a boutique counseling experience

Stress and the Body

  1. Physical symptoms of stress: Have you ever wondered how your body responds to stress?
  2. Techniques to conquer stress: Let's talk about effective stress management strategies.
  3. Unveiling the long-term effects: Explore the impact of long-term stress on our well-being.

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Kristen Holmes, MS, LPC

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Kristen Holmes, MS, LPC

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Video Transcript

Laurie Groh: Hi, my name is Laurie Groh. I'm a co-owner of Shoreside Therapies. Today we have Kristen Holmes with us and we are talking about stress in the body and our window of tolerance. So welcome, Kristen.

Kristen Holmes: Hi. It's so good to be here and to talk with you about this. I'm really excited.

Laurie Groh: Yes, I am too. I am too. I'm interested in learning more about it. This is not my specialty, so I'm really excited to hear more. So do you want to tell us a little bit about just the basics of stress in the body and and how it affects us and go from there?

Kristen Holmes: Yeah, absolutely. Think that's a really good place to start. You know, something that I talk with a lot of clients about is stress. I think when people are calling and they're wanting to come in for therapy, the majority of clients are coming in, are identifying. I'm experiencing a lot of stress. Whether that's typical work-stress, life- stress, kids, spouse partner, maybe there's an adjustment or a big transition. I feel like right now in the beginning of the school year when we're recording this, yeah, there is a lot of stress and anxiety around just the transition for kids going back to school and or the transition from everybody kind of coming out of our amazing summer that we have here in Wisconsin into all the sudden, you know, weather change and things like that. And so one thing that I have found really helpful when working with clients is talking about the impact of stress on our body, because more than likely we're experiencing physiological symptoms that we're just kind of writing out to, Oh, well, I'm stressed, right? Or oh, well, this is happening and we end up silencing those cues. Right, Right. So I have found recently I've been kind of upset. I am obsessed with the brain. Just in general. I think the brain is so amazing. I know that. That's so cliche. It's so basic to say that. But the brain is so powerful and we oftentimes forget that the brain is the central nervous system. Right? It's the CEO. It's the core of our body. And guess what? Stress really has an impact on our brain, which impacts our body. Right. And so I think the more information that we have about our mental and emotional health and looking at it in the scope of whole health, like the whole body, then the easier it is to learn how to manage, but also address some of the underlying things that are going on with stress and in our body. And that can be anything from, you know, high anxiety, depression, PTSD. It could be anything, right that is presenting. It's how we're managing that stress that determines what our coping skills, or coping strategies look like.

Laurie Groh: Yeah. And I think you're right on point when you say that, it's usually that we dismiss it like, Oh, I'm feeling stressed, okay, that's just normal. I'm stressed all the time. Right? And I do hear that a lot. I'm sure you do too, like, I'm just in this constant state of stress. Yeah. Yeah. And that's not a place we need to be.

Kristen Holmes: Yeah. And it becomes normal. Yeah. It's kind of like when you start working with, like a nutritionist or you're working with, you know, your coach at the gym and you're trying to get your body back in shape. And one of the things that a nutritionist will talk to you about or a health coach will talk to you about is biofeedback, right? What is our body telling us and or not telling us? Because we've ignored it for so long. And I think with stress, it's the same thing. If there comes a point where we just start living as though it's normal, or this is just something that just is right, it just is what it is, that we're not realizing that it's actually affecting our ability to function, but also our ability for our body to run correctly, efficiently. Right.

Laurie Groh: Right, right. We just as humans, we just become used to things, right? Like same with sleep deprivation. Most people don't know that they're actually sleep-deprived. And it turns out, yeah, that's where you're at. You just have been doing it so long you don't even notice it anymore, which can be pretty scary.

Kristen Holmes: Yeah. And one of the things I'm glad that you brought that up because that's a great segue into talking about one of the components of how stress affects our body is the first thing I ask clients is there's a series of like 3 or 4 questions that always ask when we start any initial session. It doesn't matter whether you're coming in with stress as the presenting problem or not. I always get a feel for where you're at in dealing with stress and what, it looks like in your life, because that is something that's important in our goals, right? And so one of the ways to know that stress or that is bothering someone or that it's at a high level that's difficult for us to sustain at that level and maintain is our sleep right? It is. It's not only how long we're sleeping or how we're sleeping, it's also in our sleep cycle. Are we reaching a state of REM? Are we reaching that state of deep sleep? Once again, going back to the brain, we're starting to learn a lot more about the brain because of technology and advances in science and medicine. And when you look at brain scans, if you're someone that struggles with anxiety or depression or stress, those areas in your brain are constantly lit. They never turn off. And we also know that if there's a lot of stress around relationships or problem solving issues at work, issues at home, you know, a lot of women, we are constantly maintaining all of these different roles and schedules depending on if we're a parent or not. Our brain, those areas in our brain that are responsible for that social, emotional, like problem solving, those areas are working, too. So not only are we dealing with these parts in our brain that are specifically for maintaining stress and anxiety, right, and experiencing insomnia or difficulty sleeping, racing thoughts, waking up multiple times a night, waking in the morning and not feeling like you got a good night's sleep, even if you got eight hours right. Or nine hours. You know, those are indications that our stress is probably what we would consider clinically significant, right? Like there's something going on where you're trying to maintain that stress. Your body and your brain is trying to process that stress and manage that stress when you're sleeping.

