Is there a right way to “switch off”? Here’s how I found out I was doing it wrong.
I recently attended a workshop that shed some new light on how the process of relaxation works, and why it is crucial to functioning a normal, healthy, and dare I say — stress-free life.
As an anxious person, I need all the tools I can get to combat anxiety. I collect them. I’ve experienced stress and anxiety for as long as I can remember — it seems to have been handed down to me as though it was a family heirloom.
In an attempt to manage it, I’ve practised yoga for 15 years, and even studied and trained to become a yoga teacher.
I’ve practised meditation for 6 years.
I’ve kept a consistent journalling practice for 3 and a half years.
But even with these tools, I found I was handling the stress less and less well. I became obsessed with the reasons behind it, and what else I could try.
- Living in a better climate.
- Fermented foods.
- Ashtanga yoga. Aerial yoga. Yin yoga. Weights.
- Intermittent fasting. Keto.
- CBD Oil.
- Travel. No travel.
- Stability. Spontaneity.
The only rule — I wanted to avoid medication if I possibly could.
I trained myself to be grateful, to be positive, to look for the bright side.
I could headstand and I could meditate daily for 20 minutes, I got plenty of exercise and I ate well (most of the time).
And yet, if anything, the anxiety got worse.
To make matters worse, even with all of the lovely healthy tools I swore by, I could never quite make it a daily habit. It was an uphill battle and felt like an endless cycle of self-sabotage.
I knew there were the solutions, and I craved them, but why did they never work on me?
As my quest continued, the symptoms spiralled.
The constant flooding of cortisol into my system took its toll on my health: my digestive system was impaired, and my adrenals went haywire. I was chronically tired, couldn’t think straight, and often I was paralysed with anxiety. It became my “new normal.” And, because nothing seemed to make it better, I assumed I had reached the peak — so I just learnt to accept it, I learned to love it in myself, and I called it balance, and that the anxiety was simply an indication that something wasn’t right; that I needed to take action somewhere.
Is there a cure for anxiety?
Then I attended a workshop with a leading hypnotist and specialist in anxiety.
She introduced me to a concept that I had heard mentioned before — the “stress bucket.”
This is a term to describe how the brain takes on negative emotions or thoughts.
It’s highly individual — the amount of stress one person can take will differ from another.
Our ability to empty the bucket or let it overflow also varies.
If you are capable of successfully emptying the bucket, you are less likely to experience chronic stress or anxiety, and you’re likely to be healthier, and better able to make healthy decisions.
If your bucket is full or overflowing, and you aren’t processing these thoughts or emptying the bucket, they stay with you, the cortisol raises, and it forms a negative spiral.
Added to this, if you are resilient, the stress bucket will not fill as fast, meaning you are better equipped to handle and brush off the stress without it impacting you.
If you are less resilient, it accumulates. The vicious cycle just continues until the system buckles.
And this seems to be more and more common.
We are reaching a crisis point with stress — it’s an epidemic. We live in the most stressed out times we’ve ever known, with many attributing it to being “always on,” made possible by modernisation, globalisation, technological progress — constant access to phones, emails, social media. These things brings us so much joy and have even increased life expectancy, but with that they have also brought more stress, not to mention shrinking brain sizes.
Is it possible to eliminate stress?
Stress isn’t the baddie here. Stress is simply a response to a trigger — and in doing so, it actually protects us. In our hunter-gatherer days, we needed it to stay alive. Fight or flight is what allowed us as hunter-gatherers to go out, do a hard days hunting and gathering and dealing with all sorts of environmental threats, come back to the cave, and process it all, and go out and do it all again the next day.
These days, very little of our day requires a flight or flight response, yet we still do it, it has become a habit. It happens every time a notification goes off on your phone, or your boss calls, or someone cuts in front of you.
Stress isn’t inherently bad. Where it becomes problematic is when it stores up in our system, causing health issues and so-called lifestyle diseases such as heart diseases and type 2 diabetes.
So stress is part of life. We don’t need to eliminate it, we just need to learn not to hold on to it.
How do you empty the stress bucket?
