Channeling Stress Into Growth!
I recently attended a week long seminar on Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) by George Faller, LMFT in Cape Cod, MA. EFT is usually a short term (8-20 sessions), structured approach to couples therapy formulated in the 1980’s and has developed alongside the science on adult attachment and bonding to expand our understanding about what is happening in couple relationships and to guide therapists (http://www.iceeft.com) I was blown away by the paradoxical approach in simplicity of the EFT technique but also the intensity of its application and the emotional vulnerability it calls upon for a therapist to authentically engage in the EFT practice. I would like to however use this blog post not so much to talk about EFT practices directly but the idea of stress and how we as therapist and as mainstream people conceptualize stress and stress management.
There is new research available about the effect of stress on our brain and our bonding. As a therapist I spend so much time talking to clients about stress and how stress is “bad” and ways in which to avoid, alleviate, relieve, manage and completely eliminate stress in their lives in totality. Through this training, I now realize that my approach has been unrealistic and misguided in some respects. The most powerful thing I have walked away with during this week long training is a reconceptualization of stress. No longer will I approach stress in my everyday life as the ultimate enemy that is to be defeated. I will now approach stress in my personal life and in sessions with client as a necessary part of life that is to be embraced and re-framed in thought and in practice.
The beginning of a new thought process about stress begins with the basic idea that any organism that is unstressed and unchallenged in any medium usually dies or becomes extinct. Our own brain needs challenge and firing of neurons in different ways in order to make new synaptic connections and ultimately become rewired in a distinctly different and possibly stronger direction. It’s an exciting time to be alive, in the past twenty years we believed that our brains were unable to generate new neurons and as brain cells die off with old age, stress and brain trauma we are infinitely locked in for life; the most recent neuroscience research suggest, however, that our brain has neuroplasticity which means that if we practice the same information in a different way repeatedly new connections in our brain gets hardwired and permanently become a part of our cognitive, physiological and emotional make-up.
Our bodies produce Cortisol (stress hormones) with the onset of stress, cortisol is known to increase blood sugar levels, weight gain, gastrointestinal issues, blood pressure, decreases fertility, suppresses the body’s immunity and decreases libido as a response to stress, the body, however also produces DHEA which is a hormone that tames stress, increases libido, energy levels, restores memory, prevents heart diseases, rejuvenates the immune system and reduces body fat and risk of cancer. Dr. William Regelson refers to DHEA as a ‘superstar’ hormone in his book The Super Hormone Promise. It is now well established that chronic stress leads to an over production of cortisol, and with that, a gradual depletion of DHEA. Over time, this hormonal imbalance can lead to hardening of the arteries, thinning bones, increasing waistline girth, and impaired functioning of the immune system.
The link between cortisol production and DHEA is an important one because, with long periods of chronically high cortisol levels, the ability to produce DHEA diminishes. So if there is a direct connection between the increase of cortisol and decrease of DHEA the question then becomes how do we decrease cortisol and increase DHEA right? The answer isn’t as challenging and scientific as we would expect. The simple answer as I understand it, is to re-frame, re-challenge our emotional and mental response to stress and our body’s reaction then follows suit. For example, When I have an exceptionally long day filled with back to back clients, supervision of staff, interviews and recruits for new therapist for the practice (activities that requires various levels of empathetic, emotional and brain responses from me all within a given day) I usually tend to wake up in automatic triggered stress response. I’ve learned over practice and time that instead of flowing with the stress and allowing automatic negative thoughts to follow suits I need to move ahead of my grooved in automatic stress response and begin challenging the thought and physiological reactions of my body. For instance my automatic negative stress response thought process will say something like: ” Oh MY GOD! What was I thinking! Why did I agree to take on so much today??!!! I will NEVER get this ALL done!” or on especially negative days “This day is going to SUCK royally! I can’t wait until it’s OVER!” I have learned that my fight is not to avoid these thoughts, these thoughts will come and my responsibility is not to get carried away with the wave of negative thoughts but my sole responsibility is to challenge my stress response. I now simply reframe these thoughts. I usually now say ” I know Monique you are absolutely right! There is so MUCH to do today! I wonder what the day has in store for me?!!” OR ” I have never had a day that I completely bombed or had to hide under my desk and wait it out, I know myself to be one to figure out challenges and raise above what seems to be impossible, I wonder what opportunities I will have today to lean into and grow and become stronger?” I then begin to work with my body response to stress so from rapid heart beats and shortness of breath I take my body through a series of diaphragmatic deep breathing exercises. I take my body from being in distress and pumping out more cortisol to a more calm relaxed body that reduces cortisol production and increases DHEA production. (Some other ideas for calmer body responses are: hugging/kissing a partner you have a healthy and secure connection with, petting or cuddling with a beloved pet and belly laughing intensely for at least five minutes)
I challenge you to begin re-thinking your stress. stress within itself is not a negative occurrence, our reaction to stress, however, dictates our bodies response, increase of chronic diseases, our mood levels, the quality of our relationships and our concentration and memory functioning. I additionally challenge you to begin to wonder what opportunities your stress may have to offer you in growth and expansion. Namaste.
RESOURCES For Transforming Stress into Opportunities for Growth
Learning Diaphragmatic Breathing Techniques:
Kelly Mcgonigal Upside Of Stress
Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change Paperback
April 22, 2016
By George R. Faller MS LMFT (Author), The Rev. Dr. Heather Wright (Author)
May 10, 2016
By Kelly McGonigal
Jun 1, 1997
By William Regelson and Carol Colman