Sharon is the founder of a busy therapy and coaching practice in Cambridgeshire. She specialises in working with individuals with symptoms of trauma, anxiety, panic attacks and managing stress with a special interest in supporting the Emergency Services. She has clients globally.
Over the years she has known how painful and amazing life’s journey can be. Having experienced significant emotional events and trauma, juggling a career spanning three decades in the Emergency Services with a family and the pressure to succeed across all areas of life.
It has always been part of her own ‘why’ to make therapy and coaching accessible, especially through group work and workshops.
She wants you to know that it is possible to eradicate life limiting anxiety and it is possible to stop striving and start thriving.
You can read more here and find out how to work with Sharon:
If one thing is apparent right now, we don’t all need a National Stress Awareness day to remind us that many are batting with stress, so to help with the understanding, it’s good to talk… so let’s talk about stress.
Whilst the real danger amongst the various types of stress is Chronic Stress (more later) we know that some exposure to life events can lead to symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress or Psychological Injury and that emotional pain as well as the lack of physical safety can lead to a lasting traumatic response that can lead to changes in the brain and body at a cellular level.
Trauma is what I want to focus on very briefly, the word alone has come under much scrutiny recently in some quarters as being ‘over used’ or with individuals who have been clinically diagnosed with PTSD as feeling belittled in comparing others less traumatic experiences.
Firstly, not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop trauma.
Secondly, trauma is not a competition of who’s experiences of events are the most horrific or extraordinarily stressful, trauma is what happens inside of us, ordinarily a normal response to these disturbing events however, it becomes problematic when our nervous system gets stuck and the body can become one of the theatres where the memory of that trauma can be re-enacted.
It is key to remember that it is not objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but our subjective emotional experience of the event. Many of us may also be the ‘Living Legacy’ of our past.
Events range hugely from exposure to traumatic events, physical or sexual assaults, abuse, serious health problems, accidents, childbirth experiences, domestic abuse, emotional needs not being met as a child, unstable or unsafe environments, complex grief to even the lasting psychological and neurological damage caused by bullying or failures where betrayal and trust is broken – the spectrum is vast and complex.
It is for nobody to undermine our experiences, remember: Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.
Emotional & Psychological Symptoms:
Thanks to Stefano Pollio @stefanopollio for making this photo available freely on Unsplash
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitated
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
- Nightmares or flashbacks
Telling the story of what happened to us is often not nearly sufficient to ‘fix’ problematic trauma. We may have to work with the somatic effects, emotional effects, and the relational effects, including the relationship to oneself.
Remembering this can be beneficial in understanding how to help ourselves and most significantly when supporting others – trauma doesn’t just live in the mind.
Whatever the cause of our trauma, and whether it happened years ago or yesterday, it is possible to ‘heal’. Whilst what it means to ‘heal’ is also subjective, it can imply the ability to simply function again, to regain our lives or to find a new normal, propelled from life’s rich tapestry through a journey of post traumatic growth and good relational trauma informed therapy.
On our journey we know the brain and body are inherently adaptive – accessing the right help, having a smidgin of hope, acceptance, self-compassion and accountability to guide us on our healing journey from trauma can be transformative.
As Bessell Van der Kolk* writes, trauma is specifically an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories.
“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then,” he adds. “It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
*The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Now to Chronic Stress:
Let’s be realistic, many of us may never completely be able to rid ourselves of all the stressors in our lives, short lived feelings of stress are a regular part of our daily life, at times unavoidable. When these feelings become long lasting or chronic, they can severely impact our health.
Stress is a biological response to demanding situations where the body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline – the same hormones that help the body to take action quickly can then persist. The physical effects may lead to a constant state of heightened alertness or having an inability to switch off and relax.
Such a stressed state is ‘Chronic Stress’. This put simply, is toxic.
The description by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, in his book ‘The Stress Solution’ where he introduces us to ‘The Cupboard of No Return, It lives on his kitchen wall. Open the door and you’ll see three deep shelves, each crammed top to bottom with shrapnel of everyday life, like broken screwdrivers, receipts, one child’s glove and a broken light bulb’ is a great reminder of how life’s pressures can mount up and there can be a constant reminder.
