This is Part 1 of a series on Distress Tolerance. Part 2| Part 3

Many of us are being pressed & stretched to the growing edge limits of our ability to tolerate distress right now. Feeling to help us recall and share our many inner resources for getting through challenging passages.

The most basic resource that each of us has on their side is our own physiology, the living container we are each inhabiting. Nature endowed us with a distress-processor.

The parasympathetic nervous system, whose job is to transform and release the energies of “over-activation” (aka sweaty palms, racing heart, constricted chest, tunnel vision response we sometimes call the fight-flight reaction that so many of us are struggling to tolerate at the moment), is our closest friend here.

Here some quick ways to access the parasympathetic nervous system. They should work on the spot, though they also improve with practice.

Good luck & if you need help with anything, ask away.

Grounding

Why this works: draws the distress feeling downwards out of the upper body (where energy goes when we our sympathetic systems, aka the fight-flight response, is activated).

1. Squats (do 18 squats- can be against the wall, important is to activate thighs)

2. Jumping (if you don’t have downstairs neighbors, jump up and down until you’re completely out of breath). Anything that completely powers you out but especially getting the legs & feet involved is the key.

3. Pelvic circles. Many of us are embarrassed of our pelvic/seat areas, but they are key resources for holding & transforming our physiological energies. Anything you can do to wake this part up of the body up (lower torso in general) and draw your energies to spend some time down there is a good idea. Pelvic circles, making wide circles as though using a hula hoop (or using a real one) or practicing your 80s dance moves, whatever. You can imagine that your butt is holding a crayon and write your full name on the floor. Mm hm, you read that right.

4. Funny walking. Walk around the room on your tippy toes for 30 seconds, then on your heels, outer feet, inner feet. At the end, just pay attention to the tingly woken up sensations in your feet (should feel good). Remember that feet have a map of the whole body, according to traditional Chinese medicine.

5. Squatting. Just let yourself crouch down like a monkey and spend some time close to the ground, while your adrenals in the low back area stretch out.

Breathing

Why this works: breath connects both parts of your nervous system, bringing them back into balance. In-breath is linked with the sympathetic system, or the activating and wakening part of your nervous system, (why we may end up hyperventilating when scared), while out-breath engages the parasympathetic. (To remember the difference between sympathetic & parasympathetic — parasympathetic slows you down, like a para-chute.) The following breathwork techniques rebalance the two sides with an emphasis on the out-breath — the part that we need when we’re overactivated by fear, stress, anger, edginess, etc.

1. 4X8X8X8 4 times — breathe in four counts, hold eight counts, release eight counts, hold eight counts (this whole cycle at least four times, take a pause, then repeat as needed)

2. Alternate nostril breathing — block right nostril while you breathe in, long and slow, through the left nostril. Hold a moment, then block the left nostril and breathe out the right. Hold a moment. Then while still blocking the left nostril, breathe in the right nostril. Hold, then breathe out the left nostril. Repeat until calm.

3. Breath of fire & other Pranayama/yoga breath cycles, your pick

4. Colored Light In, Black Goo Out — choose a color you like that soothes & relaxes you (I like aqua, or cornflower blue/sunny ocean colors but whatever means peace to you will work), and imagine that as you breathe in, this light is coming in not only your nostrils/mouth, but also right into your pores, filling you up. As you breathe out, imagine and intend that your distress/sympathetic activation response/fight-flight energy is exiting out as dark, muddy, black goo or smoke.

5. Breathe Out through your Feet. Take a deep breath in, and imagine that as you breathe out, you are breathing out of the soles of your feet. Do this 12 times or until feeling regulated.

6. VOOOOO. Take a deep breath in, and then chant the syllable “vooooooooooo” (the sound is vu as in voulez vouz coucher avec moi ce soir, gitchy gitchy yaya nana) in the lowest pitch (so the lowest end of your vocal register) that you can. Will feel like a soft, quiet, almost whispered growl vibration, almost like throat singing if you have heard that. This activates the vagus nerve, which is part of engaging the parasympathetic resources to come to your aid. (Also listening to throat singing will do).

Thumping & Tapping

Why this works: like a clogged pipe, energy can get stuck in places it shouldn’t be and needs to get moving again. Sympathetic activation tends to take energy upwards, into the upper parts of physiology & head space, while parasympathetic will draw it down into digesting regions, legs, pelvic floor & so on, generally speaking (& oversimplifying). Thumping & tapping works by engaging bilaterally (both sides of the body) and also just by knocking energy back into circulation. Be gentle, it’s not necessary to do a mega big thump, although sometimes that may feel good — follow your own body.

1. Butterfly taps (cycle through chest, belly, thighs, tops of feet). Making a butterfly/bird with your hand across your chest, gently allow the right hand to flutter-tap the left side of your chest, while the left hand flutter-taps the right side. Then separate the hands, but still cross left/right for maximum bilateral effect, and have your right hand gently tap the left side of your belly while the left hand taps the right. Then do the thighs, and finally your feet. Doesn’t really matter where you do it (just do what feels good), but do it for at least 3 minutes. Very very soft, like butterfly wings.

