How To Let Go of Stress: a Contradiction and a Misunderstanding.

Do you ever wish you could be less stressed, tense and internally ‘noisy’? Have you ever tried to de-stress and quieten yourself down but without much success? 

When we want to quieten down but find it difficult there are often two things which are getting in the way: the first is that there is a contradiction in the way we are setting about things which we may not be aware of. The second is that there is often a specific faulty belief about the situation which — even if we understand the contradiction — can stymy our best efforts to change.

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The Contradiction

Being caught in a feeling of stress and tension is a bit of a ‘double bind’. If your nervous system is in a buzzy, over-stimulated state (which for many of us is the case a lot of the time) then you tend to lose touch with your innate ability to stop. When an organism becomes over-stimulated it becomes excessively hooked into that function of the nervous system which is to do with ‘action’ — with instigating and initiating things. The nervous system has another, complementary function, which enables us to ‘stop’, withhold consent or refrain from acting — but when we are in a highly over-stimulated state it becomes much harder to access this.

Take a moment now to think about quietening down and notice the response to that idea. I’ll bet at some level (perhaps quite subtle) there is a feeling of effort or strain. We want to do something to quieten down — but that doing is in itself not quiet. Our contradiction is that we want to be quieter but because we are over-stimulated the only mode of action which seems to be open to us is to do more — to chase this quietness; and the chasing is in itself more noise.  Though we believe at some level that our efforts will help (or we wouldn’t do them) we are actually putting even more stress into our system.  This compulsive wish to do something to get the result we want is like an endless chain. Noticing that we are doing it we probably then want to do something else in response. And again in response to noticing that! 

So what is the way out of our conundrum? How can we be more present and quiet without the search itself causing internal effort, noise and stress? There is a clue in a very old Hindu practice called ‘net-neti’. Neti-neti is a Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘not this, not that’. It forms the basis of a form of meditation in which ultimate reality is seen as something entirely beyond our everyday experience. Being beyond what we know, this reality can only be sought indirectly by noticing everything that it is not. When all these other things have been removed (negated) then what is left is the thing we are seeking. 

At a more down to earth level, neti-neti can help us in our wish to quieten down because we have a similar problem to the meditator: we want to approach something (quietness) but the only tool it seems we have at our disposal (‘doing’, effort and trying) are the opposite of what we want. So we need to change our focus from chasing the desired result (i.e. a quiet nervous system) to simply noticing the responses inside us which are not quietness. As the philosopher Krishnamurti noted, when we really see what is going on, the seeing is itself intelligence and right action. Our actions are always a reflection of our understanding. As we begin to notice and understand that our search for quietness is, in fact, more noise, this greater understanding allied to a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down, is itself enough to start things changing. Furthermore, as our organism quietens down a little it has more and more access to that function of the nervous system which enables it to ‘stop’, or refrain from doing things. As we notice and understand our habitual, effortful responses it is easier and easier for our system to ‘not go there’. A virtuous cycle is established.

The Misunderstanding

So much for the contradiction. I also promised you a misunderstanding, and there is a big one which, even when we have understood the problem, can still catch us out. This is that we may not understand that an over-stimulated nervous system takes time to settle. We tend to think that change should work like a ‘switch’, when in fact it is often more like a process. The body-mind is a highly complex system of feedback loops, chemical reactions, tension responses, habits etc. Like an engine with a big flywheel all this complexity takes some time to slow down — even after we cut off the petrol! 

Our trouble is that another side effect of our over-stimulated state is that it tends to make us anxious for quick results to prove to ourselves that we are on the right track. In our eagerness we keep checking to see if things have quietened down yet, and then get despondent because it is not happening. But often the problem is that we simply don’t understand that it takes a little time. It may take some days or weeks to allow an over-stimulated organism to calm down. Rather than chasing instant change ‘in the moment’ we need to see ourselves as engaging in a wise process in which we are allowing our bodies and minds to gradually grow in understanding and quieten down in their own time. 

What else can help?

Having a few sessions with an Alexander teacher is a powerful way to help ‘kick start’ this process of quietening the nervous system. The teacher is able to use their presence and touch to help your own system to quieten down. This can really help you to become aware of your responses and can help nudge you out of the cycle of doing and effort that keeps you caught in the trap. As you proceed, a teacher can help keep you on track, and offer guidance to avoid the pitfalls along the way….