When stress eats away at your authenticity. Part II of a three part series on stress

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Do you know what I mean or ever been in a situation that is both wonderful, inspiring and yet one of the most challenging and difficult experiences you have gone through? I’ve just had one of those this weekend. And no I didn’t just go for ‘that’ million dollar job interview; neither did I complete a near-impossible 20-mile obstacle course in the hard, driving rain and cold! I took part in a business workshop designed to give you the tools to maximise your business outcomes and ‘Shift’ your mind-set and approaches. Well that’s not so bad after all one might think. But for me the intensity, the pace with which we were driven to make decisions and digest the masses of content to get the desired results really was a recipe for either making you quite sick or if you’re lucky, that bit stronger.

And stronger it did, but not before I realised how anxious this situation was making me. We all can relate to stress in some shape or form; sometimes expected and a lot of the time unexpected. There are many ways stress can manifest itself in our lives; physically, emotionally and psychologically and it’s widely known as to the various guises with which stress manifests itself (here is one website that lists the effects of stress quite succinctly). What I wanted to share here (and I admit it is a bit lengthy but bear with me as I feel this is important) is what happens when we’re caught right on the spot; unaware of the impending tsunami that suddenly gathers power in our stomachs and travels express to our heads when we least expect it?

stress powerlessness 4I was in one (in fact many if I’m honest) such ‘micro’ situations over the weekend. We were repeatedly asked to outline parts of our particular business goals/offerings/strategies amongst ourselves in small groups, by standing in front of 2 or 3 participants and presenting those ideas to them in short snippets. Now here’s how it starts – the facilitator has just finished delivering the content (your head is just getting around this new language, the concepts, etc.) then announces ‘Now it’s your turn to do such-and-such.’ And here lies this dreaded beginning. Immediately I feel my stomach clench its teeth and my heartbeat notches up the pace to the power of three. I nervously look around at my partner next to me and flick through my notes hoping some inspiration or magical ideas will suddenly come to mind. They sadly don’t as horrified I realise that by now the whole room has stood up and everybody is busy themselves trying to get into their small groups.

The problem here is of course I have just experienced ‘a trigger’ or an emotional stress point that is linked neurologically linked to many associative pathways in my brain that map to my internal belief systems about myself, my image, abilities or whatever. These triggers are ‘limiting’ belief systems because they have caused my nervous system to activate my emotional brain (limbic system) causing adrenaline to curse through my body to ‘fight or fly’ (see part I in this Stress series). And this process short-circuits my higher executive functioning so my decision making processes become less enabled or engaged to make rational decisions about this particular situation and perceived threat that my body in undergoing. Simply put people, I’m having a slight panic!!

So by the time I’ve sat down in my group my posture is very different; I’m smaller and hunched in my shoulders, sat forward in my seat, I’m hiding behind my folder which I’m holding firmly on my lap (somehow still flicking through the material trying to grasp at some ideas, words that might fly off the page into my head). Frankly right now I’m scared of looking stupid, sounding inarticulate, ‘not knowing’ and not getting the exercise ‘right’. These negative thoughts all there in my head, spinning around; repeating themselves and becoming more deadly each time they pass ‘Go’ deleting serious monies from my ‘self-worth’ bank balance. “Who’s going first?” Absolutely “Not me” I volunteer readily!! I need time to think on ‘my thing’, buy some more time; something will come up… I hope.

Recognising the emotional triggers

And here’s the crux of it – the scenario: In this state of stress my body has shrunk, I’m hiding behind my notes, I’m completely in my head and in the dizzy heights of my not-so-useful narrative of negative thoughts which I can’t control. I’m in a state of stress and it’s not that it’s hard to recognise it – oh boy you can recognise it alright – moreover, it is what it makes you do in that situation and perhaps less obviously, what choices have you got to do something about it?

