Stress is no friend to love and connection.
When we are stressed, our nervous system turns up the volume. We are wired to respond with the fight-flight response–increased heart rate, quickened breathing, increase in muscle tension, activation of the sweat glands—all in the service of reacting quickly and getting out of danger. We are supposedto get out of danger and then return to a more rested (parasympathetic) state. As you may have noticed by now, the body can overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, job pressure, an imagined slight, or family conflict. The stress response can get stuck on the “on” position and those stress hormones keep flowing well past their usefulness.
When escaping danger—eyes darting, bodies in motion, thoughts racing, in urgency and emergency mode—are we able to tune into another person? Can we receive support and soothing from another? There is evidence, in fact, that we can’t. The social engagement system, a neural network characterized by nurturing and social connection behaviors, simply cannot be turned on at the same time as a vigorous stress response (Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory).
Meanwhile, our stress is contagious and will turn on our partner’s stress response– or friend’s, roommate’s, family member’s alike. As social creatures, we seek out others to relieve stress and find comfort. That’s what we did at the beginning when we instinctively sought soothing from our first caregivers. Sadly, the very thing that relieves stress may flee or fight with us.What to do?
- Know that your stress can turn on your partner’s fight or flight response in a split second and they can turn on yours. It can happen the second you walk in the door and before you have said a word.
- Set an intention to Turn OFF your stress response. You can do this by having a few minutes of alone or quiet time. Take a few minutes to take a few deep breaths to calm your body. Your mind and brain will follow.
- Set an intention to Turn ON your social engagement system. Relaxed eye contact, touch, open body posture, slower pacing physically, and a soft voice go far in activating the soothing benefits of a relationship.
- Plan activities together that involve eye contact and relaxed body–i.e. dine without screens on for example.
- Talk about how you can turn off the stress and turn on the relationship together when you are both calm.
We can never eliminate stress from our lives. We can live more harmoniously by turning down the volume and making ourselves available for the support and nurturing that make it all worthwhile.