Guest contribution by: Amy Morrison
Four years ago I finished my graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling. I could finally start working toward my license and build the business of my dreams. I could finally start helping people with their mental health issues and all of the other things that come with the diagnoses of depression, anxiety, OCD, and other disorders.
So why didn’t I feel more excited?
Why didn’t I feel relieved and joyful about my impending graduation?
In my rush to help others and support their wellness, I lost track of my own health. I pushed my body to its limits in grad school and the wear and tear was showing.
Ironically I found myself passionate about the mental and physical health of others but it took some fairly serious symptoms in my own body to actually get me to pay closer attention to myself. In May of 2017 I had a rash that formed around both of my eyes, a twitch that never seemed to go away, terrible bloating, and an inability to lose weight or gain any muscle (no matter how hard I strength-trained). I also experienced a few massive panic attacks; which made me question whether or not I had this mental health thing figured out at all.
So what was going on? My body was in a state of chronic stress.
An Intro to Stress
You see, stress isn’t the bad guy. It actually keeps us alive and is necessary for our health.
What needs to shift is your relationship to it. Over the years I had piled on so much stress, but I had not completed the stress cycle.
What is the stress cycle, you ask? Well, let me start by explaining a little bit about our incredible bodies.
Your body’s #1 goal is to keep you alive. But alive doesn’t always mean operating at your best self. When we experience a stressor we move into our stress response and for many of us that can mean we either feel activated toward our fight/flight response or we feel frozen and immobilized. Most often the freeze response is what we use when the fight/flight response will not work. By activating these responses your body is simply trying to keep you as safe as possible. But when we don’t take the time to help our body shift into recovery and safety; chronic symptoms start showing up.
So what can we do to support our stress response? Teach your body to shift into feeling safe, secure, and peaceful.
Here are my top 3 ways to manage stress and train your mind to move toward a state of calm.
I got introduced to the power of mindfulness in grad school but for the last four years I have been practicing breath work. Our nervous system (where we get our fight/flight/freeze signals) is incredibly impacted by our breath. When we take shallow, short breaths it is a signal that we need to be more activated and stressed; that maybe there is some danger lurking around that tree in the forest (or that email in the inbox).
But when we take slow inhales and long exhales out we are tuning our bodies toward feeling more safe and calm. If you find yourself feeling some anxiety building up in your system try this simple exercise; breath in for 2-4 seconds and breath out for double the length of your inhale. So if you breathe in for 4 you exhale out for 8. It might take you some time to build up to an 8 second exhale but the practice is totally worth it.
Our bodies are meant to move. This is especially helpful for calming our stress response because of the cortisol that builds up in your system. Cortisol is the stress hormone that activates your body to move away from a scary situation, but if we just sit around with it stewing in our systems we will continue feeling the chronic effects of stress. As a former group fitness instructor and personal trainer I was always struck by how much better everyone said they felt after engaging in exercise.
I know that it can be tough to build a movement practice so start with what you like, maybe you take walks or you do a 10 minute yoga class. I love engaging friends in my fitness activities because I hate working out alone and it keeps me accountable.
This one is going to be even more broad than the second. When we engage in connection to self or to others we feel the regulating impact of various calming hormones on our system. How do you connect to yourself? Write in your journal, pray, send a voice message to yourself, engage in any kind of creative expression (paint, draw, sew, write, etc…). How do you connect to others? Reach out to a trusted confidant who can hear what happened in your day and listen with patience and peace, ask a friend to come over and cook with you, go for a walk with a buddy, ya know, just simply connect with another human.
How do we notice growth? healing connection happens when we have new insights about ourselves/the world, not when we’re talking about same stuff diff day. It can feel incredibly regulating to connect with someone who is safe and stable when we experience the weight of stress on our systems.
Next Steps for Your Stress
I hope you feel encouraged and empowered to begin your journey toward a healthier relationship to the stress that shows up in your system. Be gentle with yourself in this process, take small steps toward the person you want to become and the path will be much easier to navigate. When we can bring in compassion and kindness into our process it can be incredibly helpful. Remember, you are a human and we humans aren’t perfect beings; it will take some time for you to figure this out but I am rooting for you.
If you are interested in going a little deeper in your knowledge of the nervous system and how it relates to your mental wellness, check out my program, Regulate + Restore.
Hi, I am Amy Morrison! I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and Wellness Consultant who specializes in educating others about the nervous system. When I work with clients I focus on a holistic model of health and wellness that integrates breath work, mindfulness, physical fitness, and mental health. I envision a world where anyone can get the help they need to experience the best version of themselves.