Most approaches to stress management look at the adverse impacts on our physiology, feelings and mental processes. From a somatic perspective, it is not how we feel or think, but how we respond to life’s challenges that is central. Our actions inform how we feel and think, and what we believe we are capable of. It is not enough to relieve ourselves of the feeling of stress, nor to have insight as to why we feel stressed. In order to manage our stress, we have to influence and direct the way our body responds in the face of uncertainty, demand or threat.
Overcoming challenges is a primary way that we learn, mobilizing us to investigate and implement new responses. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Rather than returning to a prior state once it is complete, forming a new behavior alters the functioning of the organism. From this perspective, stress isn’t a negative thing. In manageable doses the stress response is a formative event, inoculating us against life’s challenges and catalyzing adaptation.
To feel stressed is to feel yourself in the midst of an action, whether bracing for impact, stiffening in alertness, or clenching for a fight. In challenging situations or in the face of uncertainty, the body instinctively mobilizes itself to meet the situation at hand. We ‘get ready.’ How we gather ourselves muscularly sets the stage for subsequent actions, priming us with feelings such as alertness, dread, eagerness, or caution. Therefore, it is not the situation that determines whether we feel stressed but our response to it. This is how one person can feel engaged and excited while another may feel overwhelmed or frozen in same situation.
When this state of readiness is held too intensely or for a long enough period of time these actions begin to negatively affect us. For instance, in order to make a demand of yourself you might clench your body up. This action recruits the whole of the body, including the torso, eyes, jaw and legs and is a process that also generates feelings and attitudes in the preparation to act. This process may instill a sense of resolve or determination, a “getting a hold of one’s self”. However, if held long enough, or if intensified into state of a compression or clenching, it can result in a feeling of duress and constraint.
Through lifting weights, we deplete our body’s reserves and ‘stress’ the muscle tissue. To the right degree, and with time to rest and heal, our muscles grow stronger, however too much weight or repetition tears the muscle and can lead to strain and injury. Stress is the muscular-emotional equivalent of this: applying just enough effort to challenge us strengthens our resilience, but in excess it can result in emotional and physiological overexertion and distress.
Demand, urgency, alarm or vigilance are meant to be temporary action patterns in states of emergency or threat. But for many of us these patterns have become the norm. In fact, these states are encouraged by environments that demand hurried action and alertness, where ‘time is money.’ When these patterns become engrained and normalized we forget how to let them go. You see this in people taking the stress of work home or being unable to sleep because they simply can’t unwind.
Chronic stress happens when our conditioned responses to stressors grow into a habitual and engrained manner of being - a muscular-emotional attitude that informs the way we think, feel and how we relate to others. You see it in the how a person holds themselves, in the quality of their posture, gesture and expression. Rather than just reacting in a vigilant way, they become a vigilant person.
But the problem of chronic stress is not just the adverse physiological or emotional effects. The greatest cost of chronic stress is that we lose our ability to grow in the face of challenges. We begin to deal with novel situations in automatic, pre-scripted ways which diminish our capacity to form new responses.
The focus of most therapeutic approaches is on relaxation or relief, which frames stress as a feeling or thought pattern to be alleviated or eliminated. Undoubtedly, we need times to rest and recharge and practices like massage, stretching, and exercise are helpful in creating relief. Breathing exercises and cultivating mindfulness can help us slow the responses which create a sense of alarm or urgency. But these approaches often fall short of addressing chronic patterns of stress for a few important reasons.
For starters, advising someone to ‘just relax’ isn’t helpful if they don’t recognize the ways they are making themselves tense in the first place. Relaxation doesn’t teach us how to address the challenges at hand. It is a temporary solution that merely keeps us from becoming overwhelmed or exhausted. What’s more, the stress response quickly returns once a trigger presents itself again.
Secondly, the focus on relief neglects the essential function of our responses. In my experience, many people resist the very idea of relaxing. And for good reason: their urgency or alarm, even if anxiety provoking, feels necessary to address their challenges. An overreaction is often the best way people know how to cope. If I give up my vigilance, how will I be prepared? Or if I don’t brace myself, what’s to stop me from collapsing completely? This is a major dilemma: either I overwhelm myself or feel I have to resign myself.
There are indeed pressing demands that require our action; the question is ‘”what is the right action?” A common response to distress or challenges is to push harder or faster, however, what’s needed isn’t more effort, but the right amount of effort. Much like attempting to drive with the parking brake on, we have to recognize how we are interfering with our normal processes by acting in excess of what is needed. Too much and we overwhelm ourselves; too little and we don’t grow. For instance, what is the minimal amount of pressure I need to apply to be demanding of myself? Do I need to be hard on myself or can I simply be firm? Must I be alarmed or merely alert? Influencing the intensity of a pattern maintains its function without overdoing it.
Emotional responses can be developed and refined, like in the ability to articulate a boundary without being explosive. So is the ability to maintain composure and respond effectively in threatening situations. With effort, we can form more nuanced and targeted responses. The appearance of effortlessness is in fact the application of the least amount of effort needed. What’s more, the body returns to a state of ease once the challenge subsides rather than continuing to hold the response.
The focus is not on what you ‘should’ do, but on noticing what you are already doing—or overdoing. Somatic therapy addresses this insofar as it engages how a pattern of muscular response is organized and maintained. Learning how you can alter a muscular pattern—to be more or less rigid in degrees—also effects your feelings and attitudes and can result in a feeling of empowerment over the involuntary patterns of your response.
Learning to shape your reflexive and habitual responses is the same as learning any new skill. We begin with gross motor reflexes, differentiating them and refining them into more coordinated, precise and sophisticated actions with practice. As Moshe Feldenkrais put it, "To make the impossible, possible; the possible, easy; and the easy, elegant".
‘Knowhow’ is grounded in physical praxis, not just what we feel or know. Our embodiment is the foundation for how we manage our lives. When we are driven by our reactions, we lose our sense of agency. In contrast, the ability to learn and grow from challenges makes stressors a source of growth and even satisfaction. Rather than relief, the goal becomes adaptive action, mastery, and a grounding in our embodied responses. Learning how to shape and grow our somatic responses gives us a way to cultivate this.