Stress is an epidemic. It is one of the most widespread and debilitating conditions in the world, yet many people act as if it is completely natural. Stress sucks up the reserves you should be using to create more resilience, weakens your immune system, hurts your interpersonal relationships and holds you back in all aspects of life. Stress, in a nutshell, sucks.
What we need to understand is that there is actually a wide variety of circumstances where one can suffer the symptoms of stress and trauma. Threats now setting off our alarm systems include possible job performance issues, paying bills, fears of romantic rejection, or even deep seeded fears that pop up every so often.
Whatever it is that is throwing us off kilter – whether it happened just a moment ago or decades ago – our nervous systems need to be “re-set.” Rather than face the pain with gritted teeth, or worse, ignoring it or justifying it (i.e. “It’s just work stress, I’ll wait it out until I find a new job” etc.), there are always ways to establish the natural flow between your mind and body. So the good news is, you can hack your nerves by converting the stress into a tool that makes you stronger.
Ever wonder why animals in the wild don’t get traumatized by their life-and-death existence? You’ll never see a gazelle contemplating anxiously over grazing the field after being chased by a lion. She’ll always continue to be a gazelle and graze in the field. Meanwhile, humans are crippled by anxiety and depression and cannot seem to shake the fear.
But Dr. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing method (SE), wondered the same thing and began drawing on different disciplines to address the physiology of stress and trauma. Dr. Levine holds a Ph.D. in medical biophysics from the University of California in Berkeley and has worked in the field of stress and trauma for over 40 years.
What he realized was that animals will complete the full sequence of a response to danger, by noticing, reacting, and recovering from the threat. Humans often interrupt it. When in jeopardy, animals will access and expend enormous amounts of energy providing the “fuel” to escape the danger. Dr. Levine observed that, once the threat has been successfully overcome, there is a discharge of excess energy through the body. The body returns to baseline by allowing a chemical discharge to move through the nervous system—for example by trembling, shaking, bucking, or running further than necessary simply to escape the predator—which re-sets the mind and body and prepares it for the next challenge.
Re-establishing the Rhythm of the Nervous System
Applying this insight to humans, as Dr. Levine describes in his books Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice, SE focuses on the physiological responses that occur when someone experiences or remembers an overwhelming or traumatic event, in his or her body, rather than only through the thoughts or emotions connected to it.
The reason to do this is to restore the nervous system’s normal cycling between alertness and rest.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus is one of the larger more important nerves in the human body. One key role that it plays is as the “reset” button to counteract when our alarm system has been set off resulting in the infamous fight, flight or freeze response as some type of threat has been perceived. The vagus nerve basically tells the body and brain: “It is safe now. The threat is gone. All bodily functions can return to normal now.”
Again, this mechanism probably works great for the gazelle in the wild or way back in day when humans were being chased by saber tooth tigers. But for now, our sensitive, over-anxious society has to learn how to calm this nerve for sake of our malfunctioning bodies. We must tap into this inner safe zone to let our nervous system know, it’s going to be okay.
There is hope, however, in our good friend the vagus nerve. While we have to work on our alarm system not always going off, we can also work on stimulating our vagus nerve so that our body can remember how its calming system is supposed to work.
The most effective, natural method for stimulating the vagus nerve is deep, belly breath breathing that you typically associate with yoga and meditation. And think about it, air is the very first thing we need for survival, before water and food. Additionally, in yoga class you are turning your alarm systems off, often closing your eyes, trusting your instructor and letting yourself be vulnerable. Your valiant instructor will handle any saber tooth tiger that attempts to enter this safe, nurturing domain while you stimulate this precious nerve.
Daily Mind-Body Maintenance
Dave Asprey spent 10 days meditating in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and spent $20,000 dollars to be attached to a proprietary, eight channel EEG amplifier with custom brain training protocols. Why? To learn how to consciously manipulate stress.
Asprey soon learned to put his brain into a mental state that, under normal conditions, takes people between 21 and 40 years of daily Japanese Zen meditation to achieve. Along with that state comes stress management that results in much higher IQ and creativity levels.
It turns out you don’t need to high-tail it to Tibet or plug yourself into a machine to achieve this state. The secret is daily discipline and conscious efforts to reduce and manage your stress:
1) Have Fun
2) Synchronize your Heart & Brain (Heart Math©)
5) Art of the Living Foundation course
6) Read your neurofeedback (EEG)
You can read the full article to find out more: 6 Ways to Hack Your Nervous System To Consciously Manage Stress
I would like to add a few things to this list…
7) Energy medicine such as reiki or Qigong (Life Energy Cultivation techniques)
8) Massage, body work or investing in a personal at home massage device
10) Relaxation with a strict work-life balance boundary
In the end, I think that managing stress isn’t about becoming bulletproof, like an emotionless Superman or something. I think it’s more about being highly resilient. It’s learning how to rise; through daily practice, tools and exercise that’ll get us out there again, grazing with the lions.
Mind Body Green: What You Need to Know About the Vagus Nerve
Psychology Today: Somatic Experiencing, How Trauma Can Be Overcome