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5 Intention-setting Ideas to Reduce Stress

“We can never attain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”― Dalai Lama

The month of April, among other things, has been designated Stress Awareness Month.  The first step to making any change in our life is awareness.  Without awareness, we tend to  continue on our journeys doing the same old things, repeating old patterns, all while hoping the results will be different.

With awareness comes understanding, which leads to compassion and choice.  One of the best habits we can develop for our body/mind/spirit health is learning our personal triggers and noticing when and where we feel stress.  To this end, below are some ideas to consider to support this healthy habit:

  1. Understand common sources of stress.  Change – good or bad – tends to create stress.  Therefore, recognizing the amount of change we are experiencing in the moment can help the mind to understand why we might not feel ourselves.  With this awareness and understanding, we might be more willing to offer ourselves some compassion, letting that compassion support our next choice.  We all might recognize that the loss of a partner or other loved one as being stressful, yet we might not be as aware that marriage, pregnancy, retirement from work, quitting smoking, vacation, and/or moving to a new home are stress producing life events.  Consider taking a moment to complete the Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test) to deepen your understanding of what life events are considered stressful and determine your current level of stress from those events.
  2. Know the symptoms of PTSD.  The source of our stress might not be coming from our current experience of change but may be emanating from a past experience of trauma.  Most of us are aware that war Veterans may experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, many (I dare say most) of us are not aware that PTSD can be a result of early adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, having a parent with a mental health challenge and/or addiction, and/or witnessing domestic violence, non-the-less more overt abuse and neglect. Consider taking a moment to complete the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Questionnaire to determine your ACE score and how your childhood experiences may be impacting your current body/mind/spirit health.
  3. Identify where you experience stress in the body.  Once you have gained a greater awareness of what life events (past and present) cause change and stress, consider taking a moment to sit in reflection, welcoming your stress to be present in your awareness, and sense into your body.  We all experience stress in our bodies differently.  Some of us might experience headaches/migraines.  Others might experience digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  And others may experience frequent, diffuse muscular and nerve pain.  Our bodies hold great wisdom, so taking the time to welcome the sensations and notice where the mind’s awareness is drawn into the body, contributes to the foundation of the healthy habit of acknowledging when and where we are experiencing stress.
  4. Give yourself permission to learn to relax.  Many of us were not taught to value fun and relaxation as a basic human need.  In fact, I think the message most of us sensed was that we must work hard to be successful (whatever the definition of success might be for each of us) which does not leave time and space for anything else.  So know that it is up to you to challenge that message by embracing a new message, one that allows you to prioritize you.  Prioritizing your self-care is not selfish!  It is absolutely necessary to find balance and peace and health!!  Therefore, consider finding what works for you, whether it is movement, writing, connecting with others, anything that is a way to release stress from the body and mind and give yourself permission to just do it.
  5. Set limits.  I discovered a mantra many years ago that I found very freeing:  Say no so others can grow.  And yes, it can be easier to say than do!  However, with a little practice and a change in perspective, you will find it gets easier.  The change in perspective is seeing “saying no” as a gift you are giving the other person (and also to yourself!).  For example, when teaching a little one to tie their shoes, at some point you must say to them, “No, I’m not going to do it for you today as I know you know how to do it yourself.”  And, although they might get mad and cry (and even scream), if you stick it out, the joy they experience once they have done it themselves is the gift.  When you can really embrace this new perspective, you will begin to think “Who am I to think I have to do everything myself and rob others of opportunities for growth?”  If one of your personal values is growth then saying no to others can be seen as the necessary rain for the growth of others (and, oh, by the way, for yourself).  Setting limits in this way results in growth while reducing stress by reducing the probability that we will overcommit ourselves

Spreading the word, expanding awareness, lifting consciousness – healing trauma with yoga!

Growing up in a family that was “broken” by divorce for multiple generations, I experienced a great deal of stress as a young child navigating the after-effects of such an interpersonal event without any logical awareness that such an event would someday be viewed as trauma.  Many people may view post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a condition that predominately affects our military service members.  And while it is true that research focusing on veterans returning from war contributed significantly to the creation of a formal diagnosis of PTSD, the experience of combat is not the only source of trauma leading to this diagnosis.

