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The Long and Short of Stress (II)
What to do when the noise never ends
This is Part II of a series on noise and stress. Read Part I here.
Welcome back to this series of posts about stress and how to work with it. I began by drawing a parallel between stress and noise, because our nervous system responds to both in a similar way. And because noise is a metaphor for the inevitable setbacks, interruptions, obstructions and challenges we face in life. It comes out of nowhere, disrupts our peace, and we have little, if any, control over it.
In my last post, I offered two strategies to embrace and transform your experience of acute or short-term stress or noise. In this post, I want to go into two strategies for long-term stress and noise.
There is an incredible wealth of information out there about how to handle stress. An overwhelming and potentially stressful amount, if I’m being honest ;) What I’m trying to do here is offer an overarching framework in which you can organize your ideas about stress and how to deal with it. It’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s helped me gain clarity on what I’m doing, how I’m responding, and which approach to choose. Let’s dive in.
This method is one of the classic approaches to manage stress, and many specific techniques fall under its umbrella—for example, breathwork, affirmations and mantras, yoga, even some kinds of therapy. Regulation means that when we are confronted with a stressor, we do something to bring ourselves back to balance.
Regulation is sometimes further divided into self- and co-regulation. Self-regulation is whatever you do on your own to shift state from stress to relaxation. This could be meditation, breathing, yoga, listening to music, creating art, journalling, going for a walk, movement, exercise etc. Co-regulation is when another being helps you make that shift: a friend, partner, animal, facilitator, or therapist. There is some overlap between the two, but it can be helpful to know whether your default tends towards one or the other. I am a DIY kind of girl, so it’s not as natural for me to co-regulate, but over time I have come to realise that my cat, nature and my family are my go-tos when I need support from the ‘outside’.
Knowing how to regulate is one of life’s essential skills. It gives you the confidence to truly handle stress, because you know you can dissolve its imprint in your bodymind. It’s also a wonderful starting point for self-awareness, because it sensitises you to your own states of being. Sometimes we forget that the words stress and relaxation are generic terms that point to unique and intimate personal experiences. For example:
How do you know when you’re relaxed? Is it when your neck muscles soften, when you take a deep breath, when you’re laughing with a friend, when you’re absorbed in meaningful activity, when you’re with someone or not with someone?
How do you know when you’re stressed out? Is it when your hands curl into fists, when your mind starts to race, when your throat goes tight and or you’re clenching your teeth, when you have too much energy and you can’t slow down, when nothing satisfies you and you’re always irritable?
What’s the tipping point for you on the continuum between these two modes?
What helps you nudge the balance towards one or the other?
These are the questions that you get answers to when you learn and practice regulation. Incidentally, one of the foundational practices from Instinctive Meditation is the Natural Doorways meditation, which guides you through the process of answering these questions using a treasured memory.
Regulation is the natural starting point for many people on the journey of personal development and self-work. It’s practical, actionable learning that creates tangible results. Plus, when we’re facing stress and unable to cope—that’s the moment we often start to wonder if there’s a better way to live.
The potential downfall of this approach is that it can become a short-term fix—a bandage—for a larger, systemic problem. If your life is an ongoing series of stresses one after the other, learning to regulate might help you get through it, but doesn’t solve the underlying issue, which is that you need to restructure your life for better health, balance and well-being. It can be hard to know whether this is you, especially when you’re in the midst of that unending series of stresses, because we are told that no obstacle is insurmountable, no situation is impossible, we can overcome anything if only we have the will. But the truth is we are not gods, we are humans. We have limits, and things work best when we honour them. Not to mention that willpower is not the magic ingredient when it comes to overcoming stress—that’s actually resources and support.
A parallel form of nervous system training is conscious adaptation. We are adapting all the time, of course, usually unconsciously. Conscious adaptation is when we deliberately expose ourselves to a stressor, in order to learn how to adapt to it skilfully. Usually this is done at a small scale that we find tolerable, or that is just outside the limits of our comfort zone. In the olden days this may have been called ‘character building’, now ‘resilience training’.
Another example: when I came back to Singapore from India, I suddenly realised how quiet and orderly and clean it is here. The realization was sudden because I had adapted to a higher level of noise and disorder, in just a few days, without even being aware of it. Then I had to consciously re-adapt to the quiet, by speaking more softly, slowing down a little, and walking in straight lines ;) That’s the dance between conscious and unconscious adaptation, mediated, as always, by awareness.
The process of conscious adaptation makes use of the human body’s natural tendency to evolve. It’s the same principle as in strength training when you want to build muscle. It goes something like this:
Stress yourself in a small way on purpose
Train yourself to adapt (usually by regulating, and/or by giving yourself enough time to recover)
Gradually increase the intensity of the stressor over time
Thereby increasing your capacity and resilience to larger stresses too
For example, in cold exposure, you stress the bodymind using cold temperatures, and train yourself to overcome your instinctive panic response by breathing slowly and calmly. Over time as you do this, you’ll find you can stay longer in the cold environment, or reduce the temperature—and you still feel okay. Uncomfortable, but okay. I used this method to train myself to tolerate long hours in a cool-water pool when I’m coaching swimming. It’s made me feel capable of staying in the water and doing my job, because I know I won’t lose my cool even when I’m shivering (pun intended).
