Discharging Stress: Not That Simple

stress response
As part of my colitis self-experimentation program I’ve been studying several techniques for reducing my ambient stress level and for discharging higher levels of stress when they arise. My aerobic exercise, posture, stretching/physiotherapy, breathing improvement and other stress management activities seem to be helping, and my yoga classes start next week, but I know I need to do more, so I’ve been trying a variety of meditation and mind-body awareness exercises, including those suggested by David Abram and Feith Stuart, Kabat-Zinn’s concentration and mindfulness exercises, Nick Smith’s hourglass meditation, an NLP-inspired technique suggested by Mariella Rebora, and the ‘intentional’ meditation and emotional release exercises from Indigo Ocean’s book.

These techniques and exercises have a lot in common: Their purpose is to get you to focus your attention on and to connect with your body, your senses, your emotions, your unconscious behaviours, and/or your being-apart-of-nature. They enable you to better understand the why and how of your emotional reactions and your subconscious physical reactions, and through that understanding to take some conscious control over those reactions — moderating and discharging them.

This is particularly difficult for me. I find it difficult to concentrate on one thing, or for very long on anything, and I’m very uncoordinated (e.g. I know very well conceptually how to swim, to dance, and to play a musical instrument, but my body just doesn’t seem to be able to act on that understanding). And just as different methods of learning to swim, dance, or anything else work for different people, there’s no one right way to learn to meditate. I haven’t found that any of the above techniques work especially well for me, though they all have very strong adherents who swear they work for them. So I can’t recommend any particular method for managing stress. But I have learned a few things from practicing these methods, and perhaps my learnings may be of value to others who are challenged trying to mitigate, moderate or discharge the stress in their lives:

  • How my Stress Manifests Itself: I’ve learned that, while my memories and imaginings of positive events are highly visual and tactile, my memories and imaginings of stressful events are non-sensory, and manifest themselves viscerally and somatically  — when I recall/imagine them, my shoulders and neck stiffen, my stomach tightens and roils, my breathing constricts, and my arms, legs and chest tense. So my reaction is adrenal (at least it was until the steroid I was prescribed for my colitis shut down my adrenal function). That is, it is initially instinctive (perhaps the amygdala-centred fight/flight instinct), automatic, rather than emotional.
  • What Really Stresses Me Most: I’ve learned that the stressers in my life that preoccupy my conscious mind (e.g. money, personal relationships, my disease, and my proclivity to procrastinate) are in fact not what stresses me most. What stresses me most (manifested by the strongest visceral/emotional reaction when I focus my attention on it) is my grief for Gaia. Judging from reader response to my writings on this, I don’t think I’m alone. Biophilia is natural. And, just my luck, while the stressers that preoccupy my conscious mind are mostly temporary and transient, my grief for Gaia is chronic. It never goes away. Our bodies are not well-equipped to cope with chronic stress — it isn’t natural.
  • The Accompanying Emotions: I’ve learned that the emotions that accompany this stress, and which reinforce the instinctive reaction to it, are Anguish, Grief, Helplessness, and Self-Hatred (for my inaction to remedy it). Just imagining a single animal’s life imprisoned in a factory farm sets off this negative symphony of raw, purple, festering feelings. 
  • Human Behaviours That Set It Off: I’ve learned that seven behaviours of other people (and sometimes my own behaviour) provoke an immediate and strong stress overreaction in me: ignorance, stupidity (i.e. not thinking properly — not thinking logically, critically, or creatively, or just not thinking), dishonesty, insensitivity, unfairness (yes, this betrays my liberal worldview), unreasonableness, and abuse of power. I believe the reason these behaviours cause me to overreact is that I associate them with the causes of my grief for Gaia, so my feelings of helplessness and powerlessness about that grief are ‘turned’ on the person behaving badly (whether that be a corporate criminal, a politician, a co-worker, a neighbour, or even someone I love). It’s as if I am searching for someone to blame for what is causing my grief, and when I see this behaviour I blame them. “It’s that kind of behaviour that is destroying our world and causing so much suffering.” 
  • Knowing It’s an Inappropriate/Overreaction Doesn’t Stop Me Having It: I’ve learned that knowing what’s ‘going on’ when I get stressed, and knowing rationally that it is an overreaction, and that it is unhealthy and futile, is not sufficient to allow me to control and discharge that reaction. And just having the intention to stop over-reacting viscerally and emotionally to both situational behaviours and chronic provokers of stress, is not enough either. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself: Perhaps now that I’m at least aware of my unhealthy and futile stress reaction, and have the intention to do something to manage it, to ‘reprogram’ my responses, either by preventing/mitigating them before they occur or discharging them quickly when they do, I will learn to do so with time and practice. I hope so.