Laurie Groh: Yeah. Yeah. That that idea is so important that if you are getting eight hours of sleep or nine hours of sleep, because a lot of times people do need more like nine. I need a I need about nine. I don't I don't get that. But I really think I do need that. But if you are getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep and still feeling exhausted, that is time to go seek out some professional help. You know, it might be going to your primary care. Start with a therapist. You know, doing something about it is really important because that is a pretty clear signal that something might not be going right with the system.

Kristen Holmes: Yeah, I think another signal too, and kind of in line with nighttime, is when the sun starts to set, when it starts to get dimmer throughout the day and the sun is starting to go down, our brain starts releasing our sleep chemicals, right? Melatonin. And if you're feeling revved up or restless at night or you find yourself hungry, like a lot of us end up kind of nighttime snacking because we're not eating throughout the day. Right. Those are indications. That's biofeedback. That's your body saying we're not we're not done. Like there's something we got to do, which I think is once again common in our adult life. Because one thing that we've seen here after Covid is an increase in remote jobs. Right. And a lot of my clients that I work with, especially young adults, young professionals, people who are graduating from college or their graduate program, they're working 40 to 60 hour weeks because they're working out. And so a lot of people are actually working at the time when their body should be starting to feel their sleep cycle. Come on. Right. So that's another indication of not being able to stop work, feeling like you can't just, you know, close your laptop or walk away from your office. You know, if you're having issues with those boundaries, then that's another reason or another indication that your stress is not being managed well and you're also not sustaining. Right? We're starting to experience burnout and exhaustion.

Laurie Groh: Yeah. Yeah. And that is so common. I'm hearing that pretty often as well of just especially working from home, like the idea of it, it's wonderful and it can be really wonderful, but it is a little bit harder to have those boundaries, those mental boundaries, because you can work at any time you want. That's not always the best, depending on like how you navigate stress and work. It's not always the best thing to have that available at all times.

Kristen Holmes: Well, and we have many computers, you know, in.

Laurie Groh: Front of us.

Kristen Holmes: All the time. And I bet you a lot of people watching this probably have their work email accessible on their phone, whether if you have a specific app that's downloading, you know, notifications and emails, you have slack. That's another thing that's really popular right now. Are these like group networking with Slack, Google desktop, things like that, where you're constantly getting notifications or even if you have your notifications turned off, you're picking up your cell phone and opening up your email just out of habit. Right? Right. Yeah.

Laurie Groh: And then it can be a habit.

Kristen Holmes: It's 8:30 at night and I got an email after work hours and I need to deal with that. Well, no. Yeah, you don't need to deal with that, right? Yeah, right. But we're in this society where everything is so accessible that that is impacting our ability to manage and cope as well.

Laurie Groh: Yeah. Kristen, as you said that, I was thinking we could just have you on a loop. You saying that? No, you don't have to deal with that right now. Any time you'd open open your email after 830, it's just your voice saying, No, you don't have to deal with that. Turn that off. Yep. Turn that off.

Kristen Holmes: Yeah. So, like, Siri could do that for you?

Laurie Groh: I do. I do. It would be so nice. It would be so nice because it does feel like that in the moment because it's there and you see it. And that's the natural next step. Oh, here's the thing I have to do. So I have to do it. Yeah. So I want to hear a bit about the window of tolerance.