As it happens, the brain has a super cool function whereby overnight the anterior cingulate cortex (the “ACC”) processes all of the days events and resets the stress bucket, so to speak. It analyses, filters, rationalises, dismisses, and works its way through bucket until all the stress is gone and you’re ready to start the day afresh.
Perhaps this is subconscious de-compartmentalizing — when the brain literally sorts the experiences and thoughts into useful compartments for future reference or trashes what it doesn’t need.
The mental filtering and emptying of the stress bucket is thought to occur while we are sleeping, during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase.
And it has to be the right amount of REM — too much, and we don’t get enough “deep sleep,” and we will not feel rested.
Getting enough quality sleep is just one of the ways to better manage anxiety.
Can you control anxiety?
It doesn’t just happen while we sleep however. The emptying of the stress bucket can also happen whenever the mind is completely relaxed — such as in meditation, yoga nidra, or savasana. Any state where you are in deep relaxation, but not necessarily asleep, is extremely restorative and is known to have profound benefits.
A study of Buddhist monks during meditation also revealed a great deal about neural activity which further gave weight to the benefits of meditation:_
• The happier parts of the brain were far more active.
• Their brains tend to “re-organize”, which means they feel a sense of “oneness” with the world around them.
• The brainwave patterns of the Buddhist monks were far more powerful, implying a higher level of external & internal thought.
• Their brains had enhanced focus, memory, learning, consciousness, and “neural coordination”.
• The monks reported no anxiety, depression, or addiction.
We urgently need this mental cleanse during periods of deep relaxation in order for the brain to do its work, so that we can heal and restore.
To develop real resilience, though, we must get good at this through our conscious activities while we are awake, in normal, day to day life. This is what stops the stress bucket from getting overloaded in the first place.
Thus, by practising healthy habits we become better equipped to deal with those anxiety inducing stressful situations and let it just brush over us rather than store it in the stress bucket.
Can you get meditation and relaxation wrong?
I sleep well and am quick to relax. I have an understanding of the benefits, and I even practice the methods regularly. But I could not fathom why I was not getting relief from anxiety.
Rather, I was experiencing anxiety and relaxation more intensely, at polar opposites. I would have extreme anxiety to the point of PTSD and PMDD, but also intense periods of relaxation. Again, I assumed this was the meaning of balance — like a sine curve, any highs were reflected in the lows.
Until, of course, my neural activity was measured during deep relaxation.
The sensors and the recording indicated that there were spikes in my brain activity and it coincided with my experience during the guided meditation. There were times where I could feel myself slipping into deep relaxation, but before I completely drifted off, I would almost panic and jerk myself back into awareness.
Throughout my years of practising meditation, I have experienced this, and I have always put that down to the advice that if you notice yourself running away with thoughts, or sleep, simply bring yourself back to the moment and continue.
So I believed I was just doing that.
But what if living with elevated levels of stress means that I can no longer “switch off”, or truly enter that state?
It’s like spiritual bypassing, where I am able to meditate and relax, but at a deeper level, my primitive brain, which is stuck in the fight or flight mode, addicted to cortisol and reliant on dopamine hits from endless notifications and reactions, prevents me from entering a state where any real healing can take place. Hence it building it up, hence never feeling free of it, hence feeling fatigued all the time.
What if I was meditating wrong all along? What if what I needed was to bypass the primitive brain to achieve that deeper state?
How to manage stress healthily
I have been working on my daily habits for a long time.
What I’ve repeatedly come up against is resistance, and that has generated even more anxiety, not less.
Resistance is a known issue, particularly among creatives and entrepreneurs.
But as Charles Duhigg is all too aware of in “The Power of Habit,” improving self-discipline to this end is uncomfortable.
This is what the primitive brain, or the reptilian brain, wants to avoid. Breaking bad habits can be painful, there will be resistance, but this is precisely what must be done to cultivate resilience and develop better stress responses in day to day life.
For all the relaxation in the world, my addiction to stress, my constant alertness, meant that I was not able to adequately empty my stress bucket.
So, going forwards, I will be scheduling in a lot more yoga nidras, and perhaps a good old fashioned 30 day challenge of listening to deep relaxations daily.
Will it be challenging?
But no one in their right mind doesn’t love yoga nidra, so I have a great deal of that and savasana to look forward to.