Using Your Body as an Ally to Work with Stress

A road sign concept that says "Reducing Stress".

You know what it feels like. Your heart is pounding, hands are shaking, and sweat is dribbling down the sides of your face.  To some, it may feel like clenching fists, increased heat in the face and body, or a tightened jaw. Despite these physical sensations attributing to different emotions, the reality remains the same.  You are entering a state of body crisis. This is a state where you become emotionally overloaded with stress. To better understand how to work with this uncomfortable experience, it’s best to first identify what we’re working with.

Emotions are an Equation

Emotions are made up of two parts: physical sensations and thought.  What you feel in your body can be a reactant to what information your thoughts are providing you.  Feeling stressed is a common experience for many people, and it’s important to recognize that. However, when your body begins to recognize stress only as a crisis, that’s when we need to put more work in. With increased mindfulness you can become more in charge of your reactions by becoming aware of emotions through your thoughts and sensations. In this conversation, we are identifying stress as both a physiological sensation and a thought/experience.  

When Changing A Thought Just Doesn’t Work

Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t wired to control all the thoughts we have in a day (all 10,000 of them!).  So, what happens when we don’t have the ability to decrease painful thoughts that create stress? We can work to decrease our physical reactions!

In enters the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill, TIPP.  TIPP is an acronym for Temperature, Intense Movement, Paced Breathing, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.  This skill is designed to decrease the physiological stress you are in “fast”. Let’s break it down.

  • Temperature: Change your physical state to decrease emotional reactivity.  There are plenty ways to do this, such as putting ice on the back of your neck, taking a cold shower, or my favorite, the “dive response”. In this practice, you are mimicking a dive into cold water, and in turn, tricking yourself to calm down without realizing it. To do this, put your full face in cold water, or fill a zip-lock bag with cold water, place it over your face, and hold your breath.  This will slow down your central nervous system. The blood that was rushing to your clenched fists and shaking legs, will shift back to your essential organs. This calms your body down without your mind even registering what is happening.
  • Intense Movement: This is wonderful when you’re revved up by emotions like anger or fear. It’s important to recognize that no emotion is bad, and yet the experience can still be uncomfortable. Intense movement can change the experience by exerting intense energy in a small amount of time.  This can include, running, lifting weights, jumping up and down, screaming, or throwing ice against a brick wall.
  • Paced Breathing: As a yoga instructor, I’ve recognized that we commonly forget about the most important thing keeping us alive, our breath.  There are many different ways to practice breathing. For example, by inhaling into your nose 5 seconds and exhaling 7 seconds, you’re exerting more carbon dioxide than you’re taking in oxygen.  This also slows down your central nervous system. Anchoring yourself to your breath is helpful when your thoughts are scattered and your breathing is fast and irregular.
  • Paired Muscle Relaxation: This is a helpful way to decrease stressful muscle tension by pairing your breath with your movement.  Take time to focus on each muscle group in your body. While breathing into your belly, notice the tension, squeeze the tension in the muscle for 5 seconds, and breathe out slowly. Through repeat practice, you’ll reduce the need for oxygen thus reduce fatigue and anxiety.

Although these skills are helpful, it’s important to know that they won’t take your stress away.  These skills can motivate you to use your body as an ally in the face of stressful events. Become the Captain Marvel of your own crisis response, and combat uncomfortable sensations that create barriers for you by taking action.  You’ve got this!

Briea Frestel, LSW, CADC, RYT