How Do I Respond To Racism?

How Do I Respond To Racism?

Yesterday, I took the day off from work. Originally it was scheduled so that I could take my wife to another of her recurrent surgeries for her chronic pain, which thanks to COVID-19, has been cancelled indefinitely. It happened to line up nicely, however, with cabinet install day for our home renovation that is thankfully heading ever so much closer to the finish line. It also coincided with a need that I’ve identified lately – that is, a need for rest. What I didn’t expect is to be spending most of the day feeling sad. For a while, I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, until the question loomed in my mind, “How do I respond to racism?”

You see, I’m one of the ones who is, on most given days, gleefully ignorant about racism. It’s not that I am not aware of it, because I am aware because on different parts of the world I’ve lived in, different ethnic groups I’ve worked with, clients I’ve seen, etc. It is, however, because on any given day, I am not personally subjected to it. In fact, it’s been exceedingly absent in my life. While I was pondering this question about how do I respond to racism all day yesterday, I realized that I can only think of one time in my life where I was keenly aware that I was being treated poorly because of my race. The details of the situation aren’t important here I don’t think, and likely wouldn’t spark any sort of helpful conversation, but it does highlight that in 39 years I can only think of one time where I was very aware of being discriminated against based on my race.

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aware of being treated differently, because I have been while travelling. While I would suggest that it’s still not okay, it’s normal, in my experience, to be seen as other when you’re in another country, and even hearing words like gringo if you happen to be white. Or, if you’re living in Ukraine and your friend is from Korea, it’s not uncommon for kids to stop dead in their tracks and stare simply because they’ve never seen an Asian person before.

There’s a massive difference, however, in the experiences I’ve had versus those from whom we’ve all been hearing from in the past few days through the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, and the devastating events around the death of George Floyd. In all of my 39 years, I can only recall one instance where I felt unsafe or threatened as a result of my treatment based on my race.

This is in contrast to some who can’t go 39 days, or 39 minutes, or perhaps 39 seconds between experiences that make them feel unsafe, threatened, or less than.

This makes me sad.

It makes me feel a whole lot of other things, including mad, confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and more. But, if I give myself the time to actually sit with the emotions and discern what I’m feeling, the core of it is sadness.

I’m sad because although I do my very best to honour everyone, regardless of race, colour, creed, ethnicity, or otherwise, I know that at some point I have unwittingly made someone feel this way myself.

I’m sad, because a part of my heritage story is related to culture – my family came to Canada in the early 1900’s because they were literally being killed off for being who they were, and coming to Canada saved their lives. And we still have the same problems over 100 years later.

I’m sad because although my wife and I do our best to raise our girls to love and respect everyone they meet, from all races and creeds and backgrounds, they too will struggle to follow through and will make mistakes, and this will inflict further pain even into the next generation.

We come from privilege. We are white, middle-class, and I am male. This carries a privilege that I am becoming more and more aware of. It carries a responsibility to realize this, and understand this, and do better in our actions as we move forward.

Now, some of you may have just cringed at that last paragraph. Some of you may feel that what I’m saying means that those of us who come from privilege need to be sorry for, repentant of, or similar for the fact that we are white, grew up reasonably well off, and may be male.

That’s not at all what I’m saying, and that’s not at all what privilege means. It simply means that we have some advantages in life that others do not, simply by being born into what we’re born into. With that carries a responsibility to be aware of this, and use this privilege to care for others.

It also doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get what we have, to do what we do, and that we shouldn’t appreciate it, and enjoy it. It simply means that if we didn’t have the privilege we do, it likely would have been harder for us to have the same successes in life.

 

How Do I Respond To Racism?

 
Herein lies the problem. I am by no means an expert on race relations, cultural history, sociology, or otherwise. I don’t have any perfect answers to this, or even particularly qualified ones. Instead, here are some thoughts I’ve had over the past few days that hopefully might be helpful to us all as we wrestle with this issue of racism that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon. How do we respond? What do we need right now to make changes?
 

We Need Grace

 
Nothing highlights the need for grace more to me right now than writing this article. I know that it is nowhere near perfect, and doesn’t come up with any astounding answers to any of the massive, looming questions many of us have. I know I’ve made mistakes in this article in my own ignorance.