Kristen Holmes: Yes, Yes. Yeah, we were just talking about this before the call. I'm actually really excited to share about the window of tolerance. So I'm a trauma therapist. That is my niche. I do trauma attachment work and I work with kids all the way up through adults. I work with couples that are experiencing a lot of the things that we experience in our life are connected to that underlying something that's difficult or upsetting or something that's there like a pain or a wound that we need to handle, right? And so with that, one of the things that we talk about very frequently is the window of tolerance. And so as a trauma therapist, I've been talking about the window of tolerance. And we'll get more into that in a minute with clients. For as long as I've been practicing, right, as long as I've been trained and experienced and working with trauma clients, clients coming in with PTSD adjustment, things like that happening. Yes. I talk about the window of tolerance. What's happening right now that I'm really noticing is clients coming in and they're saying, I feel like I am extremely stressed, I'm irritated and irritable, I'm agitated, I can't focus, I can't do this or that. I'm having a hard time with emotion regulation. I feel like it's just like I can get angry and 0 to 100 at the drop of a coin. But then I also have these times where I don't want to do anything and I'm completely shut down. And so previously I had been talking about anxiety and depression as a mood disorder. Right? Very seldom do you have a mood disorder where you have, you know, just one thing going on. I think that's the really interesting thing about the job. The work that we do is that very seldom do you just fall under one thing, right? So where there's ADHD, there's probably depression. So when I talk to clients about that and I'm also assessing in sessions what's going on with them, they're like, Well, don't really feel this or don't really feel like those symptoms, right? That we talk about that are textbook diagnosis. But, when I pull out the window of tolerance and I show them this idea of hyper arousal and hypo arousal and our ability like where we stay on that window of tolerance, clients are usually like, Oh my gosh, you just described what I'm experiencing. And so that's why I thought it was so important to have a conversation virtually and to do this interview, because I feel like a lot of us might be experiencing something very similar and it's helpful to know and normalize. Like, Oh yeah, that's happening to me too. And those are kind of the lightbulb moment that my clients have like. I thought. I thought I was losing it, but like. Right, right, right, right.I thought I was lazy. Right. So when we're looking at the window of tolerance, I want you to think of, like, an actual window, right? So I actually love pictures and metaphors in my head. And so you're picturing an actual window and I want you to kind of break it into thirds. So you have the bottom third, the middle third, the top third. Right. In the middle third, you have what's called our window of tolerance, right? This is where we're experiencing normal sized feelings, Right. The way that I explain it is these things, they don't. They come and they go, right. Feelings are fluid. They're not wrong. They're not right. They are temporary. Right. They change. You can feel one thing, one minute you can feel another thing another minute. You can do multiple things, right? And so in that middle third, you're experiencing the the normal sized feelings, right? Where you feel, you know, anxious and then you do what it is that you need to do and then that anxiety subsides. Right. It's very manageable at that. Yeah. Want to be very careful with how I say that because a lot of clients come in and they're in that upper third and they're like, oh, this is manageable. No. Right, right. That's that's, that's we've learned that or to operate with that. But I want you to think of your really it's easy for you to maintain you're getting good sleep your mood is good like your mood is stable. You might have some up and down. You might feel, you know, intense, big emotions, but you're able to regulate fairly easy, right? When we look at the top third, that's where I want to talk about hyper arousal. So hyper arousal is where we frequently see our stress state, right? That is high stress, right? That is, um, fixation, hyper fixation. That is nervousness, that is difficulty. You can also experience difficulty concentrating. You can experience that agitation, that irritability that we were talking about. It's also where you might experience like you. That's where you tend to be. If you're dealing with trauma, you might be activated, right? So you might feel when we're talking about the body and the body, you might feel your heart rate rising. Right rising. You might feel your chest is tight, your throat is tight, your stomach hurts. You might feel nauseous. You might feel dizzy, Your head might hurt. You might feel like you're flushed. Right? So that's the hyper aroused state. That state is actually okay because that is related to our safety center. It's related to that instinct that we have. Flight fight freeze. Right. So. Right. Yeah. You get into a you slam on your brakes to avoid a car accident and you're like, oh my gosh. Right. Yeah. That's, that's, that's that state. Right? So then a hypo aroused state which is the bottom third is. You just don't feel like doing anything. Right. You're tired. You're experiencing exhaustion, fatigue. You might be experiencing bouts of sadness or indifference. Numb is another one that we use to like just feeling, like disconnected, disassociated, Like you can't really relate to people or you're having a hard time connecting with what you're doing. You're definitely not in the present. In this aspect, we're talking about mindfulness. You might be ruminating on things in the past, right? Really stuck on failure. There's poor self-esteem, that kind of stuff going on. Your typical like low energy burnout depression symptoms, right?

Laurie Groh: Yes. Yeah.

Kristen Holmes: So, yeah, that is the window of tolerance. We want to be somewhere within that second middle right where we're experiencing these emotions and these feelings. We're feeling hyper aroused, but we're not at this level where we just can't function. Right? The same thing with Hypo Aroused. We don't see that shut down when we're having it. We might see like, you know, like this feeling of like, I need to rest or like that was a lot or something like that. The exhaustion. But once again, like you're not staying down there, so you want to be able to regulate. Right? That's that emotional regulation that we talk about. And so that's just kind of a really good picture of it. What I always. Yes. Yeah. Is I have a like a handout that I pull up on my iPad and I just sit it in front of them. So if you think you might be experiencing this difficulties with window of tolerance, Yeah, I would just Google window of tolerance image and I would pull up and see where you fall.

