Friday, June 23, 2017

Learned Stress

When we experience an occasional fearful situation, our brain directs the release of the flight or fight stress hormone, cortisol. When the danger subsides and we feel safe again, the flow of cortisol subsides. While this hormone is necessary when we are in imminent danger, a steady flow of it is not healthy.

Living in abusive relationships fight or flight is our constant companion. Every moment of every day we must be hyper-vigilant, trying to avoid the expected next blowup. Even after leaving the relationship, our bodies are not able to readily adjust to the fact that the danger is over and turn off the fight or flight reaction. Feeling unsafe becomes our bodies’ norm. It is learned stress. 

When we add the current events onto the mix we find our health in danger. Our minds are constantly stewing about everything that is difficult in our lives and the world. We exhaust ourselves and feel paralyzed. We stop nurturing ourselves—or never start. Drugs, alcohol or other addictions can enter the picture as a way to cope. However, they send us into numbness. In a sense we stop experiencing the trauma but we also miss out on the happiness in our lives.

To heal, the body needs to recognize that the danger has passed and we are now safe. 

Being gentle with ourselves and practicing self-care/compassion can move us in the right direction. I’ve been working on ways to ease the commotion in my brain and body. There is a lot of suggestions from the foremost minds in mental and physical health. Let me share with you the ones that work best for me.

The popularity of mindfulness is growing. Living in the present moment we can ask ourselves if we feel safe in this moment. When our minds spin off into the future “awfulizing” what could disrupt our peace, we bring it back to “I am safe in this moment.” When our mind spins off into the past, “I thought I was safe then and look what happened,” again, we remind ourselves, “I am safe in this moment.” Working toward staying in the present can help calm the anxiety.

Part of the mindfulness practice includes taking time to sit quietly and listen to our breath. Deep restful breathing calms the body and mind. When our restless mind allows destructive thoughts to arise, we recognize them and then let them go without berating ourselves. Labeling them can help us step outside the thought and tell ourselves, “That is my fear of ending up in another abusive relationship. Now that I know the danger signs, I will walk away from anyone who doesn’t treat me with respect.” It takes some practice, but following our breath is helpful in times of stress.

I shoot for taking time to sit in the quiet or with some peaceful music every day. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, just a few minutes to concentrate on my breath. It’s a good time to spend in prayer or meditation, quieting my thoughts. I’m still working on learning to observe any thoughts that arise and not become engaged in them. Some days are easier than others. The harder days, I use a guided meditation. (free meditations are available at—click on Listen— then Podcasts.)

Coloring books for adults are becoming popular. Coloring is also a mindful activity, keeps you in the present moment instead of fretting. There are free mandalas available on the internet. Also coloring books from museums. (

When my mind is particularly active, I’ve found that journaling about my concerns is a good segue into the quiet. Spitting everything that is bothering me onto a blank page seems to help me put it to rest, allowing me to better concentrate on my work or go to sleep.

Sleep is way more important than I realized. When working and raising children, sleep is a luxury and the first thing that goes by the wayside while holding the head of a vomiting child or helping with the homework that is due tomorrow and forgotten until this very moment. We learned to exist on little sleep.  

Though there is no set rule, since our bodies are all different, it is suggested that we shoot for 7-8 hours. That meant I had to turn off the news and late-night talkshows and learn to fall asleep earlier than what had been my habit. It took some practice. Once settled, the restless brain syndrome (my made-up name for the problem) sets in. My brain throttles up and ruminates on everything and anything that frustrates or worries me. I swear, it would pick some tiny thing that would be a fluff of lint in the light of day and whip it up into an astroid about to crash into the earth. Also, it would prod me to take a peek at the news just in case I was missing something really important. If neither of these worked, it would start throwing down odds that I was going to lay away until my “normal” bedtime, anyway. There has been a period of laying awake but I am settling into this new routine. I do feel better the next day which reinforces the change.

The light from our computers also affects our ability to go to sleep. That means shutting down our electronic devices at least an hour before bed. I’m working on turning off my electronics for the night after dinner. I’m not quite comfortable with this, yet. Picking up my phone or other device is a knee-jerk reaction. 

The way the brain constantly collects and processes data is amazing and no small feat now that we are besieged with information through electronics/social media. Something that used to be a catch-up-with-friends social time now inundates us with information that heightens our stress level. Consider a day without it. Sunday is my day to feed my spirit. OWN's Soul Sunday, a cup of tea, good book and a sunny spot makes for a lovely day and does wonders for my harried brain. I didn’t realize how driven I was to keep up with everything. It was exhausting. I’m considering expanding my media fast to 2 days.

Exercise, yoga and T’ai Chi are also great to help quiet the mind and keep the body supple and healthy. I like the app Yoga Studio. It’s free and has classes for different levels of ability. You can even put together your own class if you’d like. 

Let’s unlearn stress by nurturing our bodies and spirits every day.