This highlights our need for grace as we navigate this challenging issue, in a challenging time. While this article isn’t authoritative, or perfect, it is honest.

This are simply my honest wrestling with an issue I don’t know enough about. It is the start of an attempt to lend help, even in my own imperfection, with initial thoughts on a complex issue.

I ask for your grace as you read this, and I would ask for grace for us all, from those who are subjected to racism on a daily basis. You don’t deserve this treatment, and we don’t deserve your grace – but, if you can muster some grace for us while we try to change our understanding and our behaviour, we will all hopefully win in the end.

With grace, we can have hope for a different future, one that honours everyone, from all races and cultural backgrounds. A future that holds promise for us all.
 

We need to feel sad

 
Understandably, there is a lot of anger right now over the state of race relations, and particularly over the death of George Floyd. And, there should be anger over what happened to Mr. Floyd, and what has happened to far too many people over the years who have been subjected to similar treatment.

In my area of expertise, psychology, we understand generally that anger is a basic emotion (one of the 6 basic emotions according to the Gottman Institute). Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion – based on underlying emotions that aren’t expressed.

One of the most common source emotions for anger that I see, particularly in men, is sadness. I know for myself, I am far more likely to express anger than I am sadness. It’s not particularly socially acceptable in North America for men to express sadness, but it is much more socially acceptable (if only for being more common) to be angry.

The problem is that very few productive conversations happen through anger and the expression of anger. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it just isn’t as effective in communication. If someone is angry with us, our back usually goes up and we become defensive. Very rarely is our response to ask something like, “Can you help me understand why you’re angry, please tell me more.” Instead, our fundamental biology kicks in through our limbic system and we go to defensive mode, and most likely, enter into our fight-or-flight stance (or freeze for that matter).

What happens, then, if we embrace the underlying sadness? I’d suggest it instructs us better (I can easily describe right now why I’m so sad about all of this versus if you asked me in the angry moments to describe why I’m angry), and it’s more effective in communication. If someone tells us they’re sad, we’re far more likely to respond in curiosity and kindness wanting to know more, simply because our limbic system isn’t firing.

“Anger is valid and ok, but we shouldn’t gloss over the underlying sadness.”

We need to educate ourselves

 
This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s still the truth. We are woefully uneducated as a whole about racism, no matter what our background is. This is where I will plead ignorance regarding resources because I’m at the stage of doing my best to find out what some of the most helpful resources are.

There are two main reasons that we need to educate ourselves: to understand, and to reduce pain.

While I am early on in my journey toward education on this subject, I did come across this article that lists a number of resources that I have seen posted many, many times and seem to be helpful. Our very own Rebecca Farnell posted the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor on her Instagram feed and it seems like it would be a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more. I am continuing to look to find resources that are suggested by people who know far more about this than I do. I’ll update this post as I find more resources as I hope it will be helpful to others.
The second reason we need to educate ourselves is because when it comes to pain, the inevitable result of racism, current pain science research shows that it is one of the greatest modifiers of the pain we experience.

Since I do have a particular interest in chronic pain and the psychological management of pain, I was reading The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer yesterday to try to find some resources for a client. In this book they explain that in terms of physical pain, embracing bioplasticity and education about pain can adapt the body to reduce pain and disability and increase life satisfaction (p.30). They also state that bioplasticity is based on the research on neuroplasticity which is the research showing that our brain is able to change over time, no matter our age.

What we do know, is that physical pain and emotional pain act the same way in the brain, and hit the same receptors. We have documented data on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. It seems to me that if education can reduce our physical pain, it should help our emotional pain. If we know what is happening, we can respond differently, and this can change the impact on our neurobiology.
 

We need to connect

 
More than ever, we need to connect around this issue. We need to learn together, do better together, change together. I’m convinced that the solution to our problem with racism lies in human connection. It’s going to be a long road, but connection is where we start.

If we connect, we can learn from those who are hurting and change our behaviour. If we connect, those who are hurting can understand the perspective of the perpetrators and what they are trying to do to change, thus reducing their pain. Note well, this is not to excuse the perpetration, it is to understand one another’s positions and the efforts being made to change for the better, and to reduce pain in the meantime.

