Now What?

I have spent most of this week curiously disconnected from the drama that continues to unfold since January 6, 2021. I don’t mean to be vague. I just don’t know have a name for what happened. Depending on one’s political point of view, what happened in Washington, D.C. that day ranged from a protest to an insurrection. I listened to commentators on television and radio report the facts through their particular lens, choosing different angles to explain, condemn, and contextualize, and frankly, stir the emotions even more. And then I turned the channel because that helped me to control my stress response.

Back in the1950s, Hans Selye hypothesized that humans increase levels of certain neurotransmitters (hormones) to respond to real or perceived threats and/or stressors in their environment. What has been taught in Intro to Psych classes ever since is Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. It’s kind of like bringing a pot of water to a full boil. Once boiling, turning down the heat brings the water to a simmer. Turn off the heat and the water returns to room temperature.

Stress Response

Physiologically in this process, our stress response hormones (e.g., adrenaline, cortisol) increase when a stressful event is perceived (alarm reaction stage), then are managed and returned to a lower level (resistance stage), and finally are cooled down and the body returns to a typical operating level. A good portion of our brain is devoted to scanning for threat and that is key to understanding why we feel so brain tired after an intense experience.

It also means our stress response is constantly fluctuating because our brains are scanning constantly. This, in turn, has a long term consequence. Going back to the boiling water metaphor, if your pot isn’t all that well made, exposure to heat and cold will warp it, and may even break it. In the case of our bodies, the result may be high blood pressure, added weight, headaches, muscle aches, and slowed thinking.

Consequence of Chronic Stress

Selye called the last stage of his model, “Exhaustion”. According to the website Healthline, “This stage is the result of prolonged or chronic stress. Struggling with stress for long periods can drain your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where your body no longer has strength to fight stress. You may give up or feel your situation is hopeless. Signs of exhaustion include:

      • fatigue
      • burnout
      • depression
      • anxiety
      • decreased stress tolerance

The physical effects of this stage also weaken your immune system and put you at risk for stress-related illnesses.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

I don’t know about you, but I have been in this stage for the past four years and it has only intensified over the last week!  Here is where Selye’s work is so important. It turns out humans can adapt to stress pretty well for fairly long periods of time, but there is always a consequence.

Those of us in the therapy business often have to address the long-term consequences of stresses that our patients have been unable to manage. We use the one-two punch of cognitive behavioral therapy to knock out the stress. Basically, therapists can teach you to identify stressful thoughts, feelings, and actions, and then help you develop different ways of dealing with them by using Selye’s roadmap to lower the response.

Putting It All into Action

This past week, as events continued to unfold, I realized that I was becoming more and more stressed. Because of COVID, I don’t have my usual outlets of exercise or just being around other people to manage my stress because being around people and being outside just contributes to my hypervigilance. Staying at home lowers my response, but when I turn on the TV, I get triggered again. This is the classic presentation for someone who is never gets to the recovery phase, and this is where the long-term consequences from stress take root.

Managing stress is not about learning a technique, practicing it and then moving on. It takes constant monitoring with periods of rest and relaxation to bring our bodies into balance. Bottom line is that we can’t control external events, but we can manage (NOT CONTROL) our response by paying attention to our breathing and muscle tension. Exhaling and using systematic muscle relaxation (clench and release) are two profoundly effective methods to manage stress.

One of the ways I have learned to monitor is by doing a body scan. Here is my basic scan:

      1. Am I holding my breath?
      2. Am I clenching my jaw?
      3. Are my eyebrows pinched?
      4. Are my shoulders up around my earlobes?
      5. Am I thirsty?
      6. Which of my joints have I lost feeling in?
      7. When was the last time I got up and moved?

I only began to notice how frequently I was holding my breath and clenching my jaw and fists after I developed a habit of doing a body scan – literally checking in with myself to see where the tension was. Thank goodness I developed that habit, ‘cause there has been a lot of stress recently!  Your holding places for stress may be different from mine, so feel free to add or insert whatever will make this fit your unique self.

My mother used to whistle when she was stressed. Not a tune, just exhaling in a way that sounded like a whistle. Used to drive me nuts – made her calmer. I often catch myself with my shoulders up around my earlobes and the thought enters my mind, “maybe you are stressed!”  I drop my shoulders down, exhale long and slow, and do a short walkabout in my house. That makes me calmer.

It’s an Everybody Thing

Please know that EVERYBODY experiences stress. In our current state of tension, I believe it is important to recognize that people on the “other” side may be managing stress in ways I find abhorrent or shocking and using methods I do not believe are effective. I do not condone violence or confrontation, but I can put instances of these into Selye’s model and point to where individuals and groups lost touch with how to manage the stress and became shutdown and disconnected.

Stress is one of those “both/and” things. We cannot recover from societal stress without simultaneously better managing our individual stress. Consequences on a societal level contribute to lines being drawn in the sand, threats being made, and lots of justification for why needs aren’t being met. Like those crabs in the pot of water where the heat is slowing being turned up, I realized I was in boiling water and got myself out of the pot. I think I caught myself in time before too much stress has impacted me. You need to find ways to manage your stress also.

This should probably include turning off your favorite TV talk shows. And reaching out to others and at least getting outside if possible to enjoy even brief moments of fresh air. And purposeful distractions, such as hobbies, exercise, or the arts.

And just so you know, every once in a while, I find myself walking around my house whistling.

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