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There is a well-known connection between excessive, chronic stress and physical illness. But even if we manage to avoid becoming physically ill because of stress, there is a high emotional toll when the level of stress we experience outpaces our normal coping capacity.
We may find ourselves in just such a time—many people are feeling buffeted by waves of intense and relentless stress. In addition to the pandemic, many are feeling the pernicious and heartbreaking stress of ongoing racial and economic injustice along with political upheaval and division.
By inoculating ourselves or building up our body’s capacity to protect against the adverse effects of stress, we address our health proactively and become an active agent in our well-being. While our usual coping skills are generally sufficient to get us through difficult situations, we must acknowledge when our daily, weekly, and monthly stress accumulations overwhelm these routine coping skills. This is the first step to stress inoculation during challenging life experiences: acknowledging the source(s) and degree of our distress provides a chance to begin to respond constructively, versus simply reacting in an unconscious or emotionally disorganized manner.
Perhaps the most malign aspect of unrelenting stress is the feeling of helplessness and loss of control that accompanies the phenomenon. For this reason, it is important to engage in the practice of sensing and allowing ourselves to feel just how much, and where in our bodies, we are experiencing stress. This type of mindfulness exercise goes against our natural instincts, because we naturally try to avoid, ignore, or distract ourselves from feelings we find uncomfortable or disturbing. Ironically, purposefully getting close enough to the metaphorical hot stove is often the only way to know what we are truly up against.
On a pragmatic level, conducting a daily or twice daily “body scan” is a good starting place. Begin with three slow and deep cleansing breaths. Inhale smoothly and deeply through the nose, which engages the sympathetic (activation) nervous system. Allow your chest and diaphragm to rise. Pause for a moment and breathe out through the mouth, engaging the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system. Exhale gently and slowly, as if blowing through a straw. The key is to extend the out breath to attain a ratio of 2-1 to the in breath. For example, if you breathe in for a count of four, try to make sure you exhale for at least a count of eight. This is important, because we want the parasympathetic nervous system to signal the body to relax in preparation for sensing the location and degree of stress being experienced in that moment.
Start at the top of the head and imagine a “healing light” in the color of your choice gently discerning the location and intensity of distress in your body. Then identify the feelings associated with any sense of discomfort. These feelings are a critical part of the process, since they are the “signals” of what actions might be most useful to augment our self-care, increase our sense of peace, or appropriately reply to another. Listening closely to our feelings allows us to utilize the signals contained within to construct a helpful response. This intentional slowing down is quite different from what we usually do with feelings— typically we allow them to “trigger” us into reacting in order to discharge the energy inherent in our emotions.
As the body scan continues, you can choose to “leave” a portion of the healing light with any identified spot of stress. This exercise has a threefold benefit:
All three aspects should help us feel less helpless and out of control. And, truly sitting with our feelings to suss out signals will be especially helpful in connecting our cognitive problem-solving abilities. For example, it might be that you are feeling alone or isolated and therefore need to reach out to a friend or family member. Or, perhaps you are feeling confined and anxious, which reminds you to get outside and exercise. Maybe anger or frustration signals a need to assert yourself in some way to better your own circumstance or that of society. And, sometimes just knowing what we are feeling in the moment is sufficient to help us integrate and accept a situation as it is.
Stress inoculation can take many forms. But it starts with an intentional practice of slowing down, listening to our feelings, and utilizing the signals found therein to take meaningful action, thus restoring some sense of balance and control. The mindfulness technique described above is only one way to access our innate abilities to cope with stress. There are many other iterations of meditation and prayer that may work equally well or better. The key is to intentionally practice what works best, especially when our standard coping practices prove insufficient to keep pace with our current realities.
Steven Alexander, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and therapist in the Halfway House program at Saint Luke Institute.
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