I’ve been talking quite a bit about stress on Instagram, which inspired this blog post today. I want to dive into the physical symptoms of stress, and give you a fantastic tool I’ve used for over a year now to not only control the stress response, calm down my body but also to tap into the places where stress is stored and release it.
Stress and Physical Pain
I’ve come to the realization during my back pain journey that stress contributed to a lot of my physical pain. The first wake up call was when my symptoms vanished during a vacation and started happening again once I resumed my highly stressed out life. We all have triggers that get us chronically stressed, and for me, it’s having a lot on my plate, not a lot of head space to breath and a lot of expectations from people.
I just freak out!
“Stressed and busy” has become the new normal. We normalized a life where everyone is running on autopilot and fueling their sleep-deprived bodies with coffee and energy drinks.
We are usually considered a successful person when we are always looking busy, and constantly on “doing”, or “hustle” mode. That’s how society perceives a successful person and this has translated into numerous stress-related illnesses, and psychosomatic disorders like muscle aches, migraines and other body symptoms that are simply signs from our bodies screaming at us to slow down.
Here are some fantastic reads (my recommendations) if you want to learn more about stress, trauma, and the physical symptoms related to them. You can go as deep as you want on this topic. I have personally read and studied all of these books.
I understand that we cannot simply “turn off” stress. But it’s important to understand it, and learn how your body responds to it so that you can control it better.Your Body needs “healthy” stress to grow.Click To Tweet
When Stress is Healthy
There are many forms of healthy stress. Exercise is one of them. Stress is beneficial in the short-term but when we are spending the majority of our time in stress mode. That’s when damage starts happening. While stress is a normal physical response, chronic stress is damaging to the body in the long run.
Enter: The autonomic nervous system (ANS)
The part of the nervous system that takes care of breathing, digesting, balancing hormones, organ control…etc. Anything that you don’t consciously influence is regulated by the ANS.
The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the ANS that kicks in during times of stress to help your body fight through it. Imagine being chased by a lion! You need that stress response for your survival. After the event has passed, your body is back to its normal state.
However, when stress is chronic, your body doesn’t know the difference between work stress, financial stress, chronic pain stress, family/relative stress, and running away from a lion stress. The response is all the same.
One thing to keep in mind is that the other part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for regeneration, and recovery (and healing) is called the parasympathetic nervous system, and it’s mostly shut down because we are on a stress dominant mode.
Our bodies do not get enough time to recover and heal.
Turning on the healing and recovery switch can be easy. It just demands some practice and more self-awareness.
There are many ways to release stress from the body – yoga, a massage, a warm bath. But I really want to share with you a 7 step process I’ve been going through myself, and that I have taught to many of my clients to help you control the stress response, and tap into the parasympathetic nervous system whenever you feel stressed (wherever you are).
On a personal note, I have used this process myself to also control chronic pain. It took some time, but it really helped me connect with my nervous system and calm it down.
So here we go:
7 Steps to Release Stress from the Body
1. Decide to take a break.
Really make a conscious choice to set about 2-3 minutes to do this exercise every time you feel burned out, stressed or start experiencing physical symptoms.
2. Connect with your body
If I’m sitting down I like to start by placing my hands on my belly and start taking deep breaths. I connect more with my body through the hand touch and I think it will help you too if you’ve never done this exercise before.
3. Tune in
Start scanning each area of your body starting with your feed. Whenever you feel an area that feels tense, pause and connect with it. I understand this part may feel so overwhelming. But remember this: this is usually where you’d be experiencing the stress response. For me, it’s usually my belly, hips, and shoulders. I start breathing very shallowly and my shoulders tense up.
Start noticing how those areas feel with the current stress response. You just want to observe here and notice if any emotions come up.
The first time I did this, I got nauseous. I had a lot of tension and emotions stuck in my body that I wasn’t aware of.
This is your first step to focusing back into the body and giving it your full attention.
4. Be present
This is when you want to stay patient and present with those sensations. If it starts feeling uncomfortable, tune into your breath again – deep belly breath.
Also, while you may not notice much in your hands, for example, your shoulders or hips may feel very tense. Focus on that area and breath into it. Just observe and be present with it.
5. Follow the breath
By now you will notice that your body is starting to relax naturally. Your shoulders may drop down on their you start you start feeling a sense of calm. You can place your hands on those areas that felt very tense earlier to tune into them a little more (if you can reach them). Recognise that this is where the stress response happens in the body. Every time you have a stressful moment, you’ll become more aware of it.
6. Slow down
To start calming down your nerves and tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, I like to slow down the exhales. Count to 3 every time you exhale. You will get way calmer and more present.
I really LOVE writing about my experience. If you have a journal or notebook handy, just write down how you felt, what areas felt tense, what emotions were brought up, and how do you feel now compared to when you started. I like to just write whatever comes to my mind and notice the words I’m using.
This technique is very transformational. You have to try it to see for yourself. It’s really personal for me because of how much I’ve learned about my body through it, and the whole experience is like meeting with an old friend who really missed you (your body).
Here are some of my favorite journal prompts to get you started. You can pick one or a few to help you navigate through your body’s stress response, so you are able to control it better.
What is stressing me out?
What emotions are in my body that I’m ignoring or don’t want to feel?
What emotions arose in my body during this exercise?
What physical sensations did I experience?
What was my body’s immediate reaction to this stressful event (tightness, tensing up, etc.)?
How can I support myself to help me through this?
How can I connect more with my body?
So there you have it. I really hope you give this short exercise a try. It can take from 2 up to 30 minutes if you want. If you are in a public area you can just do a quick tune-in session when needed. This quick technique will not only release stress from the body but will help you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system.
Make it your own
Please take your time with this. There is no right or wrong to do this exercise. You do whatever works best according to your schedule and lifestyle. The important thing is to try it anyways instead of ignoring it because you don’t feel you can follow the process to the T.
So again, make it your own process.
Also, don’t forget that it’s okay to feel a little weird about it if you’ve never done this kind of inner work before. Just give yourself permission to give your body the attention it deserves and you will be working with the body to heal, recover instead of constantly working against the flow.