2. Thumps (cycle through thymus, ribs, cheek bones, eyebrows, collarbones, crown). Using your all the fingers of one hand joined together to make a point, like your hand would look inside a sock puppet with its mouth closed, tap or thump yourself gently repeatedly at the thymus (which is just below the notch at the base of your throat where your collarbones meet), then on both sides of your ribs under the armpits, then on your cheek bones, then the tops of your eyebrows, then under your collarbones out towards the shoulders, in the indentation, then at your crown. Do these in whatever order feels good to you, and an optional add on is to say things like “I am safe” or “This too shall pass” or “Even though I am feeling [panic], I completely and totally and forever love & accept myself.” (If you like this experience, look into Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as tapping, which some people find super effective.)

3. Ear massage. Give yourself a very, very gentle ear massage (can be light stroking, whatever amount of pressure feels good, shouldn’t make them sore) for about a minute (ears also have energetic maps of the whole body in them). 1 minute each, then notice the sensations.

Stretching

Why this works: stretching gets blood (and qi, or life force) flowing throughout the body, and activates the parasympathetic system through engaging muscles, organs and glands, eg our friends the adrenals, who are involved both in the state of hyperarousal (sympathetic activation, fight-flight) and the return to normal (parasympathetic activation).

1. Forward Bends & Twists. For adrenals (sitting or standing forward bends), gentle back twists.

2. Pantyhose & Inseam. Starting with your hands on your lower back above your sacrum, run your hands down along an imaginary “pantyhose line” (like in the ‘40s when classy broads drew pantyhose lines down the backs of their legs), all the way down to the ground (bending legs if you like). Touch the ground with your hands, then come up along the imaginary “inseam line” (which most pants have, a seam along the inward-facing portion of the legs). Repeat several times. Optionally imagine that you are gathering distress/negative energy out of your adrenals and releasing it into the ground, then gathering up good clean fresh ionized energy from the earth and pulling it up through the inseams.

3. Parting Heaven and Earth. In this qi gong exercise, you alternate stretching palms away from each other, (fingers pointed inward towards your body center line), so one palm is always facing up to the sky while the other palm faces down to the earth, and alternating.

4. Figure 4 Stretch. Cross one ankle over knee from standing position, bend to squat, then do the other side.

Sensations

Why this works: when sympathetically activated in fight-flight, our energy goes into abstract mental spaces of looping, unproductive fears & other consciousness traps. Feeling “stuck in our heads”, obsessing, unable to stop thinking or picturing negative outcomes, is a sign we’re in mid to high fight-flight . By contrast, when energetically balanced (and more in parasympathetic mode), our awareness will naturally be more able to take in perceptual, sensory information coming from our senses (the way you feel when you’re on a walk in the woods after a while, for example, where your senses feel relaxed but dilated, letting in more sense info than normal, like details from the environment, sounds, sights, etc). We can jostle ourselves back into “green zone” or feeling relaxed & balanced by deliberately choosing to direct our attention to the other signals going on, (instead of our mental thought-worlds), or even just remembering and imagining the sensory world & its many beauties, sensations & comforts.

  1. 54321. Best if said out loud, and can be prompted when supporting someone who’s over-activated, this simple process is to look around the room and identify 5 sights, 4 sounds, 3 touch sensations, 2 smells, and 1 taste. Tastes and if smells can be imagined if nothing is around, though often people will taste something like “the residue of coffee in my mouth”, or be able to smell things like their own shampoo, soap on their hands, etc. It helps to add at least 1 descriptive word, though it’s not necessary. For example, right now in my field of vision, I see a shiny photograph of my nephew as a baby in the bathtub, hung on the wall across the room; I see my houseplant that has some old green leaves & also some new lighter green leaves; and I see diffuse white light shining on my metal water bottle, where I can also see my own reflection very small.
  2. Touchstones. Quickly list 5 things you love in each sense category. Does not need to be inventive, can build on previous ideas. Eg, in the smell category I love: 1. the smell you get on your hands after peeling oranges, 2. the smell of warm sun in the garden after it’s rained, 3. the smell of freshly ground coffee, 4. the warm-and-everywhere floating smell of coffee roasting at a roaster’s, 5. wild sagebrush, when you’ve brushed up against it on a hike.
  3. Hot and Cold. Good for when you just can’t get regulated, these techniques work by changing your temperature and drawing awareness to the heat or cold. Hold an ice cube or cold pack, run cold water over your wrists, take something cold out of the fridge & hold it in your hands, or take a cool shower. Alternately look for something warm: run warm water over your hands, rub your hands together until they’re warm and then place your warm hands over a part of your body, such as lower back or chest/heart. Don’t harm yourself, obv.
  4. Create Sense Effects. Again going through the 5 senses, or picking one & exploring it for as long as you want, this time try creating an effect in that sense. See if you can find 5 things in your environment that have a scent if you interact with it (please go for the healthy & natural, like a lemon when you scratch the peel, don’t go huffing the toxic) and take a breath of it, notice its qualities. Similarly, see if you can make 5 acoustic sounds from objects near you (my above-described metal water bottle sounds like a bell if you hit it with a spoon). See if you can create visual contrasts or juxtapositions that interest you (if I tilt a white notebook page up towards the silver colored bottle, it mirrors more white light back to me).

Credit where credit is due: Marsha Linnehan, Peter Levine, Christina Merkeley, Gary Craig, yoga & qi gong

Image reverently lifted from Island: a story of the Galápagos by Jason Chin