In my last blog post, I looked at the difference between merely feeling stressed and being caught in a stress cycle, and the reason why it takes more than conventional calming strategies to break free from the latter. The great paradox of a stress cycle is that the harder you try to escape the tighter is its grip. Yet simply trying to relax and look dispassionately at one’s emotional distress is no more effective.
A particularly powerful depiction of this point occurs in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry, Hermione and Ron dive blindly through a trapdoor in order to escape from Fluffy, the three-headed guard dog, and land in some sort of spongy plant that starts to ensnare them in its tendrils:
Hermione: “Stop moving, both of you. This is Devil's Snare. You have to relax. If you don't, it will only kill you faster.”
Ron: “Kill us faster?! Oh, now I can relax!”
Hermione manages a smile as she is sucked down below.
Ron and Harry: “Hermione!!”
Ron: “Now what are we gonna do?!”
Hermione's voice: “Just relax!”
Harry: “Hermione! Where are you?!”
Hermione (from below): “Do what I say. Trust me.”
Harry relaxes and is sucked through.
Ron: “Ahh! Harry!”
Harry falls through and lands on the hard ground. Hermione goes over to him and he stands up.
Hermione: “Are you okay?”
Harry: “Yeah, yeah, I'm fine.”
Hermione: “He's not relaxing, is he?”
Harry: “Apparently not.”
Ron: “Help! Help me!”
Hermione: “We've got to do something!”
Ron’s response is such a vivid metaphor for what it’s like to be caught in a stress cycle. Hermione is able to escape because of her clear understanding of what’s happening; and Harry, because of his trust in Hermione. But poor Ron is so paralyzed by his fear that he is unable to process what Hermione is saying, much less act on her advice.
It’s a reminder that mindfulness exercises can be wonderfully effective for dealing with life’s day-to-day stresses. But telling someone who is battling a stress cycle that they simply need to relax is next to useless. Of course, in the fantasy world of Harry Potter all that’s needed to rescue Ron is an incantation that causes a beam of light to be emitted. That’s actually an apt image for what it’s like to battle free from the darkness of being over-stressed. But without a magic wand, simply intoning “lumos solem” over and over doesn’t have much effect. So we are left in the same position as Harry, knowing that we need to do something, but not knowing what.
The answer lies buried in the “Thayer Matrix” presented at the top of this blog, which capitalizes on this image of moving from darkness into light: i.e., from being stuck in a state of low-energy/high-tension into the flow of high-energy/low-tension. Mantras alone may not have much effect here, but Self-Reg certainly does. The reason lies in how Self-Reg hones our understanding of stress and the management of energy and tension: i.e., its impact on self-regulation. Without these tools we can’t budge a stress cycle, and may even make it worse.
Consider, for example, the case of global warming. Normally the shield of carbon dioxide (C02) and methane (CH4) that wraps around the planet keeps the surface temperature at around 15°C. The greenhouse effect caused by the buildup of these gases interferes with this mechanism. The average surface temperature has risen a full degree, and hurricanes are becoming more intense (in much the same way that behavioral problems become more intense when a child is caught in a stress cycle). Not surprisingly, we have seen an explosion in the use of air conditioners, in developing even more than in developed nations [The explosion of air conditioners]. But then, the much-needed relief that this affords adds significantly to the buildup of greenhouse gases: the perfect example of how a stress cycle becomes ever more entrenched.
The key to breaking a stress cycle lies in the very first Self-Reg step of recognizing it for what it is: a self-perpetuating condition in which stress begets stress and recovery is limited. The problem is that we tend to respond in a way that increases our stress. We berate ourselves for our lack of willpower, which feeds a stress cycle in the way that panic feeds Devil’s Snare. Rather, we need to recognize when irritability, a restless mind, gloomy thoughts, or especially strong cravings, are signs that we are stuck in the bottom right quadrant of the Thayer Matrix: a chronic state of low energy and high tension.
This act of “reframing” is a crucial starting-point for breaking a stress cycle: recognizing that your problems aren’t due to a lack of willpower, or a character flaw, but the result of a heightened level of tension caused by multiple stressors, many of which you likely haven’t even recognized as such. In Self-Reg I compared this condition to what astronauts have said about how it feels like they’re hoisting a 60lb backpack when they return to earth’s gravity. (As it happens, gravity is a significant stress for all of us.) We typically don’t become aware of our stress load until physical and/or mental health problems occur. And because of their unique physiology or life circumstances, some have to shoulder a much greater burden than others.
