Stress Resilience Coaching
At the Plum Spring Clinic, healing of chronic illness of body and mind is enabled by our team’s commitment to understanding and addressing roots of unwellness. Our functional medicine lens allows detection of physiological impairments hindering healthy function, which in almost all cases includes a nervous system ‘set’ of chronic stress reactivity. The stress reaction triggers the body to marshal physiological resources in defense of the individual against detected threat via the fight, flight or freeze responses. During this reaction, these resources are channeled away from the processes of normal and healthy digestion, repair and restoration. When chronic, the body gets stuck or frozen in a defensive state, and doesn’t have the chance to rest restoratively. This pattern becomes habitual, and over time, breakdown of healthy function is the consequence.
While we understand modern life to be full of unremitting stressors, we want to come to this work recognizing that our target for change is not primarily those external stressors, although this may at times be appropriate and important. Rather, we look to what we now know about the role of our nervous system in our stress physiology, and how we might utilize learnable habits and skills to shift from reactivity to the capacity to make a response that is respectful of our health. In other words, we build resilience to life’s stressors that is part of the nurture of our wellbeing.
Return to Resting Default
With the work of Dr. Stephen Porges describing polyvagal theory, we know that our nervous system has 3 settings that have evolved in a hierarchy: dorsal vagal (collapse in the face of life threat), sympathetic (flight or fight in the face of danger) and ventral vagal, the setting of safe connection. The ventral setting evolved with mammals to be the most adaptive survival strategy: cooperate, collaborate, help each other.
Connection to Trauma
Early wounding — unresolved or unsupported, lives in our limbic system easily retriggered in the present. Modern epidemiology, physiological science and our increasing ability to hear without judgment the stories of people who were raised in situations of “adversity” have helped us to understand the profound chronic distress this creates.
If the NS seeks safety in the company of safe others, why is there so much anxiety and depression provoked in our relationships? The human nervous system, like the long arc of neurobiological evolution, develops starting before birth in response to environmental factors and experience. Human babies are the most vulnerable and dependent creatures on earth, for the longest time of any animals. The baby autonomic nervous system can detect the peril of insufficient attachment, or register the pain of being hurt or powerless or overwhelmed, long before its prefrontal thinking functions come online. In the absence of safe ventral connection, the new baby ANS will prompt a dorsal and or sympathetic reaction as a means of defense, just as the turtle retracts to protect itself, or a snake will lash out when threatened.
So it is that our early woundings — the ways we didn’t experience the attachment necessary to convince our vulnerable new nervous system it was safe, and the ways we did experience things too intense to handle without sufficient support — ‘set’ the tendency of our nervous systems toward a hypervigilance that registers as deep insecurity, depression, or anxiety. We know there is a strong direct correlation between early trauma and adult chronic illness, and we see this connection playing out at all times in habitual autonomic stress reactivity. Our experience over years of holistic medicine practice has pointed us to the importance of helping the nervous system release the imprints of trauma via Somatic Experiencing, which in turn frees the nervous system to rewire circuits of ease and safe connection.
Polyvagal-informed Stress Management Coaching for Building Stress Resilience
Recent decades of research have overturned long-held notions of the brain as a fixed organ, ie once our brain learned its basics of identity and ability, it couldn’t change. Much has been learned about the good news of neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life. This happens in response to experience, just as the earliest formation of nervous system function. Stress management coaching for stress resilience aims to harness our innate neuroplasticity by intentionally building moments of experience into the day that erode the stress reaction by building reinforcement of calm ease.
In the coaching relationship, it is the safe connection between the coach’s and client’s nervous systems that can result in the amazing and beautiful capacity to rewire our reactivity to resilience. Together, we set out to provide the nervous system cues of safety in the smallest, most kindly ways. This involves getting to know our ANS activity. Because autonomic function happens so far below consciousness, we can’t directly know our autonomic state. But since these states create physical sensation in our bodies, we can get to know our autonomic states by learning to ‘hear’ what’s going on in our bodies. Kindness is of utmost importance in the process of attending to our nervous system states in order to rewire for ease. The critical voice that characterizes the self-talk of stress is itself a cue of danger to the ANS. Developing the lens of kindly, curious attention through which coach and client together observe inner states undoes the critical messages that tend to keep signalling danger to the nervous system. Over time, the attention that is befriending and non-judging ‘teaches’ the nervous system it is safe to prompt ease in the body and mind.
Here is the sequence of steps involved in stress management coaching work:
- Establish safe rapport;
- Learn to recognize our autonomic states;
- Learn to provide our nervous system with inputs it can detect as safe, and therefore signal ease to the body;
- Build habits and practices that will gradually erode the default of fearful sympathetic arousal and establish a resting default to spend some part of each day in.
Throughout this sequence, we work both ‘top down’, learning the cognitive frame that supports our nurture of autonomic calm via readings and talks, and ‘bottom up’ with practices including guided meditation and visualization, coming to the present, mindful awareness, mindful breathing, intentional pause, and personal reflection.
When calm, or better to say, when provided inputs it can detect as safe, our ANS outputs signals to the body for release of the ‘happy’ neurochemicals. The body/mind under the influence of this set of neurochemistry can rest and digest and heal and learn and grow and thrive. This is the full healing we aim for with our patients. Thus, stress management coaching for stress resilience plays an important role in the Plum Spring Clinic functional medicine method for engaging with patients in their journey of healing. Learn about our coach here.