How to relieve the symptoms of chronic stress
When I had reached my burnout breakdown moment, I had to surrender to my body. It was worn out, broken, lacking nourishment, and I had little left to give. A friend who was looking after me suggested a float spa, which I'd never tried before. But, willing to do anything that gave me a respite from the weird mix of shame, relief, exhaustion, and numbness, I said yes.
Before sharing my experience, it's important to understand how burnout impacts our bodies as well as our state.
Burnout and your nervous system
Burnout is bad for your autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of our reactions in the world. It is a system that keeps us alive, our bodies functioning, and most of all, safe. People burning out have an over-reliance on their sympathetic system, which means they are seeing the world as one full of threats and stressors. This on-edge normality creates a lot of unreleased tension in bodies and gives rise to an array of negative emotions which can feel overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. In fight or flight, we are also in performance mode - it's what keeps us powering-on through - but in doing this, we are over-using adrenaline, which increases our blood pressure and puts our hearts to hard work, saving energy by shutting down things like immunity and digestion.
What is worse is that people burning out tend to be in a constant loop between this state and their dorsal parasympathetic system, which is when we feel a need to shut down, escape, and disconnect. It's a self-preservation state where we are trying to save our batteries and protect our vulnerable self. It's the ultimate response to feeling unsafe. Hanging out here keeps us disconnected and stops us from being able to bring ourselves back to a place where we feel OK with all in the world.
Finding ways to get back to a state of safety needs us to bring calm to our nervous system, and give it cues of safety. This might be through something as simple as hearing a soft, caring voice, practising a gentle form of yoga, physical contact with those we love, or taking a walk in a place that relaxes us. These are small things, but they all help to bring regulation to our state of being, and should not be underestimated in their power to make real change to how well you feel in yourself.
But, there are times when you want something that feels more supportive, and that's where my float experience came in.
The float experience
Floatation tanks were originally developed to help psychologists study the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain. Having discovered a plethora of psychological and physical benefits, these were made available for commercial use in the 70s. We've now graduated to a luxury experience in the form of inviting pods with soft close lids that shut the world out. Filled with magnesium powered water, lighting to fit your mood, and soft music easing you in and out of the hour of blissful relaxation. These days everyone from stressed-out workers to overworked athletes and magnesium-seeking health optimisers come to get the benefits.
'We all need somewhere to feel safe'
Once I got my head around how the float worked, I was left alone to get into the tank. Essentially, it's a big white pod, filled with water in its own private room. Once inside, with the lid closed, I opted for lights off, and I slowly adjusted to the experience of floating in the pod.
The overwhelming sense I had was of peace. At the time I couldn't explain it, but I just felt so safe and held, like being enveloped in a big nourishing hug, with nothing at all expected of you. It felt like the most wonderful place, with the feeling of weightlessness as the best company you ever had. There was absolutely nothing to do, and that felt freeing.
The silence has a quality to it like I hadn't experienced for ages. I could hear my thoughts and then actually hear them quietening down as my body relaxed. With this strange, unfamiliar freedom from my thoughts, I could hear my own body. At the time it gave me immense relief from all the things that had been thrown up in the air by having to tell your work you couldn't come back. It was like all the negative emotions faded away and I could get some new perspective from this meditative place of safety and calm.
I had a few more floats during that period and it hugely supported my return to myself. Recently I had my first float in a while in Ibiza, and I was reminded of the real power of this therapy for stress and burnout, which inspired me to investigate the science behind it.
Floating is good for you
The act of floating activates the parasympathetic and de-activates the sympathetic system, which is why we get that sense of calm filling us up from within. It also means that we have no tension in our body, which helps the nervous system to regulate to a different state. Emotionally, the sensation of weightlessness makes it easy to get into a meditative state in a way that doesn't leave you thinking about thinking! Because it's a theta wave promoting experience, we can get into a zen state without years of mastering the art of meditation.
The magic power of magnesium
The magic power of the magnesium in the water has so many health benefits. It calms the nervous system down and promotes the sending of messages to bring you back to a state of safety. It lowers cortisol levels and encourages endorphins to flow, which, as natural pain killers, are great for relieving headaches. All of these benefits together make float therapy perfect for migraine relief, a symptom often associated with burning out.
Nourish your body
When our bodies experience such constant stress and distress, finding ways to nourish them is vital for our well-being. Floating is one of the ways that can bring some immediate relief and create much-needed space to feel good in you, get perspective, and most of all feel that everything can be OK again.
If you are battling with chronic stress, supporting yourself with longer-term strategies is also key. I found my way with a combination of body-related work to help get me back to a place of balance, and coaching work to support me as I stepped into a life with less stress and more strategies to better manage my desire to give and achieve more.
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