Laurie Groh: Right. And it just have it. So I mean you really made it clear of like where somebody might be on the day to day, but when something happens that would get somebody aroused into that stress state that they're in this top state and that's great and needed and part of the human condition. But then there is going to always be that drop from that, Right? Am I getting that right? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kristen Holmes: And it's your parasympathetic nervous system working, right? We're talking about the brain. It's doing its job. But what we have to also think about is. Even though it's doing its job. When your brain, is when you are aroused, you can't stay in that state forever. Your brain, your body, eventually the adrenaline, the cortisol, all of the things that are going off and being released in your body, they eventually kind of stop to release. Right. So if you're experiencing this high arousal state and it's lasting longer than 45 minutes to an hour, depending on what that looks like as far as your activation looks like. Right. And that's an indication that, okay, there's something going on here. This would be a really good time to reach out to a therapist.

Laurie Groh: Yes. Yes.

Kristen Holmes: The other part is that when your brain is half when it comes down, it has to recover. Your brain has to rest so that what you start to see is that hypo arousal start happening. Right. And that's where you might have had a rough day at work. And you need to watch your favorite reality TV show. Right? I mean, it's just kind of like disconnect for a little bit. Yes. Right. Yes. Yeah. When you're staying in that, that is where we see depression happening. Right. And that makes so much sense. Yeah, that chronic stuff that's happening right. Your body is having you are having a hard time coping with those bigger feelings. Yeah, right. And so that has an impact on your body. And you can feel it physically. So a lot of the work that I do with clients is body work. Body awareness. Okay. What is something? Okay, I see that you're. I see that you're getting upset. Or is there something happening? What are you feeling in your body right now? Tell me what it feels like to be Laurie right now. Help me understand what that feels like so that we can connect with that feeling so that we can do some work around what's actually happening in our body right now. Yeah.

Laurie Groh: Yeah. So it sounds like, though, that the way to move through it is, first off, figuring out where that's coming from. What part of your body, where is it, what am I experiencing? So the client is kind of figuring out that piece. Is there a next step? Is there something after that, or is that something that is so individualized? You have to be in a session to be able to. Yeah.

Kristen Holmes: Usually the next step is feeling it. Because we don't usually want to feel it right. If we tend to be kind of high strung like go, go, go, go, go. That hypo arousal does not feel good. So usually we try to do something to get out of it, right? Right.

Laurie Groh: Yeah.

Kristen Holmes: That's where, like, coping and like self-soothing comes into play. Whereas I always talk about like you're needing self-care. What self-care is not is grabbing a pint of Ben and Jerry's and sitting in front of the TV and just eating the Ben and Jerry's right. That might be helpful in the moment it might feel yeah.

Laurie Groh: And and super good Yeah.

Kristen Holmes: Yeah and it's delicious right. But to actually work on managing and work on that window of tolerance, that dysregulation, we have to do work around that. So once we learn, once we kind of walk through the experience of feeling it in our session, then we kind of start. That's where it becomes kind of individualized, right? Yeah, yeah. We start talking about, okay, you're feeling this, what is going on that's causing that feeling, right? Yes. What is underneath that? And that's where therapy is, I think, so helpful and so beneficial. Yes. People. Because now we're going, okay, I'm feeling this in my body. I'm connecting with this feeling now I'm going to work with this therapist on, let's let's see what's underneath that. Right. Right. And you're learning self. You're learning emotional regulation skills and coping strategies and things while we're in this session. So it does take work. It is a muscle that you have to grow and build so that you can learn how to do that. A lot of the times we just want to tell me how to fix it, right? Tell me how to fix right? How do I not feel like this anymore? Right, Right. But that's where the work comes in, right? That's where the therapy comes in, is kind of navigating with those like.

Laurie Groh: Yeah, yep, you're so right. That has to be that individual person because everybody's obviously different and they've been through different things and their bodies respond differently. So that piece of that individual work and the practice is essential. So Kristen, thank you so much for coming. And if anyone out there would like to schedule with Kristen, you can go ahead and go on our website at shoresidetherapies.com and you can set something up with her.

Kristen Holmes: Absolutely. All right. I'm taking new clients, adults and teenagers, and not so much working with children right now. But that doesn't mean that your child is experiencing these feelings, that you can't reach out because we can talk about maybe my availability might fit, but definitely just reach out. I love that we schedule those free consultations. Yeah, that's a really good place to start is that if you go to the website and you go into my bio, go ahead and schedule that 15 minute consult, phone consult, and we can talk about some of the things that you're experiencing. I'd love to work with you.

Laurie Groh: Awesome. Thanks, Kristen. We'll talk soon.

Kristen Holmes: Have a great day.

Laurie Groh: You too bye.