If we connect, we can reduce pain. I remember a study that Sue Johnson mentioned once (and I’m actively trying to find the study), where subjects participated in a random controlled trial on secure relationships and pain response. From memory, they had three conditions:

  1. Subject enters the room, is shocked with electricity, and their pain response is measured.
  2. Subject enters the room, a random person is also sitting in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
  3. Subject enters the room, another person they have a safe, secure relationship with is also in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.

In that third condition, the study found that they could get the pain response down to almost zero. Let’s remember, the other person in the room did nothing other than sit in the room with them.

This is how powerful safe, secure human connection is. If we can find ways of doing this in the midst of our pain around racism, we stand a chance to weather the storm while we try to make the changes we need to make to do something about it.
 

Our commitment at Alongside You

 
I hope it goes without saying that everyone is welcome at Alongside You. We embrace all races, cultures, and backgrounds at our clinic. Our staff and associates come from all backgrounds, as do our clients. Our intent is to welcome anyone and everyone and that they would feel loved, and cared for.

I also understand that we are not perfect, and we too make mistakes. Here is my commitment as the Director of our clinic – if anyone has had, or in future has any concerns about how they are treated by our clinic for any reason, and particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, please contact me directly and I will sit down with you personally to listen, to learn, and to see what if anything needs to change at our clinic.

Safety, security, compassion, and respect are core to our values and I commit to doing anything I can do ensure that these values are communicated to every client by our words, our actions and our policies.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with racism in any way, we’re here with you in the middle of it. Let us know how we can help.

4 Ways To Support Someone Who Is Grieving

4 Ways To Support Someone Who Is Grieving

 
Grief is a bit of a mystery to us, and something that our brains and our bodies have a hard time processing. Many times we might wonder, “How do I support someone who is going through grief?” It can be hard to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving a major loss. Some people may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, or maybe think that there is nothing they can do to make things better. Others may simply feel uncomfortable with the intense pain and emotions that grief brings. These are common fears that we all experience when someone we deeply care about is going through a difficult time. It may help to know that there is no magic pill – no cure for the pain of loss, and nothing that can take it all away. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything we can do to support someone who is grieving. You don’t have to have all the answers or be able offer great insight or advice for your loved one to feel supported and know that you care about them. Often times, your mere presence is enough. The bereaved would benefit from just knowing that they are not alone in their suffering, and that they have a caring and compassionate friend to turn to if they need to. This alone can help the bereaved process the pain and slowly start to heal.

Nonetheless, here are some good ground rules to keep in mind when you’re trying to answer the question of how to support someone who is grieving.
 

Listen

 
Your friend or loved one may have not had the chance to share their thoughts and feelings about the loss with anyone. Often times, those who are grieving may avoid talking about the deceased with close family members or friends so that they don’t bring them too much pain. This means that they may have never had the chance to share their grief story. Just by listening to them, without judgement or restriction, you offer them a unique opportunity to verbally process the loss and express the impact it has had on them, which can be healing in itself!
 

Give Permission to Grieve

 
Some of us may be uncomfortable with this step because of the intense pain and emotions that grief brings. We may feel propelled to offer advice, or provide intervention or direction in some way, which is understandable – no one wants to see their loved ones suffer! But as mentioned earlier, the most helpful thing we can do is offer our presence and remind ourselves that there is nothing we can do to take their pain away. Depending on your relationship with the person experiencing grief, you can encourage them to express their grief, especially if they consider you to be one of their safe and close friends. Keep in mind that grief may not only involve feelings of sadness, but can also include intense feelings of guilt, anxiety, anger and despair. Allow them to express the range of emotions they may be feeling, without judgement. Many people hide their grief and pretend that everything is alright, so giving them permission to express their grief, with all the extreme emotions it involves may be very freeing. You can say something like, “tell me about your dad,” or, “this must be really hard,” and let them know that grieving is a normal and healthy response to loss. You can even tell them, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care.”
 

