It’s a feeling familiar to many of us I expect. August comes around and you finally take a well-deserved holiday after the stresses of another busy year. As you relax and unwind you begin to feel more optimistic about the future, empowered to tackle the inevitable challenges ahead with less stress, more ease and presence of mind. Then, BAM! La rentrée hits and you’re back in a whirl of obligations, deadlines, pressing schedules, juggling personal and professional responsibilities. Before you know it, it’s October and you’re already exhausted only one month into the new work and school year.
Where did all the optimism and empowerment go, the sense that life could be lived differently, more easily? Did it simply stay on holiday?
I’ve wondered this at times myself over the years, reliving this experience and asking myself if what I envision whilst on holiday is somehow possible? For those of you still wondering, the good news is yes, it is — a healthy approximation of it, in any case.
Managing life’s inevitable challenges with more ease
There are a plethora of health and wellness modalities in the world citing stress reduction as a benefit, including the Feldenkrais® Method. (I’ve written before on INSPIRELLE about the benefits I’ve experienced from my work and training in Feldenkrais). Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the developer of the method, and many others have identified the significant role our physiology plays in our experience of stress. One of the great gifts this work has given me, and many of my clients, is the ability to recover more quickly from stress, helping me to keep that holiday dream alive well past la rentrée. This, I found, was the missing element I needed to respond to life’s challenges with more ease.
One of the key ways the Feldenkrais method can help us to learn this is by developing more awareness of our physical response to stress, to learn to change that physical state, and to minimize the risk of ‘getting stuck’ in it. Feldenkrais is based on neuroscience and uses movement to give new information to the brain. By supporting the nervous system to more effectively do its job, it provides a powerful tool with which to manage the body’s automatic stress responses.
We often think of stress as an emotional or mental state. However, it is important to recognize that when we experience stress, we also experience a complex network of physical changes and reactions: in breathing, muscle tone, digestion and hormones for example. As we go about the day these changes occur as our (autonomic) nervous system, in a delicate balance, shifts between various states of stimulation and relaxation.
Fight or flight: our built in survival responses
These changes enable us to meet challenges and, importantly, to return to a more relaxed state. When we perceive a harmful event, attack or threat to survival, the state of stimulation increases and can shift into flight or fight mode as our nervous system readies us for immediate action, including changes in our breathing, muscle tonus and posture. This built-in survival response evidently plays an important and useful role, and it can also contribute to ongoing and rising levels of stress.
For example, a meeting at work may threaten the validity of a slaved over project and can become intensely stressful to the point where I have a powerful urge to leave the room (flight response). On another day, my boss may continually undermine and criticize me, leaving me feeling attacked to the point where I have the urge to scream at or hit them (fight response).
I know that in both these situations, to act on the urge to flee or to fight would be highly inappropriate. As a result, I find myself inhibiting this action, to avoid the undesired consequences. But I still experience the heightened state of stimulation my nervous system has kicked into as it readied me to flee from or fight the perceived harm, attack, or threat. My muscles are tense, my breathing shallow, my focus narrow and my blood pumping faster.
Learning how to manage and recover from stress
Without having acted on the impulse to flee or fight, it can be difficult to release this state of stimulation and return to a more neutral state. We can start to live for prolonged periods in this stimulated state even when the perceived threat has passed, leaving us constantly feeling anxious, tired, and, you guessed it, even more stressed. This can make life’s relatively smaller challenges seem disproportionately stressful, making it yet harder still to return to more relaxed states of functioning.
Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, and indeed a tool for survival. We, in fact, need it in healthy doses to push us to make sure that we and our loved ones are fed, clothed and sheltered, or to meet that important deadline.
In busy and demanding times, the need to effectively return to more neutral and relaxed states of functioning is an essential element for a healthy, and happier, life. This is where developing more awareness of our physical state, how it influences our mental and emotional states, and learning tools for changing it in times of need, can serve as immediate “stress first aid”, empowering us to both manage and recover from stress more easily.
My experience with Dr. Feldenkrais’ method is that it can offer simple strategies to unwind these automatic stress responses as we go about our daily life. It is like opening a door through which we can find choice, control and swift recovery in the face of life’s challenges—without having to hit anyone, run away, or wait another year for that far away summer holiday.