Background layers of stress


Sometimes (maybe all the time) allowing ourselves to release into a relaxed state is feels like we relax about a centimetre from the surface and then our mind and body just won't stop whirring any further.

This is often seen in situations like:
  • not winding down well at night before trying to go to sleep,
  • our body always wanting or fidget, move or wriggle,
  • worrying thoughts repeating themselves over and over during a meditation,
  • being unable to stay "in the present"...the mind keeps on thinking about the past or the future.
Sounding familiar?

How about never really being able to let go and relax fully while meditating?

That's where I began to notice my layers of background stress. I would lie in bed, repeating a mantra or doing a meditation designed to help me relax and fall asleep, but something running through the centre of my torso wouldn't let go - it remained tense.

Some deep, unconscious belief I have was holding on to my fight/flight/freeze response, not letting it switch off...though much of my body felt relaxed, there was a deeper, less obvious layer that wasn't having a bar of it.

What are background layers of stress?

These layers are the stress, probably stemming from experiences we had as children, fuelled by deep beliefs, unprocessed emotions or deep fears and by lifestyle choices that aren't aligned with the purpose our true or deep selves are here to fulfil.

Where do background layers of stress come from?

When we're kids, we are small, vulnerable, and sponge-like, learning very quickly and acutely how to survive in our environment. We learn our fundamental understanding of ourselves, our world and our life from the experience we have of our parents, in our family, in our society, educational system, religious communities etc.

So we arrive into adulthood with beliefs formed through our early years, and associated behavioural responses, which, unless we are presented with a good reason to do so, will remain solid and unquestioned, and often unconscious, throughout our life.

Can we achieve rest or relaxation if we haven't resolved these background layers of stress?

Yes! This is the good news.

Practices of deep rest, like the one I outline below, are really great tools to temporarily encourage our background layers of stress to release. And like any meditative practice, the more you do them, the better you get at doing them and the more effective the rest will be.

To find other methods of background stress release, seek out trauma-informed methods and meditations, as these are designed to work with a lot of long-held, deep beliefs about safety, security and self worth.

One method to release background layers of stress

Here's a good technique to start with - but it's a practice. Don't expect it to be perfect first go. Look for small improvements (like feeling a little bit more release):

Give yourself a bit of quiet, uninterrupted resting time
Sit somewhere comfortable, quiet and calming
Close your eyes and breath deeply a few times, slowing your breathing with each breath.
Try to keep your awareness on your breathing, not controlling it, just watching it. Keep your attention there, and return it there when it wanders. Stay doing this for 5 or more minutes.
As you begin to notice your body twitching, fidgeting, wanting to move, draw that feeling (the urge to move) into your consciousness - be really present to the desire to move, without moving (if you can resist).
As you do this, visualise where in your torso, this need is being driven from. This can be tricky if you're not used to feeling into your body. Stick with it, see how you go. For me, it usually lies in the middle of my torso, in the space where my two rib cages part.
When you've located this deep drive to keep moving, start to say the word "rest" to it, as you breath out. Slowly, gentle, lovingly..."rest".
Using your intuition, feel into whether the tension needs to hear something reassuring, in order to release its tension. This may be something like:
You are safe now
You are loved
You are OK
You are a beautiful person
As you become aware that your tense part needs such a statement, repeat it lovingly on your out-breath.
To be aware of when doing deep belief tension release resting.

You will probably find this experience both deeply restful and physically relaxing, but it can also be emotional. As you tell your deep stressed part that it's OK, or that it's loved, emotions may arise. Remember, you've been carrying this stress-inducing belief for a LONG time! You've been in need of this reassurance for a LONG time. There could be a lot of strong emotions.

Be kind to yourself, and the child-self who felt those feelings initially. Love both! And let the emotions come out. This will help you release and relax. If you feel like you've opened a floodgate of emotions that now don't seem to want to stop coming out, see a therapist. You won't regret it!

A note on changing the beliefs that drive background layers of stress

Removing the source of background stress is always the more effective, long-term option. Most good therapists will be able to help you with this, guiding you through remembering the initial event/s that caused the belief and then helping you feel the associated feelings, which is key to healing and changing. It's hard work, that is emotionally gruelling at times, but it's so worth it. 

There are many practitioners who claim to have methodolgies and practices that can change unconscious beliefs without this remembering and feeling process. Some of these methods I believe to be dangerous, emotionally or spiritually by-passing the real suffering and healing that needs to take palce with conscious self-work. However, some of these methods, including some powerful techniques generally accepted in mainstream psychology, like EMDR, tapping etc, and some more intuitive and energetic methods, can be very effective tools. I'm a trained facilitator of one of them (Psych-K). These can be worth trying. But no technique will work every time, for everyone, for every belief. And I deeply believe that the opportunity for growth & maturity offered when we are brave enough to do the remembering and feeling of past traumatic events - always in a safe environment and with a trained therapist - means this is often the best path, with other methodologies offering great supportive options.

If this article has resonated with you, and you feel that you need a therapist, my encouragement would be to seek out one with trauma-informed training.

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