The Long and Short of Stress (I)
Ways to Deal With the 'Noise' of Life
As some of you know, I’m currently in India for a family trip. It’s been a long time since I visited the land of my ancestors, but one thing I’ve not forgotten is how noisy it is over here! Since I am sensitive to sound, this got me thinking: How can I adapt and thrive in such an environment? What are my options?
Noise is a stressor for the nervous system. Like stress, it can be a positive force that motivates and challenges us to grow (eustress) or a negative one that provokes harm and illness (distress). For example, for some people, and at some times, noise is stimulating in a good way. It’s energetic and inspiring, like the best kind of music—giving us the feeling of being immersed in the buzzing hum of life. At other times, noise can be bothersome, disturbing, an irritant. Too much noise can even make us sick, as in the case of noise pollution.
In wild and natural environments, sudden loud noises are meant to catch our attention, as they could portend danger. One contemporary equivalent—the honking horn of a car—likewise indicates ‘out of my way!’ On the other hand, in urban environments, a certain amount of background noise is the norm, an inevitable consequence when so many humans live in close proximity. In my noise-stress metaphor, the former would be equivalent to an acute stress, the latter to chronic stress.
From the perspective of your nervous system and your bodymind, both acute and chronic forms of noise and stress generate a similar response—sympathetic activation, or fight-flight-freeze. It’s that quick shallow breath, heart racing, belly tight, muscles primed and ready to move, eyes darting around, hands sweating, mouth dry…1
Acute stresses are somewhat easier for us to adapt to, if we are able to release the tension they generate afterwards and return to a state of balance. That’s a big if. When we can’t do so, the stress response gets stuck in the bodymind and turns into chronic stress or even trauma. Chronic stress is damaging even when low in intensity because there is no respite, no space for us to release and relax out of it. It goes on and on and we can’t adapt to it except by getting sick, or depleted.
So what can we do when we find ourselves in such states, to return to balance and move forward?
In this series of posts, I want to talk about 5 methods you can use when you’re confronted with noise, stress, or a strong disruptive energy of any kind. (I’ll use the word noise interchangeably with stress.) In brief, the 5 approaches are: clear, match, regulate, adapt, and retreat. The first two methods work better with short-term, acute stressors, and the middle two with long-term, low-grade stressors. The last works for all of them, though it’s not always available or ideal.
1. Clear · Surrender
The first method comes to me from an experience I had when I was on retreat in England some years ago. It was a summer retreat, with about 60 of us set up in a big marquee tent on the grounds of an old abbey. It was a beautiful place, with a river nearby, and fields and forests all around. Much of the time was spent in silence, including practice sessions by the stream listening to the water, and in the forests listening to the trees and the wind, so we all became exquisitely attuned to sound.
One day, while the teacher was giving a talk, the abbey gardeners started mowing the lawn that we were camped out on. I guess no one told them we were there and needed the quiet, so they were just following their own schedule. Anyway, the teacher tried a few times to talk over them, and around the roar of the lawnmower, but it just wasn’t working. Eventually one of the assistants went over and asked the gardeners to come back later. But once they stopped and the silence returned, something had changed and we could all feel it: that sudden drop into vast, open quietude…
The overpowering drone of the lawnmower had stirred things up and cleared them out, releasing us into the embrace of silence.
Have you ever felt something like that? This is what happens when storms move over the land and the sea, and when chaos moves through our lives. Everything is upended, vibrating madly, seemingly forever—and then suddenly, it all stops. Silence re-emerges. We find ourselves afresh, with new ears and a new awareness.
Sometimes this can also happen after a concert, or any other experience of loud noise like being near or on an aircraft. If you open yourself fully to the noise—let it wash through you and over you—then the after-effect of the silence is even more pronounced. The silence feels fuller, richer, pressing against your ears and your body like it’s purring and alive.
As a practice, this can be a little addictive, a game we play with extreme dualities. I find myself doing this when the gardeners come to mow the lawn outside my room, or when I hear the roar of the vaccuum cleaner. Surrender to the noise, let it vibrate through your body, amplify it even. And then relish the peace when it all falls away.
To draw the parallel with a stressful experience, the invitation of this method is to surrender. Give in to the chaos and the pain, the confusion and the terror, and let it wipe you clean. Allow all the feelings to move through you, and see what remains. The famous passage from Dune, which always gives me goosebumps, comes to mind:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
—Frank Herbert, Dune. (Emphasis mine.)
Bear in mind that this may not always be the most appropriate response to a stressor. We need to feel a certain degree of safety and capacity to do something like this, to let go this fully. But sometimes we have no choice: this is what is called for, what life wants from us. Like I shared in my post on pain, this is a way to be born again from the wreckage.
We can do this on a small scale, with noise or with little stresses, or on a large scale with the major challenges of life. I’d recommend trying it with the little things first, before going big. Let me know how it goes or what you think of it:
2. Match · Harmonise
The second method came to me from a different teacher, who coincidentally also used the example of the lawnmower when she was describing it. The idea here is to match the energy of the noise outside with a corresponding energy from within you. In other words: learn to roar like a lawnmower. The quintessential, quick-and-easy yoga practice for this is lion's breath, but there are many ways to match, as I’ll go into below.
