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What roller coasters can teach you about stress 🎢
Three days after my dad died, two of my best friends took me to Gold Reef City to ride rollercoasters.
Ah, the Golden Loop, you magnificent fearbeast!
I know that seems like an extremely strange way for friends to help you process grief, but I tell you, it was probably the most helpful thing that they could have done.
The year before my dad died felt like a slow-motion nightmare. The things that were happening were impossible and terrible. But there was also a lot of admin. A lot of decisions to be made. A lot of keeping it together.
A long scream, held inside for months and months.
Do you know what made me feel much better? Therapy? Journalling? Actually processing my feelings like a normal person?
What made me feel better was strapping myself into a metal tube and being thrown around loop-de-loops at high speeds. Screaming until I laughed. Screams that were like steam being let out from a pressure cooker.
This all happened a long time ago, now, but it’s something I think about often. Because I think there’s a pretty profound lesson in there about how our brains work.
When I told my extremely wise and emotionally competent friend Charne about my amazing roller coaster discovery, she sent me some passages from a book by Emily Nagoski, which stuck with me:
Stress underlies worry, anxiety, fear, terror, all the variants of “Run away!” But it also underlies anger - irritation, annoyance, frustration, rage. And to a great extent it underlies the shutdown that characterises depression… The key to managing stress… is not simply “relaxing” or “calming down.” It’s allowing the stress response cycle to complete. Allow it to discharge fully. Let your body move all the way from “I am at risk” to “I am safe.”
Or, more simply:
Emotions are tunnels. You have to go all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the end.
The thing is, human brains evolved to deal with dangers like being hunted down and eaten by lions. Falling off cliffs. Being stabbed by other humans.
Human brains DID NOT evolve to handle things like wondering whether your boss hates you and might fire you, or feeling like you can’t choose what you want out of life, or worrying whether your partner might leave you, or figuring out how to juggle the forty-seven-million different responsibilities you have, or the ice caps melting, or wondering whether one of the maniacal strongmen presidents that run the world right now is going to start a nuclear war, or any of the other things that make being alive in 2019 so damned stressful.
And yet our bodies still respond to stress the same way.
As my lovely buddy Tegan Phillips described it.
When you’re being chased by a lion, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol put your body into a GO! GO! GO! state where you’re ready for ACTION! This activates your body so that you can WRESTLE that big dumb catto to DEFEAT or you can DEFEND your little buddies or you can SPRINT your ass the hell away from it.
When you’re trying to survive a lion attack, you either succeed and you survive, or you fail and you die.
And if you survive, how do you feel? Amazing! Relieved! Grateful to be alive! That’s what it means to complete the stress response cycle. You did something with all those GO hormones. And afterwards, you’re flooded with endorphins and it feels freaking GREAT.
But what happens if you don’t get to do anything with those stress hormones? What if the person making you feel unsafe you isn’t a lion, but your boss? Or the patriarchy? Or systemic inequality? There’s nowhere to run to and nothing to hit (attacking your boss is commonly frowned upon, in my experience).
That’s when your stress hormones switch into freeze mode. Your body starts yelling STOP instead of GO. You shut down like a rabbit about to be run over by a car. All those bad feelings stay inside of you and they rot. And even if the thing that caused the stress goes away, you can still feel awful.
It took me a long time to learn this incredibly simple lesson: removing the stressor does not automatically remove the stress. Stress sits in your body, and you’ve got to exorcise it out. Or, exercise it out (snigger) 🏃🏾♀️.
Most of us understand that stress literally makes us sick. We carry our pain and our traumas in our bodies. But we don’t often talk about the fact that this works the other way around, too: you can hack your brain through physical experiences. You can force yourself to smile and you will actually feel happier. You can outrun imaginary lions and feel the swee, sweet rush of survival.
As much as we think that we need to figure out all of our problems with our GIANT SMART BRAINS, sometimes what we really need is to just feel something.
Sometimes, the best way to manage stress is just to complete the stress cycle. Unlock from freeze, escape the predator, rejoice. Simulate it if you have to. Watch a horror movie. Go for a run and pretend that zombies are chasing you. Go to a boxing class. Try skydiving. Or sit with a friend and have a good cry and let yourself feel all feels.
You could also just go ride a rollercoaster :)
I hope there are no lions chasing you this week, real or imaginary. But if there are, smack those bastards down. I’m rooting for you.
All my love