Heart-Mind-Body: Holistic Stress Management in Challenging Times
Stress is everywhere, it seems. Our society is still dealing with the loss and uncertainty of the pandemic. People are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19, but the lifting of the emergency orders means it will be more difficult to get (and afford) treatment and testing.
Systemic racism and inequality are keeping some communities in a constant state of fear and disease.
We are bombarded daily with news of mass shootings in the United States and death in Ukraine.
No wonder it’s hard to catch a breath.Many clinicians are exploring holistic stress management techniques that make the connection between our brains, our bodies, and our emotions.
The numbers show we are experiencing a mass stress crisis. A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that nearly half of US adults felt that the uncertainty of the pandemic made it difficult to plan for their futures. Almost a third of respondents said they had trouble making basic decisions. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in inflation-related stress, global uncertainty, and stress related to the tragedy unfolding from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
For behavioral health professionals, it is important to learn ways to help clients and ourselves cope with rising levels of stress.
Not all stress is bad for us, but some stress — if unaddressed — can cause harm, especially for developing bodies and brains. Toxic stress response occurs when ongoing adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver substance abuse, or economic hardship causes people to spend too much time in “fight or flight” mode.
The types of trauma that cause toxic stress include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are often measured by the ACE Score Questionnaire, an assessment tool used by thousands of professional clinicians and researchers.
There are many possible triggers for toxic stress, but behavioral health professionals can help people of all ages to identify protective factors that can help them cope and recover from toxic stress.
We can help by providing trauma-informed care and nurturing environments of safety and stability for people experiencing high levels of stress. Some of the protective factors for people experiencing toxic stress include healthy food, regular exercise, quality sleep, and mindfulness techniques like meditation and yoga.
What are some of the most common types of holistic stress management?
The Healing Power of Breath
Breathing keeps us alive — literally. And it’s harder to breathe when you are stressed. The flip side of that is that conscious breathing can reduce stress.
The Breath-Body-Mind Foundation is a nonprofit that offers a free stress-relief program. They even offer translation services to people affected by the Ukraine conflict. In this edition of Trauma Matters, Linda Lentini, Director of Healing from Within by Toivo, shares her profound experience doing the Breath-Body-Mind workshop, where she learned breath practices: coherent breathing (timing breaths to take 5 breaths per minute), gentle qigong movements, and open focus meditation.
“It has been almost 2 years since I incorporated these practices into my life, and I’ve noticed that my response to my past trauma has changed,” writes Lentini. “I feel comfortable and safe enough going into myself and exploring healing qualities that I have the power to control such as breathing, meditation, and gentle movements. These practices have taught me that I have everything I need within myself and that I am enough.”
The Sound of Healing
Another Trauma Matters article explores the practice known as sound healing. Rebecca Lemanski, MSW, explores the practice with Kelvin Young, owner of Kelvin B Young, LLC. Lemanski describes a session where she laid on an anti-gravity chair and took deep breaths while Young played Tibetan and crystal singing bowls.
“Sometimes negative emotions and traumas can get stuck in our bodies,” says Young. “Vibrations from Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, the gong, the ocean drum, and other healing tools create a very calming atmosphere and help to release stuck emotions and trauma in our bodies. The vibrations penetrate to the cellular level and bring a sense of balance and release of negative energy, emotions and/or trauma.”
Obviously, neither breathing nor sound can reverse all the negative effects of trauma, but our bodies heal better when we are in a more relaxed state.
We Are What We Eat
Many clinicians are also exploring the role of nutrition in helping people heal from trauma and toxic stress. In this video, “Nutritional Approaches to Manage Stress,” Amy Otzel, LPC, LMHC, shares some of her personal experiences healing from trauma. She is an Army veteran and a holistic health and stress management instructor in the breath-body-mind technique.
Otzel quotes the philosopher Hippocrates, who wrote: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” A holistic approach to healing and nutrition considers the mind, body, and spirit to be inseparable. “We all have a life force energy inside of us, and all things that are living want to go towards health and healing,” says Otzel.
Otzel’s approach looks at the interplay between nutrients and well-being and the way they support or interfere with the development of the brain and body. Nutrients serve as neurotransmitter precursors, supplying the brain with energy and even healing physical and mental functions.
The following are examples of essential nutrients that help the body bounce back from stressful experiences.
Carbohydrates become glucose, which is carried to the brain through insulin. This creates tryptophan in the blood. Tryptophan is the amino acid that makes us feel tired after Thanksgiving dinner, and it also increases the level of serotonin, which helps us feel more relaxed and content.
Fats and lipids. Good (non-trans) fats are important for nerve transmission between the brain and the rest of the body. An imbalance of lipids can cause fat deposits in arteries.
Proteins have an impact on the synthesis of neurotransmitters that affect mental and emotional health: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, histamine, and glycine.
In addition, micronutrients such as vitamins can help activate enzymes that facilitate chemical reactions in the body.
Mindfulness practices rooted in the ancient practices of meditation and yoga are becoming a part of behavioral health professionals’ toolkits. In the video “Finding Calm in the Chaos: Decreasing Stress Through Mindfulness,” Alicia Davis discusses what happens to the mind when it is under stress. She helps people distinguish thoughts from facts and to question and reframe what she calls Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). For example,
What if I can’t figure this out?
I should have done that differently.
I never say the right thing.
I’m disappointed in myself.
These types of thoughts are critical and judgmental and are part of the mind/body stress response.
The Connecticut Women’s Consortium’s on-demand catalog has a number of courses on holistic healing modalities, including “Holistic Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders,” which combines mental health and substance use disorders treatments using a holistic approach that taps into the body’s ability to heal.
And, as we all know, our clients are not the only ones experiencing stress.
Self-Care for Behavioral Health Professionals
What about stress among healers? Healthy clinicians can better help their clients address and heal from trauma. That requires paying attention to our own mental, physical, and emotional health. It also means being aware of the very real risk of vicarious trauma and knowing how to prevent it.
For behavioral health professionals, it is important to understand the difference between being and doing, says Davis. “All of us are so used to doing, to caring for others. We are just moving down the checklist of to-dos,” she adds. “Being is really the counterpart of that. We are human beings, and yet we are constantly immersed in activity, and so really just being able to take some moments for self, for connection to what you need, to what’s important to you, and to really recharge and rejuvenate.”
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