Overcoming the Amygdala Part 48
Many readers of this series will have experienced, or perhaps be right in the middle of experiencing, severe stress. Talking of stress relief, to them, may appear flippant and superficial. But what we are really examining is the notion that to be stressed is not the ‘normal’ position for the human mind. ‘Normal’ is defined as homeostasis, the relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. In terms of our Personality Ecosystem, it means an optimum or balanced cooperation of various parts, just like in the natural ecosystem of the planet. Those who have been stressed intensively or over a prolonged period may well find that they have lost track of what that feels like — for a few, homeostasis may be something that they have hardly ever experienced at all.
It might be useful, then, to think of recovering from stress in the short and long term as like learning a new skill. When you learn to drive, or play a musical instrument or draw or paint or play a sport, you don’t expect to be able to leap in at the professional level right at the beginning, do you? It can be the same with stress relief: it takes familiarity with tools, practice, time and persistence. But with time, relieving stress can become second nature.
Here are some further tips on how to learn the new skill of stress relief.
1. Aim low at the start.
Instead of testing your quick stress relief tools on the major crisis that you may be suffering through at present, start with a predictable low-level source of stress, like finding a lost item, cleaning an untidy space or paying some bills.
2. Pick a particular target.
Isolate something that you know is going to occur several times a week, such as a brief meeting with a certain colleague, an especially boring meeting at work, or tackling the traffic on the way home. Go into it with your quick stress relief tools each time. Then, after a couple of weeks, target a second item, and so on.
3. Vary your usage of the tools.
Try running through different senses in each situation — use scent, or sound, or sight, or smell and so on until you find something that works for you.
4. Keep it light.
If something doesn’t work, try not to plummet into disappointment — try something else until you find what works best for you. The thing that works for you should be pleasurable and noticeably calming. Remember, you’re isolating your personal ‘stress fingerprint’ and its remedies. You’re trying to find out what in particular will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is done largely through a process of elimination.
When you find something that works, build it into your life. For example, you might discover that listening to light jazz on your way home through late traffic has a particularly calming effect. You’re driving along tapping your foot to the beat, looking at passing drivers with a smile on your face, and generally wanting to dance rather than fretting about your finances or health or whatever it is that normally bothers you. So try light jazz (or whatever work for you) in different settings, perhaps as music to send you to sleep or as a ringtone on your phone.
6. Try the techniques wherever you are.
The best part of a sensory-based approach is that you can try them almost anywhere — on a bus, on a train, while walking, between meetings, while cooking meals, and so on.
Prevent evening jitters by playing lively music or lighting candles or wearing soft clothes or breathing in the scent of every ingredient of the evening meal. Feel textures; sense weights.
Creating a Sanctuary
Where possible, establish a space into which you can withdraw to meditate or just have some quiet time when everything gets too much. call it a ‘personal monastery’ if you wish. You can take the principle of this and apply it in various ways — if it’s not practical to set up an actual physical space, you can play with this idea imaginatively.
Make your breath your sanctuary
Adopt a breathing technique which makes you feel relaxed and treat it as part of your ‘sanctuary’ — whenever you breathe in that rhythm, imagine the most serene, remote and content monastery forming around you.
Find something sensual from a favourite place
Perhaps a place of which you are particularly fond has a definite scent. Get something that smells like that and take it with you. When you smell it, that personal monastery enfolds you again.
Use your computer and workspace imaginatively.
Have a screensaver of a favourite sanctuary. Have a background tune which reminds you of utter peace and placidity. Place family photos on your desk or mementos that remind you of your personal monastery space.
Observe your environment
Actively pay attention to your environment and notice things which remind you of your serene space — colours, shapes, sounds, scents and so on.
Social interaction is the most effective strategy for bringing your entire nervous system into alignment. For some reason, our minds are wired to need another individual to ‘defuse’ our own stress. Perhaps this is part of our evolution as a social species or perhaps there’s something even more fundamental involved — whatever the case, interpersonal relations are a key way to relieve stress. Many problems faced by human beings stem from the lack of this ‘other’, or the loss of such a person. Talking face-to-face with a relaxed and caring listener can help you quickly calm down and release tension in ways that you might find difficult to credit until it happens for you.
But here’s another, perhaps unexpected element to that: listening to another, as we covered earlier, can be just as effective. This means listening properly, not with a view to then saying something about yourself, but as a practice in itself. Fully engaging with another person and allowing them to communicate whatever it is that they want to communicate can be an eye, heart and mind-opening experience. I don’t mean by this that you will recognise that ‘others are in the same position as yourself’ — what the other person communicates may be nothing to do with their problems or stress. But just taking on board the full content of another person’s communication, whatever it is about, can be a life-changing moment.
And that leads to an overview which you might find enlightening. More on that next time.