Slay Any "Stress Dragon" In 5 Steps
Would you rather watch this than read it? Check out the video walkthrough here:
If you’re reading this right now, you’re in a unique spot in the history of the world.
You don’t have to worry about predators taking a bite out of you. You’re reasonably safe from the elements, barring the occasional snowstorm or power outage. You have ready access to adequate supplies of water and food to keep yourself alive.
And yet you’re likely more burdened by persistent stress than any of your ancestors in the evolutionary record.
Perhaps it’s the day-to-day stressors of obligations to clients and employees - or simply making ends meet. Maybe it’s the looming stress of “what comes next?” as you consider your future. You may also be among the 50% of adults exposed to some form of traumatic event (physical or emotional).
Let’s be clear: life involves stress. Wishing for a life without ANY stress is foolish. You’d be bored out of your mind. The main problem with stress is that we don’t know how to process it effectively. Most of us haven’t been taught how our bodies respond to stress or how to make use of the body’s innate intelligence when it comes to overcoming stress.
The “stress dragon”
For better or worse your body responds to chronic stressors in much the same way that it would a fire-breathing dragon. You mobilize physiological changes all aiming at survival (or reduction of threat). The “fight/flight/freeze” triad is commonly thrown around in colloquial conversations about stress.
Without getting too bogged down by the details let’s use this as a summary of your stress response:
Stress dragons cause you to lose resolution on your map of the world.
Things get put into over-simplified binary buckets of good/bad, safe/unsafe, and so on. It’s an incredibly useful shortcut when we are faced with existential threat, but for our day-to-day lives it gets in the way of efficient and effective action.
Consider your bills. If your body reacts to every bank statement like a fire-breathing dragon, you aren’t going to make much headway on your financial goals.
Or imagine a taxing work environment. If you’re perceiving your everyday work as a threat to life and limb, how effective do you think you’re going to be when you get down to it?
Same goes for a fight with your partner, making a sale, or speaking up for yourself. If you can’t process stressors and release the grip they have on your, then you’re not going to show up at your best. Despite your best intentions, positive thinking, and affirmations, your body will be waging a war on any and all things it perceives as dragons (like Don Quixote charging at windmills).
In order to tackle those problems with more creativity and composure, you’re going to need to “un-couple” your stress response. Luckily you can do it in a few, simple steps. I learned these through a mentor of mine who works with the Havening technique. They’re a really effective way to create deep change in the way you feel about stressors and your ability to cope with them.
Step 1: Set A Baseline
The practice begins by setting a baseline for yourself.
Pick a memory or situation that causes you to stress out. It could be recent, or it could be an old one. It could be a looming deadline or farther off in the future. Whatever it is, let yourself sit with your experience of stress.
You might find it useful to write it out at this point too (a client of mine simply wrote down the amount of money she needed to make to avoid bringing in investors).
What kinds of sensations do you notice?
Tension in your neck and shoulders?
A feeling of butterflies or your stomach dropping?
Clamminess in your hands and feet?
Shortness of breath?
Whatever the case may be, all you need to do is notice it for the time being. The other thing to consider is giving your response a numerical value, 0-10 (0 being no stress at all, 10 being major activation). You’ll use this as a benchmark for yourself as you continue.
Step 2: Self-Soothe
After you’ve set your baseline for yourself, it’s time to take care of the “animal” part of you. What you’re experiencing is your body’s subconscious physiological responses to what it perceives as a threat. If you want to move past the compulsive reactions to stress, it can be helpful to imagine that you’re dealing with a frightened animal (you’re an animal after all).
That’s where the self-soothing practices come into play. In this video I walk you through three variations:
The first is applying firm — but gentle — pressure from your hands to your arms as you “brush” down from shoulders to hands
The second involves brushing from your forehead along your cheeks to your chin
The third involves a “washing” movement with your hands
These movements provide a potent physiological stimulus to help down-regulate your nervous system. Repeat your particular variation a number of times. As you do so imagine taking 20 steps — along a staircase, a dirt path, whatever — and with each step your stress level lowers.
This self-soothing step is a key part of the process. Continue with your variation of brushing as you go to the next step.
Step 3: Distract
In this step you’ll introduce cognitive distractions to keep yourself from habitual stress responses. These distractions can take a number of forms. I’ll include a few of my favorite variations here:
Sing a neutral song to yourself (Row Your Boat, Twinkle Twinkle, etc) two times through
Count through multiples of a given number (by 2’s, by 3’s, etc) - 2, 4, 6, 8, 10
Go through the alphabet, naming an animal for each letter (aardvark, beaver, cat…)
Give yourself 2-3 minutes for this distraction step. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to stay focused - that’s normal! I remember my shock when I couldn’t do simple arithmetic during my very first Havening session. The point isn’t to do it “right” so much as to do it at all.
The intention to distract yourself from your default stress response is key.
Step 4: Orient
Pause here. Let your hands rest by your sides. Slowly look left and right a few times. Orient yourself to the here & now environment that you find yourself in. What do you notice in the room around you?
How many rectangles can you see?
How many colors?
Notice how there aren’t any big, bad beasts trying to eat you (this is silly, but significant to your nervous system)
This orienting step brings you back to your senses - quite literally.
Take a few moments to settle into awareness of yourself wherever you are, and then proceed to the final step.
Step 5: Reassess
Think back to that “charged” memory or situation you began with. As you let yourself sit with it for a few moments, be curious about what’s changed in your experience of that stressor. Do you find that your feelings and sensations have shifted? Has it “gone down” a few notches on the scale from 0-10?
This step is particularly important for longevity of the change because your nervous system learns through contrast. Noticing any differences in your response now compared with the start will help you integrate these neurological changes in a more long-lasting way.
If you’d like, you can repeat these steps until one of two things happens:
You reach 0 on your reassessment of how charged the experience is for you.
You stop noticing changes in the number (you’ve “topped up” the amount of change your system can process)
In either case you can stop for the day, perhaps revisiting the steps in a couple of days. Keep in mind this work can be effective, but it does take time. And no amount of solo work can make up for working closely with a qualified professional. When in doubt, ask for help.
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And if you’d like a free, guided audio practice that walks you through a simple process for instant ease and grounding, fill out the form below, and I’ll send it right to your inbox.