The Stress Spike
In my last two posts I've talked about the two common neural zones we find ourselves in: the Fight/Flight Zone, and the Flourishing Zone. (The third is the Freeze Zone where we shut down due to an imminent threat to our life - not so common.) It's the Fight/Flight Zone where we tend to react unskillfully and damage ourselves, others, and our relationships, so I want to share some tactics for shifting out of there and back into the Flourishing Zone.
When a gazelle sees a lion, it's nervous system flips into the Fight/Flight Zone. A spike in stress hormones fires it up for emergency action and it flees to safety. If successful, within minutes it's back to grazing calmly.
Us humans, we're not so good at returning to grazing. We need to learn how to soothe the body-mind after a stress-spike.
Let's say our 'lion' (perceived threat) is our boss speaking to us in an unhappy tone. We've been practising mindfulness and we can feel our body gearing up for faux-emergency action. We feel tense and our mind has narrowed to focusing on the threat. We know we're in the Fight/Flight Zone.
We also know this is not a helpful place to be (see the two previous posts here and here). Neither fighting (giving our boss a mouthful), nor fleeing the situation (storming off) are going to help. But how do we recover from this process of firing up? How do we deal with the spike of stress hormones that are coursing through our bodies as if there was some life threatening emergency? How do we self-soothe and shift back into the Flourishing Zone where we have access to our skill, reason and creativity?
I'm going to offer you some practical tactics. But first, we need to understand the stress spike. It's a bunch of hormones being released into your body. These hormones may only be acute for a few minutes, but they stay present for a few hours (or more if we ruminate on the stressful event which then injects more of them).
If we have another stressful event during this time, we're already primed to see and respond to threat - primed to overreact. So we go into that next meeting and we're more likely to interpret our colleagues' comments as threatening and react, and less likely to see things as they are and respond skillfully. (Making long term decisions in this state is not a good idea.)
Edginess is also more present early in the morning when cortisol levels (one of the key hormones) are at their highest - from around 6-8am.
When we're under the influence of a stress spike, we need to be vigilant with our responses, to take extra care with ourselves, and engage self-soothing tactics.
Here are seven effective tactics for when our bodies are fired up for a faux-emergency.
1. Act like a block of wood - the first thing to do is....nothing! Think: block of wood sitting on the ground, going nowhere, still as a post. You're more likely to be reactive rather than intelligent if you act now. So the first step is just to be that block of wood and not make the situation worse, until you can self-soothe your way out of the spike. Here's how...
2. Breathe out slowly - when we breathe out, we trigger our parasympathetic nervous system. That's the 'rest and digest' mode of grazing gazelles. Do something that requires a long out-breath. That could be 7/11 breathing where you count to 7 on the in-breath and 11 on the out-breath. It could be singing, playing a wind instrument, whistling, anything that requires you to make that out-breath nice and l - o - n - g.
3. Exercise - cortisol is the main trouble maker when it comes to prolonged stress. The fastest way for the body to process cortisol is exercise. The worst thing you can do is skip that run/ cycle/ swim/ gym class.
4. Distraction - engage in an activity that requires you to think. This stops us from re-living the stressful event in our minds, producing more spikes.
5. Physical touch - the touch of another being is soothing. Whether it's human hugs, dog hugs, big soft teddy-bear hugs, massage, playing the invisible writing game (where someone traces out words on your back and you have to identify them), or other forms of touch, it's a great self-soother. (Skip this one if touch has fearful associations for you.)
6. Communicate the state - if we are aware that we've had several stress spikes in a short time, we know we're likely to react to things. If you're having to interact with people during this time, let them know you've had a few stressful things happen and you're a bit wired at the moment. They can cut you a bit of slack and not take your edginess the wrong way.
7. Seek empathy - share your stressful situation with someone who's a good listener - someone who can empathise without needing to fix things. True empathy is gold.
These are all short term fixes to finding yourself in the Fight/Flight Zone. There are also longer term tactics to help keep you from straying there in the first place (more on that to come). But we can only access those when we're in the Flourishing Zone. So the more immediate tactics are needed first.
What have you found helps shift you out of the Fight/Flight Zone?