To support efforts to bring more awareness to the experience of trauma during PTSD Awareness Month, I want to first highlight what type of events and/or experiences may underlie the diagnosis of (complex) PTSD and second, recent research that suggests yoga is a promising complementary treatment that not only helps to reduce the symptoms of PTSD but also supports personal growth, including increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude, acceptance, and empowerment.

According to the National Center for PTSD, types of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Combat and other military experiences
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Learning about the violent or accidental death or injury of a loved one
  • Child sexual or physical abuse
  • Serious accidents, like a car wreck
  • Natural disasters, like fire, tornado, hurricane, flood or earthquake
  • Terrorist attacks

And as I talked about last month, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) measured additional types of childhood trauma, leading to a diagnosis of complex PTSD, including the following:

  • Personal trauma
    • Physical abuse
    • Verbal abuse
    • Sexual abuse
    • Physical neglect
    • Emotional neglect
  • Trauma related to other family members
    • A parent who is an alcoholic
    • A mother who is a victim of domestic violence
    • A family member in jail
    • A family member diagnosed with a mental health disorder
    • The disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment

As the understanding of how the human body-mind interprets situations that don’t appear immediately life-threatening from the casual observer but none-the-less traumatizing to the person grows, it is vital that alternative treatments beyond medication and therapy be considered when considering the percentage of the overall population impacted by such experiences.  When considering complex PTSD which stems from a child’s inability to utilize the body’s natural “flight or fight” distress response to escape from a destructive family dynamic, such as the psychological ware zone of a contentious divorce, the body is forced into a freeze response for survival.

In this freeze state, the body is still full of adrenaline and cortisol, yet the child shuts down, dissociating from the body’s natural response sensing its inability to help.  At this point of development, the logical brain’s cognitive abilities to understand and act are still forming, so the body and mind are at odds, where the body continually senses danger yet the mind feels helpless to relieve the threat.  Symptoms that reflect a diagnosis of complex PTSD include:

  • Loss of emotional and physical awareness
  • Dissociative episodes
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Difficulty regulating emotions, such as anger
  • Somatic complaints, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Overdeveloped sense of responsibility
  • Chronic sense of guilt
  • Difficulty trusting people or feeling intimate
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness

As a “thriver” post PTSD and a trauma-informed yoga practitioner, teacher, and psychotherapist, I understand the need to engage both the body and mind along the healing journey toward re-integration and balance after trauma.  So it is not only important to familiarize ourselves with the nature and impact of trauma but it is vital to know what treatments are available and found to be effective so we can guide our loved ones with compassion towards healing and provide hope.

My own journey of healing first led me to the traditional psychotherapy experience, which did help to move me from victim to survivor through awareness and understanding.  However, I still found myself chronically anxious and easily triggered into an unbalanced state of mind.  Then I found myself in a yoga class.  I was immediately hooked by the change I experienced in my body that day, although not completely aware of what the change was exactly.  After integrating a regular physical yoga pose and breath practice on the mat into my life, I increasingly became aware of a palpable sense of relaxation in my body and a sense of peace in my heart.  My breath pattern became a reflection of my state of mind and a guide toward maintaining balance in my body-mind connection.  I learned that I could control my breath and when I focused on my breath I was able to change my reaction to a trigger to a response to a stimulus.  I found that the breath creates space to keep the body-mind aligned when navigating the world.  As I continued my practice and explored additional mindfulness techniques over time, my capacity for gratitude and compassion grew, I felt more connected to myself and others, I was more accepting and less judgmental, and my ability to remain centered even in chaos has steadily increased.

With my own personal healing journey as evidence that body-mind strategies are necessary to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and release chronic tension in the body, and reflect to discover the beauty in our challenges, I am excited to share some recent research that supports my experience with yoga as an important treatment option for complex PTSD.  In this study, 31 adult women with PTSD related to chronic childhood trauma participated in a 10-week Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) class.  For the results, click on the link below: