I promised I would follow up with some suggestions about other therapeutic strategies for dealing with stress - - harm reduction techniques that we can use while we await the removal of the largest obstacles cure in human history - structural violence and systematic oppression. So, here are a few approaches I am using in my practice:
Removing Straw from the Camel's Back: Reducing the Allostatic Load
Stress occurs when we experience a real or perceived threat to our ability to meet our survival needs and maintain health. Allostasis is the ability of our bodies to fluidly respond to stressful situations -- for example, under normal circumstances, if we here a bump in the night our muscles might tense and our heart rates might increase, but when we realize its just a cat leaping from the couch to the floor, our heart rates would slow down again and our muscles would relax.
Each of us has a limit, though, an amount of stress we can respond to fluidly. If I were sleep deprived and worried about someone breaking into my apartment my heart rate might stay elevated and my muscles might stay tense even after I realized the sound I heard was just a jumping cat.
The things that take reduce our ability to respond to change collectively form our allostatic load. Unresolved trauma, especially from early childhood, takes its toll on us, reducing our capacity to respond to new stressors. So does having unreliable access to the means to meet out basic survival needs - food, warmth, loving connection. And because poverty and oppression make people more vulnerable to attack and limit people's ability to meet their fundamental needs, they tend to have a tremendous impact on our allostatic load. The greater the allostatic load, the less capacity we have to heal.
This phenomenon partially explains the seemingly sudden emergence of chronic conditions -- thyroid disorders that begin in pregnancy, food sensitivities that seem to appear in stressful times in adulthood, etc. The underlying pattern giving rise to the condition has often existed for a long time, but the body was able to correct for it and prevent the development of symptoms until something came along that overwhelmed its ability to maintain allosatasis.
As practitioners, we are often tempted to focus on finding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back -- the stressor that finally pushed the body into a state where it could no longer regulate itself. But identifying and removing that particular stressor is less important than reducing the overall allostatic load. The camel's back will heal best when the load it is carrying is smaller. At that point it won't matter whether the straw that broke it is among the straws that remain or among the straws that were removed.
So I work with people to find what changes we can make in their lives that will make things just a little bit easier: finding foods we can add to help their bodies be more deeply nourished, working on strategies for deeper sleep, reducing pain, addressing acute anxiety, any helpful change that can be incorporated in a person's daily life without adding stress. (I will sometimes advise against particular changes, like quitting Tobacco, if someone is really shaken up or really depleted, and making that change will cause more stress than it will relieve.) As simple changes come into place, room gradually opens for larger changes. When a person reaches a place of relative stability and solidity I often recommend working on some of the deeper factors contributing to the allostatic load. I tend to find somatic approaches to healing from trauma to be especially effective at that stage.
Feelings of helplessness and isolation often accompany or underlie chronic stress. Solidarity is a powerful antidote to alienation -- when we know that others are standing with us in our struggles for survival and liberation, the challenges we are up against become a little bit less overwhelming.
One of my goals as a practitioner is to shift the dynamic in the sessions I hold with people from one where a patient is receiving a commodified service from an expert professional to one in which everyone in the room is on equal footing, working together to find ways to shift challenging situations in one person's life. Part of that work involves witnessing that person's pain and that person's strength, and part of it involves coming to collective agreement about what changes we want to try to create and how we want to go about making those changes. In all of this, the degree to which our plans fit the person's life and increase their experience of personal sovereignty.
Whatever else does or doesn't happen, creating spaces where people can shift their experience of health care as something done to them to an experience of health care as something done with them can often bring profound healing in and of itself.
Connection with the Living World
Our nervous systems and endocrine systems evolved in the context of a world rich with phytochemical and mycochemical stimuli, molecules morphologically and functionally similar to our internal chemistries of thought and emotion. And the chemistries of the plants and fungi in our ancestral environments would shift and change subtly in response to the chemical outputs of their human inhabitants. Mental and emotional regulation were never meant to strictly inside jobs.
In an article last year I wrote:
Our ancestors evolved in a context where they were constantly taking in a varied abundance of medicines through breathing in the chemicals plants were releasing into the air, absorbing chemicals from plants as they brushed against them with their skin, drinking in the chemicals that filtered from their root systems into the water – and that is not even taking into account the plants they ingested. This wove them integrally into the ecosystems they inhabited, and the fluidity of those ecosystems and the ever changing nature of the chemical inputs into their bodies created a fluidity in their experience. Water soluble compounds from plants interacted with their endocrine systems and oil soluble compounds from plants altered their brain chemistries, shifting their perceptions.
Simply bringing people into the presence of plants or bringing plants into the presence of people reawakens our sense of connection with the living world.
Aromatic plant compounds have a special role to play here. Inhaling the volatile oils of plants sets off a chain of events which activate the parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and relax tension in the small muscles around the blood vessels, helping us come down from the "fight, flight, or freeze" response. (For more on this see Guido Masé's The Wild Medicine Solution.) This is likely one of the reasons that the Japanese practice of "forest bathing" seems to have such a profound effect in preventing and ameliorating stress-related illnesses.
These are just a few initial thoughts on approaches to mitigating chronic stress -- please share your thoughts and strategies in the comment section below!