, mindfulness and meditation; techniques that intentionally play upon the senses to calm and nourish the nervous system. Subsequently my methodology for teaching these techniques changed and organically began to transmit into my work with clients.
Someone once said to me, “It is arrogant to give from an empty cup.” As a provider, I wish for my clients to go beyond surviving and learn to thrive in this wild, wonderful and mysterious life. Along my journey, I realized it was not possible to truly help clients and students the way I wanted to if I, myself, was not flourishing. Barbara Fredrickson, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and researcher on emotions and positive psychology developed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. She determined that while feelings of fear and anxiety help narrow our focus and sharpen our “fight-or-flight” response, positive emotions (ex. happiness, joy, contentment, benevolence, gratitude) help us expand our life instead of just trying to survive.
Regularly cultivating these feelings in the mind and the body, so that more often than not we experience a sense of harmony and connection, is what allows us to become parasympathetic dominant. A state in which the body, for the majority of time, believes it is safe and is able to rest, repair and digest. While in a parasympathetic dominant state, creativity increases and our mood and concentration is enhanced. It is here that we actually replenish our energy reserves.
To me, so often we allow our lives to become overscheduled and dictated by tasks as a futile attempt to create meaning and ritual. Filling the proverbial cup obliges a practice of sacred selfishness; a belief that the holistic understanding and interconnection of mind, body and spirit is essential for wellbeing. Reclaiming ritual by developing a habit of valuing ourselves enough to make self-care and leisure a priority requires courage. Even more courage is needed to entertain this theory and while we step back and take inventory of our expression of existence. As healers, helpers, teachers, partners, parents, friends and community members, I propose that in doing so not only will we learn to live authentically and in genuine health, we will be able to a give back exuberance and hope to all around us, imparting new life, energy and spirit.