By Prathama Raghavan
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
As a therapist, I have the privilege of learning from so many people’s experiences and responses to different life circumstances and distresses. What I am hoping to do with this article, is to share with you the coping responses that I have learnt from the people who consult with me. I am also sharing a few that I have learnt through my training and experiences working in conflict and post disaster situations and with people who have had traumatic experiences of violence, oppression and threat.
I think of responses to stress in two ways – one is the immediate and the other is medium term or long term. Stress is our body’s response to a real or perceived threat, a message to the body to act. Any response we have is the body’s wisdom either helping us reduce the threat we are experiencing or supporting us in getting through the difficult situation ‘successfully’. Sometimes when we have experienced distressing situations, details of those situations like sounds, colours, tones of voices, names and words could begin to trigger the body’s response even in non-threatening situations. This is learnt by the body and brain over the course of a lifetime, sometimes unbeknownst to us.
An example of this was how for months after the earthquakes that hit Nepal in 2015 – many of us who live here, would experience a familiar bodily response that could be called stress when we heard a pack of dogs all barking together or when we heard birds chirping in distress and flying away. These were sounds we heard over and over again for weeks after the earthquakes, several times a day, every time there was an aftershock. Our brains had associated these two responses in order to equip itself to protect us. Efficient, wouldn’t you say? Except that years after the earthquake when there are no more aftershocks, I don’t need the body to remember that anymore because it results in my body startling me awake in the middle of the night just because a pack of dogs are barking. How do I teach it to not do that anymore?
Immediate responses to stress
I begin by sharing some strategies that you can use in the moment when you notice your body’s stress response being triggered. The strategies we use in such moments might sometimes only work for a brief few minutes, but they help us in training our body and mind slowly but steadily to reorient ourselves to safety and reverse the body’s stress response.
- Having an anchor: An anchor is anything you can touch, see, feel, smell or listen to that will remind you, your body and brain, of safety. Someone told me they carry a stone in their pocket and hold it tight when their body is having a stress response. A young person spoke about their life-size teddy bear next to them in bed that reminded them of where they were and brought on a sense of safety. I use various little metal objects with some personal attachment like a little pendant of Fatima’s Hamsa hand, a Buddhist Dorje, an elephant. Sometimes during therapeutic consultations, it is touching a plant or looking at one that helps me anchor myself in the room.
Are these examples reminding you of anchors you might already be using in your day to day life? Often in conversations, I realise most people already have an anchor even if they don’t call it that or recognize fully the purpose it serves. Identifying the anchor makes us use it more intentionally next time. I have also found that touch and smell anchors are most effective. When our body and brain are too busy responding to the stressor, sometimes listening and seeing is harder.
- Using all the senses: While listening and seeing alone can be harder, using them along with the other senses can be a good way to reverse the stress response in the moment. Here is a classic exercise you will find on many such lists. Do this when you are in a relatively safe place and away from immediate danger.
- Take a deep breath, let go with a Shhhh or a Phew through your mouth.
- Now look around you and identify:
- 5 things you can see – I usually add a colour – 5 blue things for example.
- 4 things you can hear (don’t do this one if the sounds are part of what caused your stress response in the first place – for example if there are fire crackers or distressing alarms, or sounds of destruction, cries, etc. in the background)
- 3 things you can touch around you – touch them and feel their texture
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste – if you can’t taste anything, just attempt to produce saliva in your mouth.
- Take another deep breath and let go with a Shhh or a Phew through your mouth.
- Activate the digestive system gently: Our stress responses in the moment remove our body’s focus from the gastro-intestinal system and direct it to the vital organs. Drink water, herbal tea, chew gum, suck on a candy or eat a fruit when you notice the stress response coming on. Doing any of these, like producing saliva mentioned in the previous exercise, activates the digestive system, therefore sending a message to our brains to ease the stress response.
- Breathe: Take a deep breath and listen to the bray of your heart as Sylvia says. This is classic and free, we always have it with us. I like the 4-7-8 technique.
- Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen.
- Breathe in to the count of 4, hold for 7 counts and breathe out to 8 counts.
- I do this ten times, check how I am feeling and start again.
- It helps to alternate it with a counting exercise, (count beads or black cars or anything around you) or saying a simple multiplication table in your mind before you go back to breathing again.