Share Information About the Grief Process

 
Grief often comes in waves, and many people don’t know what to expect from it. Some people may be surprised by the duration or intensity of it and they may judge themselves for how long it’s taking them to heal. It can be helpful to remind them that grief affects everyone differently, and that their journey is unique to them. Not only that, but it is also normal and expected to have some good days along with the bad. Reassure them that this does not mean that they love the individual they lost any less – finding ways to cope with the loss and finding a new normal is part of the healing journey.
 

Assist in Practical and Concrete Ways

 
Lastly, helping the bereaved in practical ways can be one of the most helpful ways to support them, especially in the early days after the loss. They may very likely have no energy to ask for support at this time or may not know exactly what it is that they need. That’s why it’s helpful to take initiative to make a practical, concrete offer that would lessen the burden of their daily responsibilities. This could be something like offering to deliver them a meal, babysit their children so that they can have some time to themselves, or take long walks with them for fresh air and exercise.
 

Practice Self-Compassion

 
Finally, it’s important to practice self-compassion as we support someone else on their journey through grief. It’s hard when we see those close to us suffer. Even though it’s not our own suffering, their pain still impacts us, and we may experience it as our own. That’s why it’s important to show kindness towards ourselves and acknowledge how hard it is for us to know that a loved one is going through a difficult time and that there is nothing we can do to take their pain away. This allows us the capacity to be there for those who are suffering and not get lost in their pain. If we are able to attend to our own emotions and have compassion for ourselves, we increase our capacity to be there for others and offer them the gift of our presence.
 
If you or someone you love is experiencing grief, we’re with you. If we can be of any help to you on your journey through grief please give us a call.

What on Earth is EMDR?

What on Earth is EMDR?

If you’ve ever wondered what on earth EMDR is, you’re not alone! While EMDR is well supported by research and has been found to be highly effective for many clients, it can sometimes be a strange concept for people to get used to.

 

So, What Is EMDR?

 

EMDR has been around now for about 25 years and is a highly evidence-based method of treating trauma and anxiety. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and gets its name in part from the fact that it primarily relies on eye movement to work.

 

A client undergoing EMDR is encouraged to move their eyes from side to side in a slow, steady manner while contemplating questions or discussion pieces that relate to their treatment. As odd as it sounds, the reason EMDR works is precisely because of how the brain processes memory. When we are asleep, our brains enter REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), and during this stage of sleep the brain is processing and filing the day’s experiences into our memory, so the next day can occur with a relatively clean slate.

 

Sometimes we get stuck on intrusive thoughts or traumatic material because the experience or issue has not managed to get appropriately filed in our memory. EMDR replicates the REM stage of sleep while the client is awake and alert, and supports the processing of painful memories or recurring intrusive thoughts. Interestingly, because EMDR mimics REM sleep it tends to work quite quickly. If the issues are not too complex, clients can often feel a sense of relief from their suffering in just a few sessions.

 

It’s important to know that at no time during EMDR is the client out of control or in a trance of any kind, and of course, the client can always choose to end an EMDR session at any point if they don’t prefer working in this way or find that they are too uncomfortable. This said, clients almost always leave an EMDR session feeling better than when the session began.

 

The second part of EMDR stands for Desensitization and Reprocessing. The goal of EMDR is to desensitize the client to something that was previously painful and to support them in reprocessing the painful issue.

 

So, what does this look like in an appointment? A client undergoing an EMDR session can expect to meet with a therapist in a comfortable room where they will both sit. The client will be asked some questions by their therapist, and then guided to use back-and-forth eye movement. During this time all the client has to do is sit quietly and allow themselves to think. Following about 1 minute of this, the therapist will check in with some questions and guidance. The eye movement sets will be repeated a number of times as the therapist leads the client through a set format of questions and feedback. Toward the end of the session, the therapist will switch gears and invite the client to “reprocess” the issue being addressed.

 

Clients then typically end an EMDR session feeling quite calm. The only side effect is that some folks find EMDR somewhat tiring, as the brain has been stimulated to work quite hard for the time of the session.

 

The good news is that while EMDR is especially effective for conditions like PTSD, it has also been reported as effective for panic attacks, complicated grief, dissociative disorders, disturbing memories, phobias, pain disorders, performance anxiety, stress reduction, addictions, sexual and/or physical abuse, body dysmorphic disorders and personality disorders.