The reason why the Cupboard of No Return is such a problem, isn’t just the result of stress, it is its power to generate stress. Even looking at the cupboard can be the cause of stress – he describes how the cupboard broadcasts information to us and that very existence of stress in our lives, minds and bodies has the power to generate yet more stress.
A perpetual cycle if we allow it.
What is in your Cupboard of No Return?
The more that these stressors accumulate and the larger the stressors become, the less we are able to cope and the closer we move to being overwhelmed, we can become reactive, emotional and physically unwell.
Chronic Stress is scientifically proven to be a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases.
No longer should we focus solely on the presenting disease or illness, Dr Gabor Maté in his book ‘When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress’ articulates simply:
“When someone comes to a doctor with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s not enough that they get prescribed an anti-inflammatory; they should also be engaged in a conversation about the life stresses that triggered the episode of inflammation, as invariably turns out to be the case. The ultimate aim, of course, is to help people develop the capacity to say no to unwanted stress so that their body doesn’t end up having to say it for them.
One may wish to explore and accept the full range of medical treatments available – and at the same time one needn’t believe that that’s enough, or that’s where one’s options end. In addition to whatever physical modalities or treatments are offered or accepted, when the time is right and the person is ready, there’s tremendous value to cultivating a real understanding of how one has lived one’s life, maybe in ways that haven’t been supportive of oneself. That exploration can provide insights and possibilities for change that can greatly improve the quality of one’s life, with or without a serious disease. Healing (which, in its origins, literally means “making whole”) is a matter not just of physical modalities but of understanding how we generate stress, and learning how not to generate stress.”
There is no victim blaming here. Many of us are predisposed to stress for different reasons, whether that is genetics, beliefs, parenting, personality type or learnt behaviours, some can thrive shrouded in stress others enter Chronic Stress more rapidly and crash. Dr Gabor Maté goes on to explain, that through no conscious will of our own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with our own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time.
The inability to say no, the need to take on other people’s problems as our own, the driven need to always be ‘nice’ or ‘helpful’ or ‘positive’ or not ‘rock the boat’, even if that means suppressing one’s own emotions – these traits are all responses to early childhood experiences and circumstances, over which the child has no control. That inner child can remain within us.
It’s not even a conscious choice; it’s more of an automatic decision the young self makes in order to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters. Over time, if those patterns get reinforced and become rigid parts of the personality and remain unexamined, they can have detrimental effects on immune system functioning, even to the point of serious illness as mentioned above.
They first emerge as responses to stress, but in the long run they themselves are incredibly stressful to body and mind. (which are inseparable, as Maté discusses in the book)
So what’s the solution to this toxicity called Chronic Stress?
Using knowledge to empower ourselves and thus exercising some responsibility is a great place to start.
Taking personal responsibility where we can means recognising that we are the ones who can begin to recognise the patterns that may have remained hidden and automatic and begin the work to change them. Identifying with our own ‘Cupboards of No Return’ and learn to build resilience.
It may not be for the feint hearted to begin the work to alleviate some of the damage caused by what can be decades of surviving and merely functioning with Chronic Stress but we have nothing to loose.
It’s not everyone’s privilege to access good therapy and coaching – however there are steps we can take on our own.
Here is what that personal responsibility may look like:
- An understanding that we play a role in everything that we experience in life. This means we have the opportunity to influence how we experience life itself.
- An opportunity to explore our inner child with curiosity, and most importantly of all with compassion.
- An awareness that we have many choices everyday and intentional choices and boundaries can lead to transformation to a more balanced life.
Remembering that our emotional reaction to events initiates the stress response. “We need to make a distinction between events and our experience of them,” Dr Rick Hanson says. “An event that’s highly stressful for some people is no big deal for others.”
The key to lowering stress, according to Hanson, is to build that resilience. Since we have only modest control over what happens to us, our best hope is to train ourselves to respond to stressful circumstances without triggering the pesky alarm system every time.
