I think of our day to day stress as the fish in a fishbowl analogy. Swimming around the fishbowl, the fish gets accustomed to its environment – the water, the rocks, the plastic castle, and even the walls of the bowl. They become part of the fish’s scenery, to the point where it doesn’t even notice that it’s in a fishbowl. It’s just… the way it is.
Unfortunately, we are very much the same. We get so accustomed to stress exposure that it becomes just a part of everyday life. We don’t even notice it anymore. And even when we do, we can’t imagine what it is like to exist outside of a stressful existence – to be on the other side of the glass, so to speak. We get so used to the stress we are under (or in).
What would it be like to live outside of the fishbowl? Even when we dare to ponder this, most of us find that it is too scary to take the risk. After all, making a change is difficult. Habits are strong and fear kicks in to keep us in our place. So, we choose the familiar discomfort rather than the unfamiliar unknown.
I did that for many years. My whole life, really.
One day, about 17 years ago, when I was unhappily married, I had a realization. I thought to myself, “I am not able to be myself, live my purpose, and create my vision when in a marriage or relationship that expects me to be something else – someone else.” The answer was as simple as it was scary: I wanted a divorce.
After leaving that relationship, I can’t say it was the end of my relationship stress. I found myself choosing another stressful relationship. It took me a long time to understand the reason why, but it’s simple when you boil it down. My nervous system had been “trained” to be stressed from a young age. It was a familiar discomfort that I chose, unintentionally, over and over again.
Here’s what I mean. I harbored these thoughts and beliefs:
- What others think is more important than what I think
- I don’t do it right, or well enough
- I need to love a person even if they are not loving towards me
- I must follow what others say… or I risk losing the support I’m being given
But was that “support” really worth losing myself? If I lost myself, my preferences, my desires, my knowing of myself… what would I have left?
I became a shell; a physical body completely separated from the real me. Separated from my spirit, from my soul, and from myself.
That lack of alignment with oneself leads to more stress within the body which then manifests itself as inflammation, pain, autoimmunity, cancer, and more.
Again, like 17 years ago – it clicked. I had the same realization in my most recent relationship. I felt like I was living two lives: Myself (as best I know her) and Another Self (what he wanted me to be).
What’s worse is that for many years, I didn’t see it. I was the fish in the fishbowl! I straddled two “selves” for 15 years and my health really struggled. During that time I experienced severe migraines and developed a rare arthritis, or inflammation, of the bone protecting my heart (sternum).
I didn’t see it at the time, but it is so obvious now: The stress of my relationship was disrupting my health in a significant way. And even despite my training, it remained beyond my view because I couldn’t see outside my own fishbowl.
A stressful existence is not always in a romantic relationship. It could be in your family, at work, community, or even in a friendship. I share my experience in the hopes that it may help you see the stress you may be experiencing that you may assume is “just the way it is” or perhaps you haven’t realized that is causing a stress response in you.
The Other Side of the Glass
I knew I had to make changes. My training as an N.D. kicked in. Investigative mode, activate! I started trying new things, with a researcher’s eye. After auditioning a bunch of different new approaches, it all started to shift when I began meditating for at least an hour a day. And I traveled to Peru and took ayahuasca in ceremonies with a shaman.
I’m not sure which, and it doesn’t really matter – I think it was a combination of the two – I became more and more aligned with myself, saw my life from a different perspective, and shifts started happening. It wasn’t so much intentional changes. It was that I was becoming more myself and less likely to step away from being myself to please another person. Essentially, I became less attracted to existing in a stressful environment (the fish bowl).
I could only be me, the real me, the one who takes better care of herself. The one who is no longer willing or able to be anything else.
It’s so simple, and yet for most of my life, I didn’t think this kind of simplicity was possible. I thought complexity was the only option.
That relationship ended a year ago. What I have observed in my own life is that all healing, including healing from a toxic or narcissistic relationship, inherently involves grief. At the same time, it involved falling in love with myself and learning to protect myself going forward.
How Do You Know if You Are Not Aligned with Yourself?
When you read that question, there will be an inner knowing that resonates with the very thought of it. You will know it is true but you haven’t been able to find a way to voice it or resolve it.
