We don’t always have the time – or freedom – to process our stress or trauma, but are we storing up a health time bomb? Anna Blewett investigates…
We live in an age of de-cluttering, where Marie Kondo et al have emboldened us to ruthlessly edit our herbal tea cupboard and streamline our sock drawer to a capsule collection. So chatting to a breathwork practitioner via Skype recently, something jumped out. “The headline news is that most of us have unresolved circumstances from the past,” she sighed. “For a certain amount of time our bodies have the resilience to store that, and store and store and store… but as time goes on our system becomes increasingly full. It’s a bit like not de-fragmenting your hard drive; everything starts to slow down or seize up.”
The professional in question was breathwork trainer, Nathalia Westmacott- Brown (first-breath.co.uk), whose new book Breathwork is published this December by DK Books. Nathalie believes that stored stress and, more dangerously, trauma is overwhelming our bodies and manifesting as illness and panic attacks. But could she really be right?
Dr Jane Durston is a former GP who retired from general practice after experiencing acute burnout. “Workplace stress brought me to a standstill,” she explains after one bad day too many triggered her to pack up her desk and never return. “Unlike animals and our predecessors, our fight or flight response doesn’t always serve us well. When a threat is perceived, the release of hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) prepare animals’ bodies to fight or flee. The action that follows helps diminish the effect of those hormones, and returns the body to normal. The problem for us is many things are perceived by our bodies as threats; we are often in a heightened state of awareness with no outlet for the response.”
Psychologist Noel McDermott (noelmcdermott.net) agrees. “The nervous system has a big part to play with stored emotions,” he explains. “It’s divided into two: the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response and the parasympathetic which is often referred to as ‘rest and digest’. It’s our nervous system’s job to protect us from threat, but if the individual’s sympathetic nervous system is constantly alert they are not allowing the process of those emotions to happen. This means from a physical perspective the body becomes overwhelmed and the stress becomes more traumatic. That’s when trauma can be converted from a stress reaction.”
The physical manifestation of this body’s continued inflammatory response is clear. “Our bodies and minds aren’t programmed to experience prolonged suffering, so the idea of crisis becoming something emotional, physical or psychological is in fact a reality,” says Noel. “If the body is consistently under stress, consistently activated, we are more exposed to physical illnesses: immune system dysfunction and digestive issues alongside mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and panic disorder.” Jane agrees, adding adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and even chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia to the list.
Therapists of all approaches agree that a safe, non-judgemental space must be made for stored stress and trauma to be unpacked and dissolved. “The relational experience of talking about situations, stresses or traumas allows them to be considered into the conscience mind,” says Noel. “People learn how to communicate better, adopting tools and techniques to help them find alternative ways to manage their responses and behaviours differently. Depending on how severe stress or trauma is, psychotherapy holds different modalities such as EMDR, a particular method used for those that suffer from trauma and PTSD.”
And what says Nathalia, the breathwork practitioner? “When you breathe in an open and full cycle in a safe environment, emotional and psychological stresses tend to surface into the conscious awareness. Feelings that have been held down often start to come up; people have an unexpected connection with some deep pain or unresolved memory from the path.” For Nathalia, breathwork not only uncovers, but also disperses this stored stress. “Psychotherapeutic breathwork lifts experiences up and out of the body; breathing is an integral, self-healing tool for the body on a physical and emotional level; and of course these things aren’t really separate.”
Holding on to stress can be done on autopilot; releasing it requires us to engage and interact, says mindset coach Dave Cottrell
One of the most common places to hold onto stress is in the upper back at the base of the neck. Take a deep breath in and notice how you are currently feeling in this area. Now as you exhale imagine you are literally breathing out the stress, it is moving from this area out of your body via the breath. Notice how the shoulders now fall a little lower and feel looser. You could do it with any area of your body. A full-body scan would do just this, and can have radical impacts on a person’s stress levels in even 10 to 15 minutes.
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