What follows are some of the primary building blocks that I use, much like a ‘5 A day’ to staying well and grow resilience for a more stress-resilient mind and body:
Understanding ‘how’ and ‘why’ the building blocks develop the resilience are as important as the tasks themselves.
- Rest and Breathe
Charge up and activate the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system, the antidote to the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system – to do so I sit and practice conscious breathwork daily. Doing so stimulates the vagus nerve which is shown to help lower the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system.
Breathing exercises are not only accessible at any time and can be used to shift our focus away from stress and pain in the moment but can help develop that much sought after resilience through toning the vagus nerve that gives us greater balance.
Many traditions teach slow, deep breathing techniques with an emphasis on longer exhalations. When you understand that the vagus nerve is stimulated during the exhalation and passive on the inhalation, this explains why these practices are so effective in terms of mental health and cognition.
Listen to Patrick McKeown here:
There is still limited scientific evidence as to the specific benefits of cold-water immersion however there are several compelling theories that may just convince you to give it a go.
Another activity, including just splashing your face with cold water which can be sufficient to activate your vagus nerve. The acute cold increases stimulation of your vagus nerve and whist the body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, whilst parasympathetic activity increases.
Cold water immersion increases the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters that can improve the physical symptoms of Chronic Stress, in doing so research also suggests that cold water immersion may act like a systemic ice pack that helps to reduce inflammation in the body.
We have a high concentration of cold receptors on the surface of our skin. When activated the brain receives an influx of sensory information that is thought to have an antidepressant effect. It is possible that the influx and intensity from the skin to the brain acts like a pause or reset button.
Plunging into the cold acts as a short sharp physiological stressor. It temporarily puts our system into sympathetic survival mode, brief and repeated exposure to this physical stress may actually improve our overall stress response in a process called cross-adaptation. By making friends with the cold, we are developing an adaptive response to one stress, which may translate into other, unrelated stress triggers.
Lastly, the psychosocial aspect of cold-water exposure can’t be underestimated. The sense of achievement, the commitment to oneself and to a ritual, and the opportunity for social connection when practicing regular cold-water immersion are all thought to play a role in improving many mental health conditions.
While jumping in a cold lake, ocean, or river isn’t always possible, having a cold shower or bath at home is – sharing a cold shower with someone can be doubly invigorating!
As a general rule, start slow and acclimatise through repeated exposure in the form of short doses of cold-water exposure. Gradually build up a daily practice by lowering the temperature and extending duration of your cold shower.
(If you are pregnant, have cardiovascular issues or other health conditions, consult a doctor before taking the plunge)
Learn more here:
- Be With The Intensity of Emotion
Remember, the overwhelming sensations and emotions that we experience are there for a reason. They are acting as information. They aren’t always bad. Our body experiences, no matter how extreme and uncomfortable, are not to be seen as always negative, or something to try to get rid of (suppression or ignoring them is where we get into trouble). They’re an opportunity for us to listen, learn and grow.
The key to lessening the intensities of overwhelm is to BE WITH the intensity. And, to do this safely, getting back into the body is vital. Become the observer of your thoughts and emotions.
Practice this body-based meditation when you are not in a highly activated or stressed state. This helps to build new helpful neuropathways and again encourage balance, taking us out of our heads.
Simply practicing being in our body can be tricky and overwhelming for some, start small – notice any overwhelm rather than ignoring it by incorporating the following:
Step One: Listen to your breath – don’t adjust it, notice it and soften your face and jaw.
Step Two: Stay with step 1, feel your feet on the ground – it feels good to stand bare foot on the grass and notice what you feel, however any surface is good.
Step Three: Stay with step 1 & 2, and simply notice your hands – just feel them, your skin, contours and temperature.
Step Four: Stay with step 1-3 and notice your shoulders, drop them, let them relax and notice the tension dissipate.
Step Five: Stay with steps 1- 4 and bring complete focus to your lower body’s strength and support.
Repeat as necessary.