The key to this is (1) starting small and gradually building up; and (2) doing it consciously, on purpose. The former ensures that you adapt in a sustainable manner without overdoing it or harming yourself. The latter activates a different part of your self and your brain, one which voluntarily chooses to be challenged and to grow.
Stress that you choose feels, and is, different, to stress that you don’t choose but just happens to you.
It’s the distinction between victimhood and empowerment. I talked about this in my last post as saying yes to what you don't want, in order to get through what is. This is why many forms of mind trainingsay to take your life as the path. It’s their way of saying: claim what is happening and use it to grow.
Regulation and adaptation are like the yin and yang of stress management; not individually, but together. In other words, both contain yin and yang qualities. Regulation is yin (receptive, nurturing) in that it focuses on restoring you to balance, returning to yourself, post-stress. It can also be yang (active, fiery) because it’s something you deliberately do, in order to change yourself and your response to the world.
On the other hand, adaptation is yang in that it encourages you to expand, to do and be more, as a response to stress. Interestingly, just like with physical training, we require adequate recovery, or a decent ability to regulate, in order to adapt. Yang needs yin. You could argue that when you adapt, what you are actually doing is enhancing your ability to regulate and recover from larger and larger stressors. With a stronger foundation (yin), you are able to go further (yang). Therefore adaptation is also yin in its long-term aims, which are to harmonise yourself with the circumstances of your life by accommodating and transforming to meet them.
All this to say that we need both approaches, in different contexts and quantities. As I mentioned in my previous post, the key is to discern the appropriate response for the present need. That comes from awareness, of yourself and of the options available to you, and practice.
There is one final approach that works for both short- and long-term stresses. It is one that we usually only take when we are forced to, but it is a valuable and necessary option that we should keep in our back pockets. That is to retreat from the stressor. Coming back to my noise metaphor, this is when you create or discover a little sanctuary for yourself somewhere quiet, where you can retreat and escape from the noise of the world. Often holidays are the way we retreat, but home can also be a retreat.
A friend of mine who used to live in Tel Aviv had a flat that reminded me of a Zen center: minimal, quiet, elegant and clean. There was a meditation nook in front of the main window, with a massive pile of zafus and zabuton that he had accumulated over the years. When you sat in the mornings, light poured into the space, and you could see and hear the neighbourhood coming to life with the new day. Where the TV would be was a white wall; underneath was a console with an incense burner on it. (He used a projector to watch things.) And there was a single bookcase filled with books, beautiful ceramics and sculptures. My friend was gracious enough to house me while I was doing my Laban training. Coming home from campus felt like unwinding into a bright, singular space.
We live in a yang-dominant culture, in which there is a stigma associated with retreating: we call it ‘giving up’. Maybe because us humans are at the top of the food chain, we forget that there are still forces out there larger and stronger than us, in front of whom it is wiser to back down than engage. I elaborated the description of my friend’s flat to invite you into the idea that retreating isn’t a bad thing. It is neither good nor bad, but sometimes it is needed. The best way to lean into the action of retreating is to find or create your own oasis where you will naturally unwind. Once you have that, you can’t help but be called into it every so often. It’s an instinct, built-in to your animal body, to seek release, pleasure, relaxation.
Having a space to retreat into also consolidates the reason for retreating: that is, to build up your strength and to clarify your thinking. Then, when you emerge, you will either be capable of facing whatever it is you need to face, or you will be free to step away and let go of that stressor. To retreat gives us power and space.
Honouring our need for retreat attunes us to the rhythms of life. If life had a shape, it wouldn’t be a straight line angling up, but a spiral or a wave pattern, like everything else in the universe. We expand, we contract; we breathe in, we breathe out. There is no shame in it—on the contrary, it is the way things are, and there is deep intelligence in that.
Stress is a complex topic. I sometimes feel we talk about it too much, yet we still don’t really know how to deal with it. That’s probably part of the reason we talk about it so much; it’s our collective attempt to better understand it and find a place for it in our worldview. Unfortunately, instead of empowering us with solutions, the cultural story has cast stress as a kind of bogeyman who gets blamed for all our problems. What we don’t acknowledge is that states of being are changeable and workable. We are not powerless against our stress. We can do something about it.
I offer this series of posts, and the framework described in them, as my contribution to the wider cultural conversation on stress. To recap, the 5 methods I talked about are: clear, match, regulate, adapt and retreat. I’m sure there are more, and if you have your own ways, or if some of your ways dovetail with these approaches, let me know in the comments.
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Subsequent posts will concern tantra (my idea of what it is) and money: juicy topics, so make sure you subscribe. Thank you for being here.
I’m thinking of lojong, but there are others too, like Zen training, parts of tantra, the bodhisattva path etc.