- Left brain, right brain: Alternatively activating the right brain and left brain can bring some immediate relief when you notice the body’s stress response. Hum or sing a song briefly and then count to 10 and then go back to singing and then back to the counting. Alternate these a few times.
The more often you use these exercises, the more your body and brain understand the message you are sending them, so they work better and better as you continue using them.
Responding to mid and long-term stress
For some of us the feeling of stress and anxiety in our bodies can feel constant, from morning to night. When anxiety seems to always be around, when do we use these exercises? I suggest doing them at certain intervals during the day. Every couple of hours for example or right before meal times or even just morning and night or during your commute every day. This helps keep the anxiety and stress at a more manageable level throughout the day and might help with feeling less overwhelmed at the end of the day.
For those of us feeling constant or near constant stress and anxiety in our bodies, here are some strategies that help with longer term responses to distress. I want to add that considering the state of the world right now – the injustices and violence of governments and leaders, devastating natural disasters – distress is the appropriate response to these situations. Distress is also an appropriate response when we experience everyday oppression, marginalization and discrimination. Constant distress might, for some of us, sometimes, many a times, come in the way of doing what we want towards hoping, dreaming and making a different world. These strategies can help us begin to create space for our whole selves to be present. None of these are by any means my discoveries, they come from a whole community’s knowledge and wisdom.
- The container exercise: This could be perceived as a bridge exercise from the immediate relief ones to the longer term ones. When we need to focus on something and our minds are hyperactive, this works well. It uses our mind’s capacity to contain difficult experiences and free space for everyday functioning.
- Imagine some sort of container – a trunk, a cupboard, a room, a chest, a submarine, a room full of bottles – to store your thoughts in, to free your mind temporarily so that you can focus on the task at hand.
- This is also a useful exercise to do at night when there are too many things on your mind coming in the way of sleep. I usually imagine a stream of thoughts flowing from my mind into the trunk somewhat like Dumbledore in Harry Potter putting his thoughts in the pensieve. You can find your own way of doing this and your own container.
- Simple morning and night time rituals: These I find are the hardest to put in place or in any case to maintain when we experience most distress. In general when we are doing more or less better, it is a good idea to figure out what morning-time and night-time rituals are good for us and try to do them regularly. For example, my morning ritual is making coffee and watering my plants while coffee is getting made, then returning to the kitchen smelling of coffee and drinking it, with music or a short podcast to start my day. My night time ritual is making any bedtime tea and reading a few pages before I sleep.
- Body movement: Including some kind of intentional body movement in your week as often as possible is a good way to stay connected to your body. Try a series of stretches, simple ritualistic movement of limbs, the surya namaskar, a walk, dancing, Tai Chi or any others you love. Try and include it in your week.
The two exercises below are primarily for us to give our minds the time it needs to process our lives without additional stimulation or information.
- Something reflective: Including a reflective exercise in our lives helps us stay in touch with what is happening to us, to notice what is changing, things that might be affecting us and paying attention to our responses to the world. This could be therapy, writing a journal, art journaling, tarot or other card readings, long honest conversations with dear friends. For some of us it could be an activity that allows us time to think and process for a while in the day like washing vessels or staring out of a car, bus or train window during commute.
- Something creative/repetitive: Painting, colouring, doing origami, drawing, cooking, baking, crochet, knitting, singing, playing an instrument, anything that is creative and/or repetitive helps with giving our minds the space it needs to process the day or week. They also bring a sense of calm as they are usually things that need us to focus on the moment, be in the present.
I want to say that all of these do not and need not work for everyone. If there are exercises/responses you feel particularly drawn to, try them – if they don’t resonate with you – leave them. I hope there is something for all of you in this list. I also know that every one of you has your own resources and I hope this helps you highlight them if you aren’t already familiar with them. If you are living through everyday experiences of violation, oppression or pain, be gentle with yourself. Everything you are doing is already helping.
Prathama is a developmental psychologist who works as a school counsellor and therapist in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her work and life is informed by feminism, neurodiversity, narrative approaches and poetry. She consults with children, young people, adults and families, ‘excavating’ stories of resistance and persistence, on a journey to finding out ‘what the world is trying to be’. She is part of our TCC Family.