We are often told to be calm, or “just relax”. While there are certainly benefits to being calm in a crisis, being calm is not always easy or comfortable for everyone. Finding ease in calm is not a conscious thing. Understanding more about our nervous system and building resilience will help us move from unease to ease when appropriate.
The danger of stress is that we can become habituated to it, even without effective and healthy ways to deal with it. This can happen for a variety of reasons, many of which stem from our childhood experiences. Stress then becomes the norm and a sense of calm feels foreign, undesirable, and even threatening. A person may be in chronic fight-or-flight, shutdown or vacillating between the two, which precludes experiencing a meaningful social engagement state. Fulfilling relationships can be a challenge.
For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed. To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.
Gabor Maté, MD
This chronic sympathetic nervous system activation allows a person to feel ready. A form of self-protection and a false sense of security is how Certified Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises® Provider Diana Ng sees this. She feels that some people may be more “naturally easeful in high-stress situations” due to greater natural resilience, a healthier baseline, and more responsive self-regulation. For far too many people, however, the reality is a poorly regulated nervous system that has multiple effects and consequences.
We may, for example, continue recreating high drama situations to allow ourselves the fight-or-flight option that was not previously available. This may be to overcome past trauma that left us having no choice, except to freeze or shut down.
Complementary Health practitioner and coach Antoinette Biehlmeier also looks at the emotional aspect of being involved in too many things. Keeping busy is a way “to prevent someone from sitting with what they need to sit with.” A person may also believe that by appearing to be productive, they can avoid being called useless and worthless. For a variety of reasons, including complex childhood traumas, we can become workaholics. We may believe, from early experiences, that we have no innate value and must continually offer productivity, service, and achievement to find belonging. To deserve love.
Hyperactivity, especially when overstimulation is present, often though not necessarily always lead to high stress.
The question she suggests we ask is – “Who would we be without this stress?”
In HeartMath there is this concept called overcaring. Caring for others is part of being human. It creates and deepens our bond. However, excessive caring can be depleting. Some people, as Antoinette Bielmeier points out, may find that their caring is more to do with worrying, which increases stress. These neural pathways fire together more and more and are wired together. For these people, the more stress is present or the more they worry, the more they feel “good” because it means they “care”. Perhaps you too have experienced this.
What does Calm Mean to you?
For some people calm and relaxation means vegging out in front of the TV. For others, it is reading a book, taking a walk through the woods, or getting a massage.
According to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, there are two kinds of immobilization, with fear and with passion. The first is a primal survivalist response and is triggered when our nervous system feels the environment is life-threatening. When we feel there is no point fighting or fleeing, we want to conserve our energy by shutting down, hoping for another day. This is what many people experience on a daily basis. A chronic shut down, a depressive state.
Being cognizant of what is happening is the first step to regulating our nervous system and enjoying wellbeing.
As Gabor Maté points out our hormones can keep us on the “go” and “rest” can feel uncomfortable. We need to relearn this pattern, this pattern of slowing down being a safe thing to do. Where once we may have felt bored, agitated, or uninspired, we learn that we can relax and stay engaged. We can rewire for health, through paying attention and through being present with how we feel.
Suggestions to Find Ease in Calm
If you resonate with this, it is important to have compassion for yourself. Give yourself time and be gentle. Look for trauma-sensitive practitioners and healthy ways to deal with stress in your life. Take some time to look at your sources of stress, digging into the underlying beliefs. In addition, Diana Ng offers the following suggestions.
- Have space held for you so you feel grounded and safe, allowing your body to know that it doesn’t have to handle it alone.
- Learn to befriend the breath as a means to directly influence the autonomic nervous system. Sighing on exhales supports vagal tone and switch on more of the parasympathetic nervous system response.
- Consciously choose practices and activities that do not reinforce the pattern of hyperarousal. This includes strongly cathartic practices and vigorous and strenuous workings. Cathartic activities can further deregulate the nervous system.
- Also choose what is out of your routine and still within your comfort zone so the body can experiment feeling safe in different scenarios and environments. You can adjust the pace of your activities for example or change the location from indoors to outdoors.
- Engage in passive practices when the body is ready. You can start with a combination of movement and stillness that is accessible to allow the body to move into greater immobilization without fear. This may be a movement-based meditation or a hatha yoga class. You can also practice yoga nidra. While it is short, it brings a person into a deep waking sleep and the body can reveal more clearly its fatigue.
So the next time, before you tell someone to calm down, remember that whether they can or cannot is not necessarily a conscious choice. Know that, instead of helping someone feel better, telling them to be calm or “just relax” can cause all kinds of anxiety. First stay grounded yourself, within your own energy, allowing your nervous system to properly regulate. Feel the solid earth firmly beneath your feet. Exhale and focus on your breath. Be present with the sensations that arise. Regulating your own nervous system is a better way to help someone.
Healthy nervous systems co-regulate. We can all work toward creating safer environments for everyone. While stress is a part of life, we can nurture a healthy relationship with it. The greater resilience we have, the more we are in the social engagement state, the more we can all enjoy greater wellbeing, individually and collectively.