The act of “reframing” applies every bit as much to the cravings themselves. Invariably, our “maladaptive” responses to stress are strongly associated with rapid forms of energy-release. This association is what drives the craving: i.e., triggers a surge of dopamine. But where self-control treats strong cravings as impulses that need to be resisted, Self-Reg sees them as invaluable signs that your energy has been seriously depleted and your tension has skyrocketed.
What has to happen next, according to Self-Reg, is that you begin to identify the stresses that landed you in, and are keeping you in this state. This is precisely the reason why it is so important to broaden and deepen your understanding of stress, and search out the hidden stressors in your life. All too often, we fixate on our major emotional stresses: the ones that we can’t stop thinking about in the middle of the night, that we struggle to suppress or to detoxify. But rather than trying to tackle these intransigent worries head-on, it can be far more effective to start with the physical domain.
Sometimes a particular issue will stand out here. A case in point is the relationship between airport noise and heart disease, which was reported a few years ago in the British Medical Journal [Aircraft Noise and Cardiovascular Disease]. One of most striking features about the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is how quickly it becomes habituated to novel events; soon it no longer notices the sound of airplanes taking off and landing. But not so the limbic system. Its alarm is constantly triggered, even while you’re in a deep sleep. It doesn’t “learn” in the way the PFC does that these sounds don’t represent a threat. (Just think of how a dog trembles when it hears thunder no matter how many times this has happened.) And every time the alarm goes off, we dip a little deeper into our reserves, even while we are supposedly building them up.
In a case like this, or that of traffic noise (which has been shown to have the same effect), or even just a low-frequency background hum, we can take direct measures to reduce the stress: e.g., change the windows, install soundproofing curtains, get sound-absorbing blankets and sheets. But more often than not you’ll be dealing with a number of physical stressors, many of them unique to your physiology. Perhaps you are just the opposite and need background noise to feel soothed. We once worked with a child who begged us to turn on the radio in the quiet room where he was working because he needed to hear the sound of people talking in order to feel calm. Each of us needs to build up over time a personalized stress inventory of what we find stressful and what we find soothing.
Now we need to add to the complexity; for a stress load is invariably the result of a cluster of stressors coming from multiple domains: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial. These diverse stressors ping off of one another and intensify one another. Sensory thresholds are lowered, leaving us stressed by experiences that when rested we can easily tolerate, even enjoy. Stress reactivity is heightened, with the result that the slightest jarring note can send us into fight-or-flight. We are gripped by an insidious sense of dread, fearful of we know not what, in a constant state of low-level anxiety.
To unravel a tangled skein of stresses requires patience and a gentle touch. You have to reduce those stresses that you can and avoid those that you must. Your goal here is to build up the resources needed to grapple with the positive stresses in life: e.g., the stress of work, or doing well on exams. The goal is not simply to cope with stress: it is to learn what we need to do in order to thrive from stress. And for that to be possible, we need to work on our stress-awareness: i.e., recognizing the signs of when we are becoming overly tense, and for far too many of us today, learning what it means to be relaxed.
I have yet to see anyone caught in a stress cycle suddenly break free. Rather, it is a slow and gradual process, invariably with lots of pauses and the occasional setback. The driver is building in self-regulating activities as a regular part of your daily routine: activities that generate energy, however minimal this might be at first. And here we have to expect one of those paradoxes that make it so hard to break free from a stress cycle: just as stress begets stress in a stress cycle, calmness begets calmness when breaking free.
I am writing this blog sitting on the beach, which is isolated and incredibly restorative. There is only one boat on the lake, around 50 yards from where I’m working. A father and his two teenage sons have gone out for a morning’s fishing. And the entire time they’ve been there the three of them have been screaming at each other. (“Don’t cast that way!” “Sit properly!” “You crossed my line.”) You’d think that fishing on a lake you had all to yourself would be an optimal form of self-regulation. And so it would be, if you were calm enough to enjoy being calm.
The lesson here is that, in order to break out of a stress cycle, we need to do all five steps of Self-Reg. There’s no strict order in which these need to be done. Rather, it’s a case of shuttling back and forth, up and down: which, ironically, is pretty much the manner in which you got caught in a stress web in the first place. But with each new go at one of the steps, you delve a little further and deeper, and in this way slowly begin to move up to the upper levels of the Thayer Matrix. Soon you will have enough energy that you’ll be able, not just to benefit from things like exercise or meditation, but absolutely relish the time you get to spend on these activities.
Lumos Solem is actually a pretty good motto for this process. It’s a pseudo-Latin way of saying “Let there be light,” which is definitely fitting seeing as how light is a form of energy. And it sure does feel like magic when your energy starts to come back and your tension begins to subside.