You can be doing everything right: eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, even meditating, but then you can't find your phone, or you slip and lose your footing, or the warning light goes off in your car, and it sends you over the edge. Suddenly, it all becomes too much to deal with. What do you do when everything you're doing to take care of yourself still isn't enough to alleviate the stresses of life's everyday challenges?
It's easy to feel overwhelmed when there is "too much" to handle. The mind races trying to figure out solutions, and the body either tenses up in an effort to get things done or collapses to give up, neither of which are helpful in dealing with the overwhelming situation. Training yourself to become aware of your body's sensations during these moments can reduce stress and teach you how your body can lead you back to mental and physical equilibrium.
The process of noticing sensations in your body is called interoception. It's how we perceive physical feelings from our bodies, which then determines our mood and sense of well-being. There are a variety of sensations that arise during moments of high stress to notice, including: temperature changes, muscle constriction, trembling, increased or decreased blood flow, feelings of expansion, and more.
Motor nerve fibers relay commands from the brain to the gut, and for every one sent, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the body to the brain, such as the sensations described above. Even though the sensations might be subtle, they provide important information that can lead your system to a more settled state.
Here are some simple tips to help you become aware of those sensations and calm your nervous system:
Balancing Your Whole Body
When you stand up balanced directly over your feet, you tend to feel more calm and centered. When you lean off of your support, either forward or back, or to the sides, your muscles constrict and your body tenses up to keep you from falling over. This tension in your body can make you tremble and feel uneasy, in the same way that you would feel if there was a chance you would actually fall over. Next time you're standing and feeling anxious about something, make sure your weight is balanced evenly over your feet. This will allow your body to relax into ease.
Releasing Your Neck
When we are surprised, overwhelmed, or startled, the body goes into a startle pattern of reflex movements. Frank Pierce Jones, an Alexander Technique teacher and researcher, measured the startle pattern with multi-strobe photography, and saw that the first movement of the pattern is the neck tightening. When you feel things are too much to handle, notice the constriction in your body, and particularly the tightening in your neck. Focusing on the back of your neck, where your head meets your spine, allow your neck to release upward. Turn your head from side to side very slowly as you keep your neck elongated.
Soothing With Your Hand and Breath
We hold our own body instinctively when we are hurt. If you bump your elbow, your hand immediately goes to cradle it. Our own hands can be very healing, and most ancient cultures and many religions have a practice of laying hands on the body to heal. Next time you're sitting in traffic late for a meeting, or waiting for an audition, and you have butterflies in your stomach, put your hand on your belly. Rather than try to push the nervous sensations away, actually feel the trembling or butterflies. Experience your breath moving in and out, and let your hand move with your breath. The nervous sensations will likely subside from the calming attention of the hands and breath.
Supporting Your Torso
What can you do to ease your racing heart if you are sitting at a bar and wondering if your date will show up, or to calm jittery nerves at your desk while anxiously awaiting a job evaluation? As you are sitting, notice your sitting bones on the chair. Feel the connection of these two bones at the bottom of your pelvis connecting to the chair. Allow yourself to feel the support from the contact with the chair. When you are supported you often feel calmer and breathe easier.
Shaking Stress Off
Animals in the wild have their lives threatened constantly, but don't seem to carry any lasting effects. However, we as humans have much more difficulty recovering from stressful events. From the work of Dr. Peter Levine, author of Waking The Tiger, we know that after a traumatic event, animals tend to shake off the trembling or unused energy, and move on. By doing this they release the excess fight or flight response. Humans, on the other hand, might have a stressful moment and have these strong sensations of excess fight or flight impulses that they can't enact in the moment. This excess energy gets trapped in the body, sometimes causing lasting stress, which can lead to difficulty sleeping, breathing, and even digestion. Next time you are overwhelmed or feel that shaking feeling, be conscious of the accompanying sensations. Instead of trying to get rid of them, notice them, and allow them to move through your body. If you need to go to a private space and let your body shake, do it. Letting your body feel and release these sensations will allow your system to then settle.
These techniques are meant to help ease life's everyday moments of stress, but if you find yourself also seeking professional help, I suggest you find a professional who considers taking into account the body's messages.
In my book, The Actor's Secret, I offer many exercises and explorations like those above for daily practice that can help you to find calmness and equilibrium in mind, body, and spirit.
Betsy Polatin is a movement and breathing specialist, Alexander Technique Teacher, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and Master Lecturer at Boston University. She is the author of The Actor's Secret, distributed by Random House.