Why I teach my clients to “shake it off“
Imagine you are walking through the woods and come across a bear. Immediately, your body recognizes this as potential threat and activates the nervous system, releasing a rush of stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenalin). These hormones are what give us extra strength, energy, focus and speed to keep ourselves safe from the threat. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and senses become sharper as the body prepares to defend/ protect itself against the threat. This is the fight /flight response. This is natural and good when facing a physical threat because it is self-protective.
After the bear walks away and the threat is gone, the body seeks to regain a sense of calm. You may notice your body starts to shake. This is an involuntary response that moves the stress hormones from the nervous system so they can be processed and expelled from the body. Slowly, the shaking decreases and the body begins to return to its homeostatic state. Involuntary shaking is most common following sudden, high intensity events such as encountering the bear, a car accident (or near miss), assaults, etc.
The nervous system can be activated by any stressful situation that threatens our sense of well being or disrupts our equilibrium. Often these are low to mid intensity events or circumstances that build over time and often don’t have a clear end point causing the stress hormones to build up in the body. Without a clear end point or resolution, the body’s natural systems are not given the “all clear” signal to tell it that the threat has passed and the natural calming process never begins. Instead, the stress hormones continue to build in the nervous system causing stress symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, cardiovascular issues, digestive issues, cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, sleep disruptions, moodiness, irritability, addictions, etc.
Common causes of stress include:
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Being too busy
- Children and family
- Chronic worry
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- All-or-nothing attitude
This is where the “shake it off” technique can be an invaluable tool to give the stressed out nervous system a quick reset. Like the involuntary shaking response to in intense event, shaking can also be used intentionally to release the build up of stress in the body. Shaking is like pulling the plug in an overflowing sink, allowing the adrenaline and cortisol to flow out of the nervous system.
Here is how to “shake it off”. Stand up. Begin by shaking your arms, shake them vigorously. Continue shaking your arms as you add in your legs, shaking them alternately. Now add your whole body, and then your head. Vigorously continue shaking for another 10-15 seconds. Then stop and take a few slow deep breaths.
The shaking method is just one step in managing stress. Like the overflowing sink, pulling the plug doesn’t stop the flow of water into the sink (the causes of stress) and there may be a clog in the drain (poor coping strategies) that needs to be addressed. But it is a good start.
Often my clients have reported feeling so stressed out that they find it difficult to engage in other stress management techniques like mindfulness, breathing exercised, imagery, etc. But by shaking it off first, having the quick reset, they are better able to relax and better engage in other stress management activities. As they become better able to manage their stress, it becomes easier to find ways to reduce the sources of stress in their lives.