I haven’t had a lot of success trying to manage autonomic behaviours in past. My bad habits and fidgets have withstood fifty years of attempts to change them, and my recent process of reminding myself to check my posture, breathing etc. is not yet producing any permanent changes either. But I’m not giving up. We do what we must, and, with the euphoria of the adrenal-suppressant drugs ending as I taper off them, I must find ways to manage stress better.

Does any of this resonate with you? Am I the only one whose stress is caused mainly by things that are not immediate, local and personal to their life? Am I the only one who can’t seem to Let-Self-Change easily? And am I the only one that feels that the line at the end of the Beatles’ Abbey Road — “Boy, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time” — was written just for them?

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14 Responses to Discharging Stress: Not That Simple

  1. Dean F. says:

    The weight you feel distinctly resonates with me. I am your soulmate in this regard. I think a lot of people face the same difficulties notwithstanding whether they admit to it or not. Among various other things, if I can stay present and not so much in my mind … by that I mean in the future or in the past – then I am much better off. I am not sure there is any easy fix or answer. I think that detachment from the fruits of our actions holds the most promise. It is not by any means the only answer, but it is very high for me. Gandhi said the following about the Bhagavad Gita, a very solid source for potential solutions: ” … all actions bind. Then how is one to be free of the bondage of action, even though he may be acting? The manner in which the Gita has solved the problem is, to my knowledge, unique. The Gita says, ‘Do your alloted work but renounce its fruits – be detached and act – have no desire for rewards, and act.'” I don’t know what your results will be. The things you are pursuing are good, and they will take time. It took you 50 years to get here, it will take you a bit to unwind. I do wish you the very best of luck.

  2. I have trouble keeping in touch with the news or current events for this very reason. I’m hypersensitive to the woes of the world. It’s been a constant battle all my life. As a child I remained blissfully unaware and no one had a problem with that, but as an adult I feel a responsibility to be aware, and have to maintain a razor’s edge kind of balance between being informed and protecting myself from the stress of the world.Right now I’m learning a gentle form of Kundalini meditation, and so far that’s helping me. I’ve just begun on this track.

  3. Kay Dayss says:

    I’ve come to realize that my major lesson in this lifetime is learning how to LET GO. What helps me is not all the meditation and other exercises sold to me. What helps me the most is the Hopi Elders message made at the turn of the Century. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of it. It really helps me to remember to let go. I’m sure you have it, but just in case a reader might benefit, here it is:Hopi Elders Speak “You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered: Where are you living? What are you doing? What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader. This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of The river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” The Elders Oraibi, Arizona Hopi Nation

  4. sageservice@gmail.com says:

    I share your deep concerns and passions, and have also been studying stress as of late. I have been surprised that after years of pursuing deeper answers I have found that perhaps I overlooked some shallower ones.I first came across GTD at http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/08/getting-started-with-getting-things-done/ and on numerous technology blogs. After I started readin it, I realized how much my deeper concerns with mankind and the world’s well had become ongoing underlying stressors in my life.The bite, of course being, that when I am stressed, I am less productive, less authentic, and often times even less friendly — thereby reducing the positive effect I could have been having.Anyway, I am sure that you have probably looked into this concept before since your blog seems comprehensive and I have yet to see much of it — but I strangely felt that I should write, and, as I don’t get that feeling often, I decided to honor it.For what it is worth…Keep up the good work.