It may be that for your whole life, you’ve never actually felt aligned. The truth is that we are exposed to stress and trauma from such a young age that we don’t recall what it feels like to be in alignment.
We know that something is off. It’s a sense of feeling disconnected from oneself. A subtle awareness of the fishbowl.
Perhaps you are often critical of yourself, or mad at your body for something you did, or something you experienced.
As I describe in chapter three of Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health, 61% of us have experienced at least one ACE (adverse childhood event) and more than 70% of us have experienced a major stress, loss, or trauma in adulthood.
Maybe you find yourself seeking out relief from this incongruity through intense exercise, sexual activity, or substances such as alcohol, nicotine, antidepressants, or pain medications. Maybe it’s gambling/investing, spending money, traveling, and/or you are in a constant search to find something that feels good.
But ultimately what feels good… is becoming aligned with yourself.
How to Become Aligned
I’ve tried to make this simple and systematic, given my personal and professional experience.
You can start by rebalancing your hormones, neurotransmitters, and microbiome. All of that will make a difference. I can guide you through that in my Stress Recovery Protocol.
You can also tame the vagus nerve with meditation and substances such as Ayahuasca.
And you can choose to use connections and substances from nature that will help you process stress and gain insights by showing you the bigger picture view.
After years of research, patient work in my practice, and my own personal experience with stress, I developed the concept of “stress types” to represent the five most common patterns of disrupted cortisol and adrenaline levels, along with the importance of addressing them uniquely.
Here’s what no one is telling you: Stress and stress recovery are not one size fits all.
We don’t ALL need herbs and nutrients to lower cortisol, nor do we all need hydrocortisone or an adrenal glandular to raise cortisol.
Yes, mindfulness meditation has been researched and shown a high percentage of benefit for all humans, but what if we take a closer look?
Does everyone benefit from the same amount of meditation at the same time of day? And what about stress recovery exercises for exercise, sleep, and other activities?
If cortisol is high… intense exercise will raise it more
If cortisol is low… intense exercise will lower it more
Those things that can help us heal, may be the very things that make our stress worse. It’s like the Chinese finger trap toy…. the more you pull, the tighter it gets. The more you struggle to escape the grip of stress, the more it pulls you in.
That’s why it is so important to know your stress type pattern and to address it. And that is why I wrote the book – Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health – to guide you to implement what helped me escape a stressful existence.
The Stress Epidemic
My belief is that too many people surrender to stress. Even when they are aware of the fishbowl, they feel above it. They decide that it doesn’t affect them. They identify with being an “adrenaline junkie.” They jump out of planes (a.k.a. skydiving) and stand on boards to fly across pavement, water and ice.
We bring ourselves face-to-face with our own mortality, and even then, when we feel most alive it’s because we are living on the edge knowing that we aren’t dead, but we are still triggering an unhealthy stress response of cortisol and adrenaline.
It is that addicting stress response that tells us that we are alive. And it is that same stress response that kills us slowly, over time, if we don’t find a way to counterbalance it.
I’ve watched America’s Got Talent and seen men throwing knives, swallowing knives, women hanging upside down by one foot 50 feet above the stage… all to entertain us and again, remind us of our human-ness, of our separateness from ourselves, and the torture we put ourselves through each and every day.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Because we don’t realize…
- That we are already enough the way we are
- That we are already loved
- That love is so abundant, we don’t need to measure it
- And the more we care for ourselves, the better we make choices that keep us safe and out of stress
- That exactly the opposite of what we were taught… is true – That prioritizing ourselves is essential
- That something so simple can be so powerful.
“Managing stress” is a misnomer. It’s what someone says who is still in the fishbowl swimming in stress.
Those, like me, who have made it out of the fishbowl are looking in and saying to themselves: I am grateful in each moment to take care of my unique needs for food, nutrients, sleep, and connection so that I can recover from each stress that I choose, or that comes along in my life.
You can get there too. It’s actually not so much of a leap. It starts with awareness and from there you start taking steps to know yourself more. I’m happy to guide you so you can too get out of the fishbowl and master your stress, and in doing so, you will reset your health and reclaim the true you.
13 September 2022