 

As not all therapists have the necessary training, it’s important to note that EMDR should be done only with a therapist who is properly certified in working this way. If you’re curious about whether this treatment could work for you, reach out to us! We’re here to help.

 

Kathryn Priest-Peries is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Registered Social Worker who has Advanced Level Training in EMDR and has been a practicing therapist for over 30 years.

Read more about Kathryn here.

Click here to request an EMDR appointment with Kathryn.

5 Signs of Burnout and What You Can Do About It

5 Signs of Burnout and What You Can Do About It

Mental and emotional burnout is something different from keeping a busy schedule and feeling tired at the end of a week. It occurs when a person has experienced pervasive and prolonged stress. Burnout can be described as occurring in a predictable manner in which it begins with excessive ambition and commitment, leads to changes in values wherein personal care is neglected and emotions are displaced, and typically ends in feelings of sadness, emptiness and/or defeat.

While many people live a full life and are invigorated by pace and productivity, burnout is often demonstrated by a persons’ inability to reenergize and struggle to stay focused. Although true burnout will affect each individual in unique ways, there are standard warning signs that your nervous system may be overloaded, and that you’ve neglected parts of yourself in the process. This list is not exhaustive, but it captures some common signs of burnout:

 

  1. You’re easily irritated and find it difficult to be patient with others.

When other people’s requests of you begin to feel like an assault on your capacity to provide what they need, it is an indication that you’re feeling depleted. Normally, a request is something we can consider, and decide in a relatively neutral way what we’d like to give.

What can you do about it?

Begin to check in with yourself more often to see what you need. When you feel that your own needs are taken care of, you’re much more likely to be able to meet the needs of others. When you have taken care of your own needs (for rest, solitude, exercise, nutrition, enjoyment, etc.) you will be better set up to meet those needs for others.

 

  1. You’ve lost the motivation to engage in activities you normally enjoy and may be more likely to procrastinate.

Procrastination tends to occur when we feel overwhelmed; our “system” (mind, body, spirit) is taxed and so we lose motivation. When we lose motivation, we’re less inclined to engage in activities we normally enjoy or the responsibilities we’ve committed to. When we’re not enjoying our activities, we’re likely to procrastinate in making them happen.

What can you do about it?

This may boil down to scaling back activities and responsibilities. It may also be a matter of tackling responsibilities in “bite-sized” pieces. Some people find it helpful to break down one big task into several smaller pieces, identifying deadlines and rewarding for a job well done.

 

  1. You feel detached from your own feelings, and your day-to-day life can feel robotic.

When a person experiences burnout, they have learned to function at such a high capacity that they have had to shed a certain degree of their “humanness” to do so. When a person begins to think (consciously or subconsciously) that emotions get the in the way, or that slowing down to be present in their experience is cumbersome, they will adjust to a way of being that sees those elements of the human experience eliminated.

What can you do about it?

It requires, yet again, a turning in toward yourself – toward your feelings, your present experience, your needs. Do regular “check-ins” to note the physical responses, the thoughts, and the emotions you’re experiencing. If you operate in a robotic manner, return to the things that make you feel human. Mindfulness practices can be really helpful. For example, hold a cup of tea and feel the warmth on your hand, note the scent it releases, and observe the design of the mug itself. Taking moments to look for what brings you pleasure can eventually lead to a slower, more human experience.

 

  1. You become emotional at unexpected times, and you are quick to cry.

If it is true that we are more inclined to detach from feelings if we are experiencing burn out, then it stands that our emotions will bubble up unexpectedly, as we know that they have to find their release somewhere J. If you find that you can go weeks at a time without identifying any significant emotion, but then suddenly cry at a car commercial, you may be experiencing burn out.

What can you do about it?

There are many ways to facilitate an open acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotion. Some people need to process it verbally with a good friend who listens well, or with a therapist. Some people find that journaling can be helpful as it forces a person to reflect on their experience. No matter how you begin, it requires a method for tuning in to your feelings, and this requires slowing down enough to make this possible.

 

  1. You experience an increase in worry and anxiety.

The capacity to process your environment is compromised, and your stress responses are weakened when you are burnt out. When your body and brain have operated as if you’ve been under threat for a prolonged period of time, the resources for dealing with everyday stress are inhibited, and you are likely to experience an increase in anxiety.

