“There is deep wisdom within our very flesh, if we can only come to our senses and feel it.” – Elizabeth A. Behnke
I used to be so proud of my high tolerance for stress, something I congratulated myself for and occasionally even bragged about.
I’m a good person to have around in an emergency. Faced with a crisis, I tend to react quickly and clearly. My sympathetic nervous system – the control center for the brain and body’s urgent response mechanisms – acts fast. My mind focuses and quickly maps solutions, my body puts itself where it needs to be.
My mistake comes from equating these very useful crisis response skills with a supersized ability to manage everyday stress – the growing list of to-dos, interpersonal problems, work deadlines, etc. – and ‘not let it get to me’. In truth, these two response patterns have little in common.
In the midst of a true emergency, something remarkable takes hold. I am keenly and fully present. My body and mind are in sync. I achieve a state of flow out of sheer necessity.
But my tolerance for the litany of mini-crises that make up everyday stress is built on holding some part of myself at bay, and attempting to neutralize the feelings and sensations it creates until I can find an appropriate space for release and recovery. This holding, purging and collapsing strategy has worked well enough for much of my life. Until a few years ago, when I faced the chronic crisis of a dying partner and life as a single parent.
At first, as the fear, anger and grief edged-in daily, I leaned on my stress management techniques to push through. I built in greater resources for release and recuperation to handle the burden. I had a fairly regular meditation practice and community through the CEC that kept me present. I started practicing Capoeira religiously, understanding that I needed the unique communal release provided through its mix of martial arts, dance, acrobatics and music.
But I increasingly considered myself the lone workhorse of each difficult situation I was in, and it began to define me. As a result, my inevitable collapses were in secret and in shame. As the years went by I began to develop a low level resistance to even the smallest of daily tasks and something about life started to feel like a trudge through the mud.
Somehow, even with my mindfulness and my Capoeira. I wasn’t really processing my stress. Instead I had contained it in my behavior and my body. My first response to someone asking me for something was a blank stare, while I quickly attempted to manage the fear and frustration that rose with each new perceived burden. I had this hard plate in the center of my chest that seemed rigid and unbreakable, and my stomach was constantly clenched. And in these efforts to contain and manage, I was denying my body’s natural process of reacting to stressful moments.
Here’s the truth of it – our bodies are built to respond to stress, release the energy created by the response, and then recuperate. This is the function of our autonomic nervous system. Disrupting or controlling this natural process can lead to a host of physical and mental illnesses.
So how do we embody our stress response, and still operate in a society that largely seeks to oppress it? And how do we deal with the stores of stress gathered over years without unleashing a maelstrom? For me, at least part of the answer has been Somatic Stress Release (SSR).
Many of the techniques and strategies in SSR are similar to other body-based mindfulness practices I’ve been drawn to my whole life, but using these to redefine my relationship to stress has changed who I am. Instead of managing my response to stress, I seek to meet it with open regard and come into relationship with it. I listen to the knowledge it has to offer and gently find pathways of mobilization and release. That hard plate I mentioned before? I discovered it was a shield my body had built to protect me, and when I acknowledged that, when I honoured that role it played, it became softer. Eventually, it became clear the shield wasn’t needed anymore, and the tightness released completely.
It’s been critical, while I do this work, to understand how to resource myself and build the resiliency needed to carefully contact deep pockets of held stress linked to painful or even traumatic events. One of my teachers remarked that 80% of the practice’s focus should be on resourcing and restoration. In the normal operation of life, this is what we need to maintain a healthy response to stress. If trauma is in the picture that ratio increases.
Our theme this month at the CEC is empowerment. As I do this work, I find I’m becoming less self-conscious, less patterned in my reaction, and generally more authentically me. My efforts to embody all of my body’s actions and reactions with appreciation and respect is empowering me to bring my full self to my experience of life.
*Katrina chairs the Board of Directors at CEC and is a Certified Somatic Stress Release Practitioner, with training in teaching mindfulness mediation and a variety of body-based practices. She applies mindfulness techniques and strategies to her work as a group facilitator in social justice movements. Recently, she has begun a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology.