We’ve already looked at some of the physical aspects of stress in recent posts, but the research we’ve been doing over the past 8 years has shown that the methods we use at Adaptive Integration have benefits that extend into all aspects of a person’s life.
So what about emotional stress and happiness?
First, let’s look at how stress affects us emotionally. Let’s imagine an extreme event, one that is overwhelming emotionally. Say, for example, you’ve just been in a motor accident (assuming no physical injuries to stay on topic). What happens emotionally to us in this situation?
Well, whenever our stress response kicks in, one of the critical changes that occurs is we compartmentalise (or ‘bottle up’) the emotional context of what is happening to us. It’s how we are able to ‘cope’ and survive under severe emotional stress. In this case, rather than being paralysed into inaction, it’s commonplace for people to behave very rationally: they will often methodically take off their seatbelt, check any other passengers in the car for injury, hop out and even take the time to remove the keys and close the car door behind them.
Of course, they may seem in shock or dazed by what has happened, but the point here is that it is only later (sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes several hours or even days), when their brain establishes ‘safety’ and their most active stress responses let go, that the emotion of what has occurred surfaces. They typically shake, cry and feel overwhelmed (appropriate emotional responses which would have been unhelpful at the time the stress was occurring).
This is actually the process of integrating, or resolving, that particular response to a stress and moving on. It’s how things are designed to work and allows our brain and body to switch into its more recuperative state and recover fully.
Obviously not all emotional stress is as severe as this, but the process remains the same for the stresses we face day in and day out throughout our lives. It’s how we are able to handle times of pressure associated with things like work, relationships and family.
The difference is that often these more moderate stresses accumulate without us establishing enough ‘safety’ for them to resolve fully and reset this emotional loop. This is because for many of us, there is always some degree of emotional stress or pressure going on. The cumulative effect of this has a huge impact on our emotional trajectory as adults. It chews up our emotional ‘space’ or resilience and over time, smaller and smaller emotional triggers can put us into states like anger, anxiety, resentment, depression and many more.
These states then become like a ‘filter’ for our experience. For the primitive part of our brain (the part which responds to stress), it’s as if all of those old stresses are still occurring, and in amongst that, we’re trying to function as happy and resilient individuals (and partners, and parents, and colleagues, and friends…).
Of course, activities like mindfulness and meditation can help us be more in the present, and we’re big fans of the benefits they produce. However, because this primitive part of the brain (and these ‘protective’ stress responses) are associated with survival, they are much faster than the more conscious part of our brains, so often negative emotional responses (and the behaviours that go with them) hijack us and play out before we are able to recognise them or bring a more productive set of responses to a situation.
This is something we can generally see in others much more easily than we see in ourselves – a good example of how unconscious this process can be.
So where is happiness in amongst all of this?
Emotional states like happiness exist easily in the absence of these overactive negative emotions. The greater the build-up of chronic emotional stress we have, the less access we have to feeling happy and at ease. Recognising this can be tricky depending on our own levels of emotional awareness, but if you commonly feel stressed, or don’t feel as happy as you feel like you should, chances are you’re showing signs of chronic stress – even if there are no major stresses in your life right now.
Of course, there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself if you’re feeling ‘off the boil’ emotionally.
Research shows that if we take the time to place our attention on the things that make us happy as a matter of daily practice we can develop better access to these kinds of emotions. That might include keeping a diary, and consciously building in to your routine things that you enjoy, rather than leaving them to chance around all of the other commitments you have. Interestingly, a recent study showed people who spent more time doing their hobby of choice were generally happier as a result. It illustrates this point perfectly.
Put energy into positive relationships
Again, its’ been shown clearly that we are social creatures, and that putting time and energy into healthy relationships reaps benefits like improved happiness and health. And yes, by extension that also means not putting energy into relationships that are destructive or negative. Life is too short!
Meditation and mindfulness
These have proven benefits for people who make the time for daily practice. And it’s hardly surprising given that it’s a tradition several thousand years strong and still going. It’s stood the test of time (we know some great teachers locally should you be looking for help here).
Yes, get adjusted regularly. For us this is an essential part of a happy (and healthy) life. The active stress responses in your body and any ‘layers’ of older emotional stress get in the way of your emotional resilience. Working through these when you get adjusted is a powerful way to be happier and more fully expressed as who you authentically are (rather than what your stresses feel like!).
More technically speaking, movement of your spine also sends critical input into brain centres which have a modulating effect on our emotional states, and improving the function of your spine improves this process, naturally.
Move your body
An extension of moving your spine is moving your body. Exercise and movement are vital for staying healthy and emotionally resilient. It’s no coincidence that people with enormously high pressure roles generally have stringent exercise regimes to allow them to handle these pressures. A gentler, more mindful approach to this is yoga, but whatever activity you choose remember to work within your body’s limits.
See a professional therapist
If you’re really struggling, see a therapist or psychologist. There’s a great power in recognising that you need help and seeking it out. It’s a sign of strength to ask for help rather than drown, not a sign of weakness.
We all have different ways of experiencing emotionally stressful situations, but the thing we have in common is that when that stress is sustained, or greater than what we can be present with at the time, there is a degree of our emotional response that we carry with us. This can be for hours or it can be for decades.
This can be at odds with our basic need to be happy, so take the time to give strategies for happiness some focus and energy in your daily routine. And remember, anything we do requires consistency to get results.