What can you do about it?

First, try to eliminate obvious stressors. An honest look at your schedule may illuminate the ways you’re overextending yourself, and where you can cut back. Second, don’t try to push away the feeling of anxiety. It can be very tempting to attempt to detach from anxiety, much like detaching from other emotions or feelings when experiencing burnout, but this can be counterproductive. Sometimes it can be helpful to follow the “thread” of the anxiety, to become curious about what it’s about, and to see if there’s something beneath the explicit fear. Particularly with burnout, it can be helpful to stay with the feelings of anxiety, as it can point us toward what we need.

To provide a personal example, when I was experiencing a strong sense of overwhelming several years ago, I began to worry – more than usual – about my children. I found more reasons to be concerned about their safety and wellbeing. It was during this time that I was also taking quite a bit of school work. When I became curious about my anxiety, and how it generally pertained to my children, I realized that I was really missing spending as much time with them as I had in previous years. I felt more distracted and less connected to them, and that was unsettling for me. My anxious feelings pointed me toward what I was really in need of at the time – to drop a course and to fit in more time with my young kids.

 

If you recognize yourself in any of the items listed above, it may be helpful to take some time alone. In the quiet of solitude, we are more likely to reflect on who we are, and what we need. In addition, it’s likely you could benefit from the support and guidance of a counsellor. If you think working with someone to process some of this could be helpful, give us a call, we’re here to help.

Creating Out of Rest

Creating Out of Rest

It’s a new year, and like always February comes faster than we can possibly think!  I am so happy to return to Alongside You after a year away.  It’s wonderful when you can return and rejoin the work of walking alongside others. 

This is truly a joy for me. 

Yet, rest and recovery are important.  Have you ever been sidelined?  Taken a hit out of the blue?  What do you do?  Worry? Pray? Meditate? Call all your best friends and chat? Eat? Drink? 

Think about it for a moment with me.  

More times than I can recall, I move towards worry. Other times, I am quick to pray.  Even other times I reach out, call someone – anyone who will listen. How does this scenario play out for you? 

When we are sidelined, or unable to make decisions, it is okay to reach out.  It is okay to talk to someone.  It is okay to get centred and understand what your priorities are, and will be. 

Taking time to rest, ponder; consider choices and opportunities, even when you are sidelined or surprised is okay.  Out of rest something magical – dare I say miraculous – happens. Creativity flows, clarity happens, and you may just get in touch with your “Knower.”  You know, that deep place inside of you, where you are at peace, you understand with clarity what you want, and where you want to go. 

If you struggle with quieting your mind or resting in the busy, and you keep putting off decisions to move forward in your life, call someone, call us, and call me. I’m here to listen and understand. 

In the meantime, know you are not alone.  Rest, and let’s look together at what can be birthed in this new season. 

 

A Note from our Director

 

We’re very happy to have Kezia back working with us after her time away! Kezia works with evidence-based treatments such as CBT, EMDR, DBT Skills, Mindfulness, and Creative interventions.  As a part of her return to work, she will be providing all of her counselling services through our online counselling platform.

Why would you want to do counselling online? There are many reasons, and you can read a bit about them here. Some of the many benefits include scheduling, lack of travel to an office, or if you’re having to travel for business, you can still have your counselling session.

Sometimes people wonder if online counselling is secure. We use a HIPAA/PIPA/PIPEDA compliant platform to provide counselling that meets all of the privacy laws in BC. It is encrypted end-to-end which means it is secure from whatever device you use, to whatever device we use.

If you’d like to try it out, give us a call and book a session with Kezia. As Kezia says, she looks forward to, “Working together face to face, online, so you can pause in your busy to mentally strengthen your day!” 

What Can I Do About Stress?

What Can I Do About Stress?

The Stress-Response Cycle: How to Move Through Stress

To follow up on my last post, it’s time to get practical! What do we do with stress? We’re often told to reduce our stress by taking on fewer responsibilities when we’re feeling overwhelmed. That certainly can help, but what’s more important is to learn to move through the stress response cycle so that when we are faced with stressors our bodies have the capacity to handle them. This requires learning to listen to our bodies and our emotions.