  5. sageservice@gmail.com says:

    sorry for the double post…

  6. Michelle P. says:

    Hi Dave. Maybe its a “thing” in our late baby-boomer generation to feel what you’re feeling. I don’t know! I do know that I too have “given up” watching news and current affairs a lot of late as it weighs so heavily on my soul to feel so HELPLESS in being able to change anything. I hate feeling helpless! The mistrust and the scepticism I feel toward our informational systems is also what stresses me out, that and relationships with loved ones. I take everything so personally. It’s my strongest weakness. Acceptance is my weapon against succumbing to the angst. When I can accept my failure to change, I change instinctively. I “talk” to God a lot too. I know you don’t really “like” him much as far as deities go… but for me he’s a help when the mind goes nuts – he soothes and embalms my tortured thinking and eases the stress so I can accept what is and let self change to the extent that it is able. Be of good cheer dear man! Life wasn’t meant to be easy but nor were we meant to beat ourselves up over it either! Accept the things you cannot change and change the things you can. That is all anyone is capable of doing really. The rest is mere rubbish and not worth our attention (including the 6 o’clock news).

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi Dave,If your stress is primarily caused by your grief for Gaia, then I would suggest that only ‘she’ can assuage it.You mentioned that some of the meditation techniques you are using focus on ‘being a part of nature’. Have any of the techniques involved opening your emotionas to other people? If so, try doing the same thing, but with he world itself. I can’t/won’t tell you what you may find there, but if you make that connection, I think you will find it useful.Janene

  8. sgage says:

    Hi Dave,Like most others here, I share your sense of grief and helplessness at the oncoming Juggernaut. And yet, even though I see no reason to doubt that it’s going to play itself out to the bitter end (is that called despair?), I will not stop trying to educate and motivate people to fight it (I teach ecology/environmental courses at the college level, have worked in the environmentalist field, etc., and am currently team-teaching a course called Philosophy and Ecology… and believe me, when you attempt to open people’s eyes to the reality of the situation, you observe every level of denial, grief, acceptance, morbid excitement, etc. Me, I’m at the very least bearing witness, and who knows what will come of it. It’s not given to us to know – only to be true to ourselves. My strong feeling as an ecologist is that the world does not work by neat boxes and lists and arrows and schemata and diagrams. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I don’t think you’re going to get the drop on this thing through that kind of analysis, which seems to be some sort of reflex with you – but I must say you’re quite good at it :-) No, I feel that it’s a whole helluva lot more fluid than that. More like field effects. Don’t sell yourself short, don’t limit yourself… you start labelling yourself and pretty soon you believe it must be immutably so. In my opinion, and in my experience, it takes just as much effort to make yourself miserable as it does to make yourself whole. Anyway, all of this is sincerely meant with the best of wishes for you to find wholeness…- Steve

  9. Alvin says:

    Hi Dave!While I’ve always been a fan of your writing, since you ask, may I be a little critical?It sounds like you’re taking on too much of the weight of the world, my friend.I’m sure you’re familiar with the principle of our centre of control (perhaps crouched in other names), that is; there are things out there that can worry and stress us, but some are within our power to change (eg your diet), and some are not (the war in Iraq).A fast way to induce stress and powerlessness is to focus on the things that are above and beyond our control, while not noticing the stuff that is within our control and giving ourselves credit for already doing good work in those areas.I don’t believe this is something you don’t already know, but perhaps you’d like a little reminder of.As an aside, it’s interesting to note that you find stress correlating with your body. Have you looked into the Feldenkrais Method? It’s similar to the Alexander technique.Apparently in his work with patients, Moshe Feldenkrais found that stress areas, even tramatactic memories can be stored in the body. When he helped them relax and soften those areas, those memories would suddenly be let loose, patients would blurt out or remember stuff from ages ago, and it was very healing.I saw this with my own eyes in doing some NLP healing work with a man in his late 50s, who had been carrying a burden of guilt since his teens over his father’s death. The moment we resolved that (he forgave himself), he said he felt a tightness around his chest release, it was a chronic feeling he had grown so used to over the years that he stopped noticing it, but now it was gone.I also experienced it myself when I was doing some NLP work, a lifting of weight from the shoulders, so it seems that the Feldenkrais theory carries some weight (no pun intended!).Plus, I first heard about it from a senior practitioner of my martial art, who had been banged up so badly over the years that hefound he could no longer do martial arts and went in search of a solution.What he found, he said, in the Feldenkrais Method, not only allowed him to do martial arts again, but helped him do it even better because of the proper body alignment & use.

