Guest Blog by Aaron Kapin, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner
I want to offer a different way of looking at stress. The most common model for stress is that stress is a ‘thing’ that bothers you- it’s a tension that either comes from outside of you, from having a busy life, or an anxiety that comes from inside, because you don’t know how to calm down.
When the stress gets big, it becomes uncomfortable, and it can affect your mood, contributing to physical pain, headaches, migraines, sleep troubles, etc.
When you find ways to relieve the stress, to ‘shrink’ it, you can feel more emotionally and physically comfortable, be more present with your loved ones, sleep better.
This is a perfectly usable model in many circumstances, but it has the limitation of seeing stress as a thing “not you”, rather than a part of an important process that happens inside you. If we can see the stress as part of ourselves, then we can have more choices in how we relate with it, how we manage it, and how we transform it.
It’s very natural, throughout the day or the week, for our systems to have moments of ‘activation’, where we get excited, or angry, motivated, or frightened. It’s also very natural to have periods of deactivation, where we feel restful, or depressed, spacey, or calmly joyful.
These are 2 natural functions of our nervous system:
- Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) charges you up for action (i.e. fight-or-flight)
- Your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) discharges the activation and helps you settle down, connect with your friends, digest your food, and sleep
There is a constant balance between these two branches of your nervous system. When it’s in a healthy balance, you are productive when you need to be productive, and restful when it’s time to be restful.
However, if there’s a hiccup in the balance, say, if your SNS refuses to be settled fully by your PNS, then you may start noticing things like ongoing anxiety, a constant low-level (or sometimes high level) buzzing of the Sympathetic.
Or perhaps the PNS hardly kicks in at all- then your SNS may shoot high out of control, leading to mania or burnout.
Or what if your PNS overwhelms the SNS? Then you may feel unmotivated, lethargic, and have difficulty engaging with anything.
Any of these unbalanced states can be unpleasant, and are ‘stressful’ to the system.
Now that we’re using this model, certain questions can emerge.
Instead of just asking, “How do I de-stress?” We can ask, how can I tell my SNS it doesn’t need to be on overdrive? How can I give my PNS permission to fully settle me? Or, how can I feel more safe with letting my SNS kick in and help me set boundaries, get stuff done?
Once we ask these questions, an enormous amount of options begin to open up.
One of the routes I use most is a specific form of mindfulness.
If you start asking yourself “How activated is my SNS right now?”or “How activated is my PNS?”, you can start developing, over time, the sensitivity to feel the tightness in your chest, or the fire in your belly, or the strength in your limbs as the SNS is activated.
You may also start learning to track with the deepening of your breath, the loosening of your facial muscles, the gurgling of your stomach, and the tingles in your limbs as your PNS helps you discharge your activation.
As you build this sensitivity, you may find that simply by sitting with whichever system is feeling stuck or inhibited, it will start to change.
What felt like a constant, chronic state, suddenly becomes part of a larger, constantly shifting picture, and you’ve made a significant step back towards having a balanced, mutually beneficial exchange between those two branches of your nervous system.
For a more scientific explanation of this system, see this article: http://traumahealed.com/articles/find-calm-a-polyvagal-primer/
For some tips on how to use breath to support your PNS, see this article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/diaphragmatic-breathing-exercises-and-your-vagus-nerve
And if you have further questions, or would be interested in support with this process, please feel free to connect with Aaron directly:
Aaron Kapin runs Thoughtful Touch, a Somatic Experiencing and Therapeutic Massage practice where he has been helping people settle their nervous systems and create healthy relationships with their bodies for over 10 years.
He studies personal development, interpersonal communication, and neuroscience in his spare time.
Aaron sees clients in-person and remotely, over video chat.