 

Don’t Confuse the Stressor with the Stress

A stressor is something that causes stress, such as a semester of school. Stress is that feeling of fight, flight or freeze. Often, we believe that we’ll feel less stressed once we’ve dealt with the stressor. I often tell myself that when the next term at school is over, I’ll feel energized and happy again. Then, the end of term comes and after a week I notice I’m still feeling exhausted and irritable. This is because I was confusing the stressor with the stress. The stressor may be long gone and successfully conquered, but the reason I still feel irritable and exhausted is that my body hasn’t moved through the stress response cycle and come out the other side.1 Can you relate? Let me explain.

 

Stress-Response Cycle: Listening to our Bodies

Our body’s natural tendency in times of stress is to move through the beginning, middle and end of our response to stress. When we are in fight, flight or freeze, a lot of adrenaline is pumping through our bodies. Our body’s natural tendency is to find a way to expend that energy. With fight, it would be throwing punches, flight would be to run, and even in freeze, our natural tendency when we come out of freeze is to shake. Once we’ve expended that energy, our natural tendency is to find safety and to rest. This is the full cycle: trigger (beginning); energy expending (middle); safety and rest (end).1

Unfortunately, in our culture we’ve been taught to suppress the messages we get from our bodies. Our culture is uncomfortable with feelings and so we’re told to suck it up; we’re told that everyone is stressed and that’s just what life is. We override our body’s messages because they’re not always compatible with work or with the social context at hand. When we keep overriding the messages our bodies send us, our bodies become stuck in a state of stress. When we never feel like we can escape the feeling of stress, we start to cope in ways that are less healthy, such as developing addictions or lashing out at people when we don’t mean to. This is because there’s so much pent up energy and it hasn’t had a chance to move through us.1

 

How to Complete the Cycle

We probably don’t want to be fighting people when we’re stuck in traffic or running out of our cars after a car veers into our lane. Thankfully, there are more practical ways to complete the stress-response cycle.

 

The Middle Part of the Cycle: (The part where you let the energy out)

  • Physical activity: This helps to re-calibrate the nervous system. It lets your body complete the middle part of the cycle and expend all of that adrenaline that was secreted from the various stress-related triggers in your life. Any kind of physical activity will do, as long as it gets you moving and gets your heart-rate up.
  • Allow yourself to have a good cry or a primal scream. The kind of cry where you sob for 10 minutes and then have a big sigh of relief. This lets the emotion move through you instead of getting trapped in your body.
  • Journaling: Writing your thoughts down can sometimes offer a feeling of release and relief. You can keep an ongoing journal of your thoughts and feelings and/or you can write them down and then rip them up. The act of ripping up the pages can also be relieving.
  • Art: Finding creative ways to express emotion and dispel stress. You might think you’re not particularly artsy, so maybe you want to try coming to something like our Open Studio Sessions to start where you can get some gentle guidance and try some new things out?

 

The End of the Cycle: (The part where you rest)

  • Seeking affection from someone you trust. This is proven to be a very effective way to calm the nervous system.
  • Identify people and places that you can trust to provide space for you to feel your feels.
  • Sleep: Do what you can to prioritize it, and seek help from a doctor and/or counsellor when you’re having consistent trouble sleeping.
  • Grooming: For some, it can be meditative and give a feeling of self-care.
  • Engaging in anything you find

 

Throughout the Cycle:

  • Mindfulness: Start cultivating a mindfulness practice, even if you start out with just one minute per day.
    • Mindfulness allows us to notice what we’re focusing on, notice what we’re feeling and then have control in deciding what we want to focus on and how we want to express that feeling.
  • Headspace is an app that offers a free mindfulness series to get you started, and the app allows you to start with mindfulness exercises as short, or as long as you want.
  • Counselling: A counsellor can help you learn to move through your stress response cycle in a way that feels right for you. They can also help you to make sense of stress responses and emotions that feel confusing and stuck.

Remember, this can be very difficult, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture that teaches you to suppress your feelings and your body’s signals.

The most important part of moving through the stress response cycle is to be patient and kind to yourself. You’re learning something new, it takes time and you don’t need to do it alone.

 

References

Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY