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Many of us are concerned with how to manage our stress-levels, living in an age of constant over-stimulation, media saturation, tendency to overwork and not be able to 'switch off' appropriately when we do finally get to have some 'down-time' for ourselves. Stress can manifest in many ways: poor sleep, muscle fatigue, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, anxiety, and so on. Our nervous systems (sympathetic arousal system) have evolved to ideally have short bursts of physical energy (fight or flight mode) to mobilise our bodies to physical action, followed by longer periods of rest and slowing down (parasympathetic or inhibitory system).
It seems a little perverse in our contemporary culture that we seem to be living in an age of relentless stimulation (sympathetic hyper-arousal) seemingly with less and less time or opportunity to be calm, quiet and relaxed (parasympathetic regulation). So much for the quest for the 'quiet mind'.
One psychologist, Paul Gilbert, has proposed that from our evolutionary heritage, we have a three part emotion regulation system, where we can find ourselves (mainly) in any one of three states of:
- Threat — focused on dangers, and the fear this engenders
- Drive — attuned to achievement or competition
- or Soothing — feelings of safety or interpersonal connectedness
Each of these feeling states has its associated feelings, motivations, purposes and neurochemistry. A healthy state would be to self-regulate and move between each of these emotional responses appropriately as each situation demands. Dysfunction (stress) comes about due to the inability to do this effectively and the overuse of one system or response, to the detriment of others: e.g. the inability to switch of from the 'drive' work mode (or threat mode) when we come home and try to relax or sleep.
One way of looking at this is that our minds and emotions become ingrained with mental (emotional) habits, and we bring our habitual mental states (or strategies) into most things that we do. Our bodies and emotions have a tendency to run on 'auto-pilot' when we have been stressed / overworked/ exhausted for to long, and we find it hard to adapt and slow down, simplify and prioritize, and allow our noisy internal-dialogue (habitual thinking) to become quiet. Persistent pain can also have this effect on people, the nervous system becomes more 'wired' and 'twitchy' and we may catastrophise, compounding our pain and suffering, as we notice higher anxiety levels and distracted mental states.
Our nervous systems become 'adapted' over time, into habitual patterns, almost as if the software or encoding has rewritten itself by default into automatic modes of functioning that do not necessarily (or no longer) serve our best interests, or make us happy or healthy. So how to rewire this habitual state, or retrain our mental processes? Acknowledging our own distracted/dispersed mental states is an essential first step: simply to notice what is happening.
Recent insights in psychology and neuroscience into how the brain operates (neuroplasticity) suggest that this is possible to remodel our brain's default modes of functioning, but this does require a certain discipline, effort, or attention. This is where mindfulness training has perhaps the most to offer. Please see the following page: Courses. You might also want to look at this page.
Physiologically our 'threat system' is associated with increased cortisol and adrenalin (stress or pain), our 'achieving system' (ambition/goals/performance targets) with increased dopamine, and our 'soothing system' (relaxation) with increased endorphins and oxytocin levels. Our contemporary 'busy-ness' culture tends to overemphasize the first two systems (achieving and threat — or reward and punishment) and seems to neglect the third, the soothing/comforting/relaxing/compassion, as we live in our 'full-on' overstimulated restless culture of constant noise and input and achievement targets. Admittedly the issue is not necessarily the external noise and stimulation, but our inner mental-emotional states and level of internal dialogue/ chatter/ anxiety versus silence/peace/spaciousness and compassion.
Given that contemporary culture emphasizes the Drive (achieving) and Threat (fear/anxiety) modes, with often inadequate focus or time given to the Soothing / relaxation /compassion mode, what can we do to rectify this? At least to be more honest and attentive to this state of affairs, which would be an excellent starting point. Of course, external conditions are important: reasonable work-life balance, adequate rest and sleep, careful attention to our own health and well-being.
If we find ourselves living in persistent or chronic pain, then our nervous systems may become more 'fragile' and our minds more prone to distraction or anxiety. One way to engage the Soothing / relaxation / compassion system (apart from our own mindfulness training and practice) would be body relaxation or massage, or acupuncture, or osteopathy or Cranial osteopathy (to facilitate the parasympathetic nervous system).
Osteopathy and/or acupuncture may be helpful to relieve physical pain, and respite from physical pain can allow a more relaxed frame of mind, better sleep, etc, which in turn helps tissue healing and to hopefully reduce low grade inflammation, which in turn all helps to relieve physical pain.
Try to find a good osteopath, acupuncturist or physical therapist locally close to where you live. For more on how osteopathy and acupuncture might help, please see the Osteopathy and Acupuncture chapters.
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