From Stress Loop to Stress Language
This is an excerpt from the course manual Restorative Anatomy for Self-Regulation
In previous sections we have discussed stress reflexes, and how these stress reflexes can compound on one another to become a Stress Loop. One example is when the turtle reflex (the head pulling into the shoulders) contracts the neck muscles (SCM and upper trapezius). This change in posture stifles the airway so less oxygen can reach the lungs. This can cause more stress reflexes in the neck muscles (scalene contraction) to lift the upper ribs to attempt to bring more air into the lungs. However, since the neck muscles are already contracting and holding a forward head posture, this further lock down of the neck muscles only exacerbates the poor posture and reduced airway. These two reflexes encourage each other, creating a self-sustainable cycle of limited oxygen that often leads to head and neck pain. This is a Stress Loop within one body. We can use the Ease Keys such as Feel Your Body Breathing and Brain Balloon Up to interrupt this Stress Loop.
Stress reflexes also show up in behavior and how we interact with other humans. If I tend to default to a Freeze-and-Float reflex (immobilization and dissociation), this may show up as an unwillingness to engage with others. My nervous system’s message is, “If I move, the tiger will eat me.” This internal message from my nervous system subliminally guides the stress language of my thoughts and behaviors. Typically, I will have reduced energy and will not feel safe participating in movement activities, especially in a group of people. If I have had this nervous system pattern my whole life, I may identify as an “introvert.” It may be hard for me to distinguish if I have this behavior pattern due to a stress reflex or because of a preference.
I may have a roommate who tends to default to an Appease-and-Tease reflex (fawning social engagement). Her nervous system’s message is, “If I am not connected with others, the tiger will eat me.” This internal message from her nervous system subliminally guides the stress language of her thoughts and behaviors. She will not feel safe by herself and may participate in activities that she doesn’t enjoy, just to be in connection with others. If she has had this nervous system pattern her whole life, she may identify as an “extrovert.” It may be hard for her to distinguish if she has this behavior pattern due to a stress reflex or because of a preference.
When I have a stressful day and I am retreating and isolating to soothe my nervous system, my roommate will become very concerned by this behavior. It does not make sense to her to be alone when stressed. She will keep trying to connect to me, which will further exacerbate my stress reflex. Remember, my nervous system is telling me to be still and dissociate to save myself from the perceived tiger. Connection and movement feel threatening to me at this point. So I will retreat further from contact. I may tell myself a story that it is better for me to stay away from people because it is not fun for them to be around me when I am so upset.
If my roommate is in a safe situation and has other close people to engage with, she may choose to find others to connect to and leave me to myself. However, if she is also having a stressful day and does not have immediate access to people other than me, she will feel compelled to make a connection to me to soothe her nervous system. She may tell herself a story that it is for my sake that she is pushing me to connect with her when I am clearly retreating.
Now we are caught in a Stress Loop. Her advances exacerbate my stress reflex to hide. My hiding exacerbates her stress reflex to connect. How do we interrupt this pattern? With the Ease Keys of Self-Regulation.
Awareness is the first Ease Key (Getting Your Witness in Play). Any time I am having an unpleasant interaction, I check my posture. If I have tension in my posture, I am likely experiencing a stress reflex. At that point I begin to question my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I engage with an Ease Key to see if that alters what is unpleasant. When I am stuck in Freeze-and-Float, I prefer the Wag Your Tail practice, or Feel Your Body Breathing. Many students who get stuck in Appease-and-Tease tell me that the Horizon Gazing and Reconnect to Your World practices are helpful.
These practices gently redirect the nervous system toward balance and brain circulation. When my body feels supported, it is easier for me to think and interact in a caring manner. This caring can extend to me, as well as the people around me. Once I have my breath back, I may remember that my roommate is just getting off a double shift at work. She is likely stressed and that is why she is reaching out to me. This is very different than my earlier thought that it is better for her to stay away from me. Where did that thought come from? Oh right – my stress reflex. My stress reflexes are always telling me ridiculous stories when I let them run the show.
Learn more about your Stress Language and Stress Loops by attending a class on Self-Regulation.