- Practice and Record Gratitude and Positivity
This can feel like the hardest thing ever when in the thick of navigating life’s stressors, again another research area shows the great value of experiencing positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, calm, hope and compassion. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson suggests that when we experience a positive emotion, “Our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others, and face our problems with clear(er) eyes.”
In other words, positive emotions allow us to be more creative, more capable of seeing what is happening around us and more capable of developing solutions.
Therefore, noticing and reflecting on when you do experience any positive emotions can be beneficial, get them down on paper at the end of the day along with your daily gratitude practice. Gratitude is an emotion that helps ground us and can balance our negative thinking. When we express gratitude our brain releases dopamine and serotonin.
Research has found that those who have regular gratitude practices are more resilient and thus respond better to stressors. What are you waiting for, make a start by putting your gratitude glasses on.
- Create Boundaries with Self Compassion
Thanks to engin akyurt @enginakyurt for making this photo available freely on Unsplash
There is a need to implement boundaries across our lives, however the underlying challenge is understanding not so much the ‘why’ are they so friggin’ hard to implement but to see the longer-term benefits of consciously using and communicating them.
Without boundaries we are more open to the feeling of overwhelm, overwhelm leads to experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety which can lead to burn out. A vicious cycle – one that I am sadly, however equally happy to be familiar with.
Without this revelation and understanding I would not have been able to break my own cycle of being all things to everyone and living with the effects of trauma and chronic stress.
So, if fences allow us to protect what’s valuable to us. They also allow us to control who and what enters our space.
Remember our personal responsibility?
Our personal boundaries do a similar job.
They set the limits that separate us from other people – not necessarily to exclude interaction, but to protect what matters to us, and to control who enters our psychological space, as well as our physical space.
Boundaries also foster more productive work environments. Colleagues with differing values, needs and beliefs sometimes lead to conflict, resentment and stress, so clearly defined boundaries can help to prevent these negative reactions.
But, if personal boundaries are such a vital part of our interpersonal interactions, why do so many of us struggle to build them?
That may just be something to take to therapy!
Setting boundaries will likely give you an immediate sense of empowerment, but ‘holding your line’ and maintaining them can be hard, especially if others are used to you not doing so.
You need to maintain a clear sense of what you will and will not accept but be realistic and adaptable when necessary. Reset boundaries to suit your situation, and rethink ones that later seem too rigid. Remember not to isolate yourself or to simply stop collaborating or being present.
When your boundaries are under threat, look out for the negative emotions that you associate with the situation and work to understand and control them, even sit with them while calmly reasserting those boundaries. All the while practice being with the intensity of the emotion that you feel.
Are you the reason you’re overwhelmed?
Are you the reason, even in part why you’re overwhelmed?
Notice how you feel when you read these. Did you nod your head, or did you feel an urge to click away immediately?
It’s two of the questions I had to truthfully answer to learn to implement and communicate boundaries in my own personal and professional life, boundaries and a sprinkling of self-care, self compassion all to help replenish myself and develop that much sought-after resilience to living with stress.
I could give you a plethora of other building blocks and self-care activities, ranging from exercise, nutrition, being in nature and staying connected to people however the list is potentially endless.
It is important to find out what works for you, be prepared to explore and examine your patterns, connect with your inner child, identify with your own ‘Cupboard of No Return’ and learn to build resilience.
Take personal responsibility.
‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ is that proverbial (occasional annoying) expression used to inspire optimism and a positive can-do attitude in the face of difficulty or misfortune. Lemons suggest sourness or trouble in life; making lemonade is turning them into something positive or desirable.
With a sprinkling of knowledge, implementing your own ‘5 A day’ and reviewing your own personal responsibility know that it is possible to grow resilience for a more stress-resilient mind and body.
Further Reading & References:
- Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors – Janina Fisher
- The Stress Solution – Dr Rangan Chatterjee
- Overwhelming Injustice & Post Traumatic Blame Theory – Claire Carter
- The Body Keeps the Score – Dr Bessel Van der Kolk
- When the Body Says No – Dr Gabor Maté
- Resilient – Dr Rick Hanson
- The Oxygen Advantage – Patrick Mckeown.