Whilst the other participants were speaking I discovered I wasn’t listening fully, I was disengaged with their content at times and lost the flow of their sentences and found myself occasionally loosing eye contact. The fact was I was DISENGAGED not only with myself but with the other person. As a result of this, I noticed that at these times giving honest feedback was much more difficult because ‘I’ knew that I was somewhere else in my mind; it only compounded my sense of feeling rubbish about myself. And that part really drove the spike deeper into my hurt.

powerlessness 1Apart from the fact that I became this anxious person because of a trigger that set off a pattern of limiting beliefs in me (which identifying is such an important step to go some way to understand ourselves more clearly) but I also wasn’t present in my body and completely absorbed in the negative thoughts and associated affective states. Being worried about what came next, rather than being present and open to all that fills that moment, particularly the person who is engaging you, meant that I couldn’t engage or fully participate and thus be able to contribute wholeheartedly. Amy Cuddy a social psychologist speaks something of this in her touching TED talk about powerlessness and how our bodies can influence how we think and how we feel. I too believe that our behaviours expressed through our bodies effects how we think and feel, but we have to be in-touch and aware of our bodies in the first place. To be embodied is an ongoing endeavour and we hope to do our best in recognising when we do get ‘triggered’ for whatever reason. The thing is we have to accept this awareness doesn’t happen all the time, as I did this weekend, somehow hoping we can learn and reflect from each experience that may take us away from our true self.

This is the first step; recognising the trigger. We may not be able to ‘name’ what that trigger is, but we will know it because we feel our physiological response to it as I did – those signs of stress that may include: Increased heart rate, sweating, cramping in the stomach, increased respiration rate, lack of attention, no eye contact and so on. Perhaps then we have the choice to change our response to that trigger by acting differently where that desired action is coming from our relational awareness to the body in that given moment.

It’s all about connection

connectionI have another story that I want to share with you that happened in the clinic a few weeks ago. I received a new client at the practice, who arrived late and was a bit out of breath, carrying lots of bags and was keen to get started. Familiar with the structure of the session, she poured out her subjective history almost without full stops to punctuate the sentences. Desperately trying not to miss the information, I was furiously writing down what I could capture, attempting to not break her flow and too being very aware of how the time was moving faster on, so I could get onto the ‘next bit’ to fit it all in. After a while I began to notice my posture lifting up in my chest and literally my clip-board rising off my lap as if launching from a runway as I attempted to somehow anchor the words on paper as they flew between us in mid-air!! It was at that point I realised I was embodying her anxiety, which was warranted as she was confused, had been to various ‘specialists’ about her issues, had had multiple investigations and told nothing was seriously wrong with her, yet she was experiencing terrible pain. At this moment I stopped, literally put down my clip-board and looked at her for what must have been the first time in a few minutes because of having my head down writing. I took a few deep breaths, uncrossed my legs, became aware of my body sitting; feet on the ground, buttocks on the stool, looked her in the eyes and I listened. I then began to hear her, what she was saying in and through her words but also through the energetic exchange through our bodies.

This observation could be a case of many things; perhaps a somatic counter-transference (Pallaro, 2007) even body-empathy (Shaw, 2003). Each of these terms attempts to explain a mediation of an energetic exchange of affective emotional states that is experienced by (and in) both persons at the same time in a given situation. The important thing was as soon as I was able to re-embody myself in that moment, I was able to respond and inquire not with just a list of ‘what came next’ in her story, but asked what did she really need right now and what she most wanted in her life. In so doing, she broke down in tears and opened up to what was her fear and pain with her situation. I could respond more appropriately to her need and I was able to do so from a more grounded and authentic place in myself; from the heart.

The essence of this story and the previous one is one of connection. Stress DISCONNECTS us and stops us engaging with our inner self, our inner strengths and part of that is that we forget to be-in and be-with our bodies consciously. These disembodied states are often the norm; we are so distracted and under such a prevailing level of background stress constantly with our lifestyles. But this is not what connects us and we need ways to help us engage with others more fully and authentically.

Maybe if you find yourself caught-up in a stressful moment as I did, then can I invite you to take a breath, allow yourself to sink into your body to take a moment to give yourself just enough space to see what’s around more clearly? Perhaps you then might have the choice to respond more gracefully and in a way that is more reflective of whom you really are.

References

Shaw, R. (2003). The embodied psychotherapist. The therapist’s body story. London: Brunner-Routledge.

Pallaro, P. (2007). Somatic Counertransference. In P. Pallaro (Ed.), Authentic movement. Moving the body, moving the self, being moved, Vol 2. (pp. 176- 193). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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