  10. Karen M says:

    Dave: I think you judge yourself too much for not being able to perfect the world (and yourself?) soon enough. What if you were to contemplate the mythology of the centaur, Chiron, also known as the wounded healer… He was a renowned healer and teacher of others, even though he could not “cure” himself. There might be something in that, as long as you don’t take it too literally. I found a link in wikipedia that mentions some of the mythology, though not very much, since it’s an astronomical link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2060_Chiron, but what there is is not bad. There a number of “astrological” books about Chiron that are written without that jargon, but focus instead on the meaning of the wounded healer in one’s life. (As the wiki reference mentions, it could be when that “planet” is particularly active in your life in some way.)

  11. Siona says:

    Oh, Dave.Yes. Me too. I know.

  12. Jordan Mechano says:

    I’m not an expert, but I’m currently undergoing actor training, and a large part of what we do is breath work (for voice) and posture/alignment work. I’m not sure how much detail I can go into now, but I’ll see if I can think of a few points. First, when working on lowering your breath, remember that it’s all a matter of concentration; never “push” the breath to where you want it. Visualization works very well. Right now you may be trying to stomach breathe, and that’s fine, but personally I recommend back breathing. You want to breath way down into your lower back, to your waist and even a bit below it. Again, don’t push it there, just focus there. Child’s pose (kneeling on your legs, then putting your head to the floor and relaxing) is very helpful for this breath. The most important point, for me anyway, is “Less is More”. Don’t overbreath, because that just creates tension. Any tension, in your jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, abdomen, back, etc. will cause the breath to retreat into the chest. Just breath enough to fill the back, and breath out again. I hope that helps a little. Also, for posture, look into the Alexander Technique, if you haven’t already. It was developed by an actor at the turn of the century, and it deals with “relearning” the natural way to hold oneself, centering attention on the “Primary Control”, or the head/neck relationship. Any questions and I’d be happy to help in whatever way I can.

  13. Gary Rondeau says:

    Dave, as you can see from the insightful comments above – you are not alone in feeling despiar for our wonderful planet. We all have our ways of dealing with it. In the present now – we are witness to a level of change only rivaled by the asteroid that hit the earth 65 million years ago. What a privlege to be here now, present at the moment of catastrophe! Gaia survived the “oxygen holocaust” 2.5 Billion years ago – she survived the asteroid collison that wiped out the dinosaurs – and she will survive this unfortunate experiement with intelligence by shaking us off. As much as I love nature and hate to see what we have done to this planet – in the big scheme of things, humans are just a blip. However, each of us has been given a wonderful gift – thats the ability to be here and to observe this unprecendented moment, to be able to reflect and attempt to make sence out of it all. Gaia doesn’t need mankind. As we go about destroying the ecological foundations on this planet, we are surely making it inhospitable for mankind, but life in its infinite variety will find all of the nitches that our destruction will create – and the Gaia process will continue to find ways to make the planet hospitable for many organisms over millenia to come – and thats OK :) So my gieving is for humanity and nature as it is now. But this is the cycle, where death of what’s now makes room for what is to come.

  14. Abbas Abedi says:

    Wow! When you study stress you are thorough! Good Job!

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