What is meant by “accumulated stress”?
One way to think of it is as the loss of resiliency in a person’s capacity to respond to life challenges. Stress, when presented in manageable doses, and in situations where one can mobilize an effective response, is an opportunity for developing increased knowledge, competency, and joy. Think about learning to ride a bike. There is stress involved in learning to balance, pedal, and steer, all at the same time. When the stress is met successfully, and the body gets to do what it wants to do, you experience the exhilaration that comes along with a new-found sense of freedom.
Loss of “flow” in our nervous systems
On the other hand, modern life can hand us many experiences that don’t allow our bodies to complete a response in the way for which they were designed. Competing demands of work, family, relationships, parenting, household maintenance, and so forth, require mobilization of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. This is the same branch that mobilizes our flight/fight responses in response to a perception of threat, whether real or imagined. It was never designed to be switched “on” all the time.
However, the demands of life, the way many people live it now, lead to the constant “override” of the parasympathetic response. Rest, play, sleep fall by the way side. Our nervous systems become tuned to a higher and higher frequency of sympathetic arousal, which never really disengages, unless we fall into collapse. Our nervous systems are designed to be able to respond with a significant flow, with sufficient range, between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Yet, over time, we lose this range of frequency, becoming stuck “on” or “off,” or in a pattern of disorganized, abrupt shifting between the two.
Think of a guitar string. When it is tuned to the right pitch, it is capable of resonating in a musical way that delights. If it is tuned too tightly, it will vibrate at an unpleasantly “sharp” frequency. Tighten it even more, and it may finally “give up” and break, and be incapable of making any sound at all.
In people, this loss of resiliency in the nervous system results in symptoms such as inability to sleep–or sleep restfully–irritability, anxiety, panic, digestive disorders, chronic pain, depression, and so on. When this happens, we have access to fewer and fewer behavioral, emotional, and cognitive choices. Our behavior seems out of sync with the situation at hand. We snap at a loved one over a minor irritation, rather than expressing our feelings gently. We have trouble focusing on important tasks because our anxiety level is too high. We push and push ourselves to exhaustion just so we’ll be able to sleep. We fall into collapse and can’t mobilize any coping strategies at all. We turn to drugs, alcohol, and medications to manage our bodies.
My approach, which includes a combination of talk therapy and Somatic Experiencing techniques, is designed to help educate you about your body, teach you to “read” its signals, notice your activation, and support you to allow for deactivation. Ultimately, talking things through allows you to explore your emotions and thoughts, make sense of what’s happening, explore different responses, and make a plan for how to maintain a healthier balance in order to nourish body, mind, and soul.