Matching amps you up to deal with the rawness and roughness of whatever’s happening around you. You can also think of it as harmonising with, or meeting, the noise of the world. But it is a conscious decision to explore and express that part of yourself, not an unconscious reaction arising from stress. In this way we claim our power and energy and redirect it where we want it to go, instead of letting the outer situation drain or overwhelm us. I believe this is similar to the strategy used in martial arts like aikido and jiu-jitsu. It is also a way of turning distress into eustress.
Intensity awakens, Wild attentiveness everywhere. Ride the shockwave inward To touch the Great Self, The power from which you arise. —Radiance Sutras 95
I was skeptical about this one when I first learned it, but it is remarkable when you get into it. Often when we are faced with intensity outside, we begin to amp up inside automatically, whether or not we want to. Our bodies and nervous systems respond to stress by increasing energy availability and preparing us to act. The sympathetic response, as I described above, is that jittery feeling in your hands and feet, blood pumping, breath rising, ready to go and do something…
Take that feeling and channel it, rather than suppressing it or letting it overcome you.
You may already be doing this in some way—for example, through exercise, or theater, making loud music, or any other intense activity. When I was in high school, I started running, playing the drums and learning muay thai. (Yes, all at the same time. It was a stressful period.) Later that turned into yoga asana, and now it comes out in swinging kettlebells and mace, and the occasional freestyle dance in my bedroom. Whatever your version, it’s also a way to vent the excess energy buildup, but again, in a form that you choose and control.
Relatedly, there are times in life when we know we need to find strength and power inside us to meet a challenge, but we can’t seem to do it. We’re too tired, we want to run away, we’re holding back, we’re afraid of our own power… the reasons are many. This method makes use of the energy of the outer world to touch and awaken the energies of the inner world. It’s a way to safely tap into our internal reservoir of intense energy when it’s needed and appropriate. Over time we become more comfortable with a higher level of activation and know how to manage that state of being skilfully. Activating and expressing your power often go hand-in-hand.
In a recent breathwork training I did, the instructor shared the following equation with us:
awareness + regulation = transformation
The idea is that when you are aware of your own state of being, and have the tools to regulate it, then you can transform yourself. I’ll talk more about regulation in the next post, but here I would like to offer a variation on this theme:
awareness + skilful expression = transformation
The practice of matching is the ‘skilful expression’ part of the equation. Let me break it down step-by-step:
You become aware of something coming at you from outside.
You become aware of your internal response to it—whether it’s amping up, or retreating, or something else.
You choose to meet that thing by matching its energy.
You find the part of you that vibrates at that same frequency, that feels the same way, that embodies the same qualities.
You bring that part forward through some form of expression: sound, movement…
What remains? And how do you feel?
What I appreciate about the matching approach is that it welcomes the reality of life, the fact that sometimes things are clamorous, chaotic and overwhelming. Instead of feeling like we have to escape, or somehow change what’s outside us (which is never under our control), we can choose to go inside, find a part of ourselves that relishes such environments, and invite it to step up to the challenge. This is your chance to discover your inner warrior, the loud-mouthed, uninhibited, energetic, wild part of you, and let it shine.
How do you know whether you need to clear, match, regulate, adapt or retreat? I’ll go into more detail about the last three methods in my next posts, but this is an important question, especially the duality between amping yourself up to match the outer energy, or regulating yourself down to calm and center.
In the example of my high school experience, I sometimes think that I did too much amping up and what I really needed was a way to down-regulate. But at the time I didn’t really have the tools or the understanding of what I was doing—it was instinctive more than anything. And I was encouraged by the environment around me to do more and more, which brought me towards the matching strategy.
In the moment, it’s hard to tell which way to go. I get this wrong all the time, and I’m probably not going to perfect it any time soon. It’s a process of learning by living. Knowing oneself and one’s situation (awareness, from the formula above) is a key component of making better choices. And there isn’t always an ideal correspondence between life and our desires. Sometimes we have to choose what we don’t want, in order to get through what is (more on this in the adapt section of the next post).
In the meantime, you could start by reflecting on whether you have an innate preference for one or more of these responses. You may not have noted it consciously (yet), but maybe you’re the type of person that always gets fired up and ready to fight with every stressful experience. Or are you more the type who wants to retreat into a cave and forget it all ever happened? Or maybe you’re the type who goes back-and-forth, with your own way of regulating and bringing balance... I look forward to hearing about your experience in the comments, if you’d like to express yourself there.
Thank you for reading. I hope I’ve left you with some ideas about how to deal with noise and stress. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with friends, and subscribe to get more like it.
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For the sake of simplicity, here I’m not going into other types of stress response like tend-and-befriend, fawn, dorsal vagal etc. Polyvagal theory is a good place to start if you’re interested in going deeper with this.