Image by Aaron Blanco Tejador
Our bodies are incredible at adapting through countless shifts in our life span. But sometimes we get stuck. Understanding the evolutionary purpose of stress and adaptation can help us better know how to support ourselves through complex transitions.
The Stress Cycle
A very basic description of the Stress Cycle in the body, is as follows:
There is a stimulus/threat/perceived threat --> The body receives signal --> the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight/flight) activates --> body releases hormones to help mobilize (take action)--> the body runs/pushes back/exerts the readily available energy--> after threat/perceived threat is gone, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and recover) kicks in, the body releases other hormones to return to homeostasis (balance and regulation).
When this process gets interrupted or we don't have the resources to mobilize and complete this cycle, that energy gets trapped in the body and over time creates discomfort and dis-ease.
Reframing the Concept of Stress
The ANS [autonomic nervous system] and Endocrine System help mobilize the body’s energy by creating a state of arousal/activation in order to respond and adapt to stimuli. -Dr. Scott Lyons
Stressors are not “good” or “bad,” they simply are stimuli (a sound, a flash of light, a quick movement or a touch etc…), to which we respond and adapt.
Public discourse (media, marketing etc.) often paints a catastrophic image of stress as the evil villain out to get you! A more accurate way to illustrate the role stress plays in our lives, is that, when we encounter a stressor/stimulus, we are presented with an opportunity to engage/respond or to ignore/not respond. Both, acting and not acting can be appropriate responses depending on what we have learned is best for our adaptation and survival in the moment. It's worth noting that often our responses happen as impulse, a primal response that bypasses our conscious cognitive thinking so that it can happen quickly without delay -- for a more eloquent discussion of this topic, I recommend reading this interview with Sumitra Rajkumar). If we choose to follow this framework, then stress is actually neutral. Neither good nor bad.
So if stress is neutral, then why does it get such a negative connotation? And why does it often feel terrible?
Firstly, stress is often discussed only as a threat stimulus. Indeed some stimuli present threats or perceived threats and triggers a sympathetic response. We don't often talk about the feeling of warm sunshine on our faces as a stressor, but technically it is also a stimulus which we respond.
Another reason we hold negative associations with stress is the context of being exposed to cumulative stresses over time, without adequate resources (time to respond, time to process and recover, money, emotional energy, physical energy, sense of safety and human support). In this context, there is often a feeling of being pushed beyond our capacity to respond in calm and calculated ways. You may start to feel more and more that you don’t have options or alternatives, so you react, push back or collapse/deflate. Your internal experience becomes one of dysregulation and discomfort, rather than opportunity and choice. Your internal resources have been depleted, which can leave you feeling lonely, exhausted and possibly in pain.
What Can I Do?
Good news!!! If you have encountered many of these experiences of unsafety, lack of choice, and painful realities (perhaps even debilitating trauma), it is still possible to replenish, restore and repattern your body and resources! Even if you have been struggling for YEARS, you can still experience new choices of adapting!
Somatic Stress Release
Somatic Stress Release (developed by Dr. Scott Lyons) is a way of exploring stress in the body, and finding ways to mobilize or release that stress, so that movement and pain patterns can be resolved. It often employs movement practices, breath work, vocal toning and dialogue to reconnect with the body's impulses. It's a way of evaluating your relationship to stress and finding new ways to engage with it.
As my brilliant colleague, Mike Hamm, says, “To do our work well, we need treatment approaches that let us try reasonable things, observe network effects, and then evolve our model of what’s going on. We need to practice as restoration ecologists.”(Integrative Bodywork Education)
I love this concept of the “restoration ecologist” because if you have ever had a mysterious hearing impairment, invasive nerve pain, or unresolvable insomnia, then you know how challenging it can be to find the right source of medical help.
Somatic practices allow us to approach the body as “restoration ecologists,” asking the body questions, following signals and finding the edges of these curiosities until we find answers and ultimately, relief.
As a certified Somatic Stress Release (SSR) practitioner, I will help guide you from wherever you are now, into a fuller understanding of your experiences. Together we'll build a strategy to help you navigate on your own, pain free, and continually adapt your relationship with stressors favorably.
SSR is just one such way of navigating this shift as a “restoration ecologist,” but it has incredibly effective and rewarding results! If you’d like to explore this work with me, as a somanaught and fellow ecologist, I would love to talk to you more about how you can feel more peaceful and mobile in your body!