Dealing with DISTRESS (Yogically)

This week distress has been a heavy burden for so many of us. Different from anxiety or depression, distress is a felt response to present circumstances rather than a specific diagnosis. The concept of distress (vs. eustress or positive stress) originated from the work of endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1950’s who identified 3 stages of stress known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

When something huge and life altering happens:

  1. We fight, flee or freeze,
  2. We mount a strategy,
  3. And if it fails, we adapt or exhaust ourselves trying.

I can’t think of a single human who isn’t touched by uncomfortable change right now. It feels like a car alarm blaring with an uncertain end. There is a relentlessness to the exhaustion but also the need to be strong and carry on. What feels additionally complicated is that our collective distress leaves us too raw to support each other, which can amplify our isolation and overwhelm.

To break out of the GAS cycle, I use this rescue protocol:

  • I take one conscious breath from the teachings of Pema Chodron. (I’ve talked about it in other letters and will happily explain again.)
  • I notice my posture. Almost 100% of the time, I’m slouching. If I’m in really bad shape I use a yoga strap and create a bind for myself that holds my upper back upright. Getting out of kyphosis even artificially makes a change. (Here’s what I do.)
  • If I could dive in the ocean and swim I would, but in lieu of that, I stand and high-step march tapping my knee with the opposite hand for 5-10 minutes. Cross crawl movements have a lot of brain science behind them, are used by energy healers from many traditions, and support intrinsic core strength.
  • I look at my to-do list and pick a SOCIAL task that has clearly defined parameters. I call the librarian for research advice, I text a colleague for a quick consult, I write a letter to someone with whom I hope to develop a professional relationship.
  • If I can do a physical practice, I do. But if I can’t, I spend time in savasana.
  • THEN AND ONLY THEN, do I call a friend. By this point, I’m not showing up with all the stuffing out of the pillow. I have space for the conversation to buoy me, and have more room for self inquiry. I also laugh more easily, which really matters right now.

None of this is a quick fix, it’s an attempt to develop new reflexes in challenging times. Using yogic principles to face the unknown is really what practice is all about. This is why I still do it 35 years later.