ERP 389: Understanding Our Stress Language As Well As Our Partner’s Stress Language For Better Living & Loving — An Interview With Chantal Donnelly

By Posted in - Podcast September 12th, 2023 0 Comments

Have you ever found yourself in a heated argument with your partner, feeling like you’re speaking entirely different languages, even though you’re using the same words?

In our increasingly hectic lives, the demands of work, family, and everyday responsibilities make it difficult to manage our stress levels. High stress levels take a toll on our emotional well-being and make it difficult to effectively navigate stress within our relationships. This challenge isn’t just about handling personal stress; it’s also about understanding how our partners respond to stress and, crucially, how we can bridge the gap in those moments of tension. Stress can easily disrupt communication and create emotional distance, making it vital to decipher and address the language of stress within our relationships.

This episode delves into the fascinating world of stress languages and how they impact our connections with loved ones. By unraveling the mystery of these stress responses, you’ll gain valuable insights into your own and your partner’s behaviors, ultimately leading to more harmonious relationships and a deeper sense of calm. Let’s embark on this journey to decode the intricate language of stress and find the path to greater understanding and connection.

Chantal Donnelly founded Body Insight Inc. in 2006, a private clinic in Pasadena, CA, where she provides physical therapy and stress management services. She holds a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy, a Pilates Certification from BASI, and is a certified Resilience Toolkit Facilitator. Chantal has released two video programs: Pain-Free At Work and Strong Knees. She recently published her new book, Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World.

In this Episode

6:00 The myth of self-care as a one-size-fits-all solution to stress.

10:37 Observing stress patterns for enhanced awareness.

15:47 The five stress languages for improved relationships and self-care.

21:09 Creating safety and support for relaxation.

32:44 Navigating stress responses in relationships.

40:43 Recognizing stress responses in everyday interactions.

46:23 Fostering connection through nervous system regulation.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Identify your stress language: Recognize your unique stress response pattern, such as imploding, exploding, fixing, numbing, or denying.
  • Know your partner’s stress language: Understand how your partner typically responds to stress to improve communication and empathy.
  • Prioritize self-care: Regularly engage in self-soothing activities like deep breathing, movement, or meditation to regulate your nervous system.
  • Practice co-regulation: Foster a calming environment by staying regulated when your partner is stressed, allowing both to co-regulate.
  • Take breaks when needed: When both partners are stressed, consider separating temporarily to self-soothe before returning to a conversation.
  • Open peripheral vision: During conflicts, intentionally broaden your field of vision to signal safety and reduce the threat response.
  • Slow down your breathing and movements: When tense, consciously slow your breath and movements to signal safety to your nervous system.
  • Engage in regular communication: Maintain open and honest discussions about stress and its impact on your relationship, fostering understanding and connection.

Mentioned

Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory (*Amazon link) (audiobook)

The Polyvagal Institute

Rhythm of Regulation

ERP 276: Understanding the Need for Both Self-Regulation and Co-regulation in Relationship – An Interview with Deb Dana

ERP 261: How to Strengthen Your Relationship from a Polyvagal Perspective – An Interview with Dr. Stephen Porges

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Connect with Chantal Donnelly

Websites: bodyinsight.com

Facebook: facebook.com/BodyInsightInc

YouTube: youtube.com/user/BodyInsight

Instagram: instagram.com/bodyinsightinc

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Chantal, thank you so much for being with us here.

Oh, thank you. I’m really excited to be here. 

Yes, and this is a great conversation. Then we were giggling because I had prepped for a different topic, and I could feel myself feeling a little stressed. You help people really look at their stress and the patterns of that, and you’ve developed even a language typology for people to start working with. Before we go into that, I would love to hear what got you interested in helping people with this? 

Well, I started my career as a physical therapist, and I’m still a physical therapist, I have been for over 23 years now. I was working in the clinic, and I had a couple of rehab DVDs out on the market, and I was really enjoying my work with people. But I was getting a little frustrated. What I found is that so, so many of my patients were getting better on my table. But then they would go out into the real world, and life stress, whether it was in a relationship or at their job or caring for parents or children, whatever it was that was stressing them out, would upregulate their nervous system, which would cause inflammation, and their pain would return. I felt like I was hitting a wall, and I felt like I couldn’t completely help my patients. So I thought that I was going to change careers and go into psychology, so that I could add that to my physical therapy practice. 

So I started doing a really deep dive into the stress science, and what I found is that my anatomy and physiology background and my physical therapy experience was actually a really great foundation for helping people with stress. It lives in the body. So that was how I got into a lot of the somatic practices, specifically for stress responses. I’ve now been able to incorporate it with my chronic pain patients. But I’ve also found that it helps in other facets of their life. It’s not just helping their physical issues and problems and pains. It’s helping their ability to parent. It’s helping their ability to be in a loving relationship with a partner. It’s helping with addiction. It’s helping all sorts of things that I didn’t anticipate. But really, when you help people manage stress, you help people thrive in life.

Oh my gosh, so well-said. It’s so true that we engage in all types of coping strategies, ways of distracting, in an attempt to calm or soothe. But sometimes our attempts aren’t necessarily supporting the downregulation that gives us that well-being. 

Exactly. 

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“We can escape. We can ignore. We can suppress our stress responses for a time. But we’re not really downregulating our nervous system. Sometimes even our self-care is not downregulating our nervous system. What I like to say is, is your downtime downregulating? Because sometimes it’s not.”

So knowing how you respond to stress, and knowing how your partner responds to stress in intimate relationships, can be a game-changer for people. It really can.

Yes, and I want to just pause here. Would you be willing to elaborate around, is your self-care and your downtime downregulating? Can you elaborate on that for people who are like, what does she mean?

Yeah, so I talk about this in my book quite a bit. This issue of, we’ve really put self-care up on a pedestal. My mentor, Nkem Ndefo, who taught me a lot about stress, talks a lot about self-care isn’t the panacea that we all make it out to be. It certainly helps people, but not always. A lot of times it’s because a best friend told us that a certain type of self-care really helps them, so we keep trying it. It might help us escape momentarily. But when we stop the self-care or whatever it is—yoga, hot bath, a walk, whatever it is—our stress is still at the same level; we’ve just paused it temporarily. So is your downtime, meaning, are you having some alone time and that’s your self-care? But are you able to regulate your nervous system during that time, so that when you go back to your stressors, which are inevitably still there, can you manage them a little bit better? Are you still in survival mode?

I would bargain, not only is the nervous system downregulating, and one might be more regulated in this calming self-care activity. But also, as you bring attention to these stress patterns and the stress language, that we might be able to observe how we’re reacting or responding in whatever daily stressors that occur, that give us a little bit more opportunity to have space around how we negotiate that.

Exactly. So when we bring awareness to the stress, being fluent in stress, that stress language and knowing how to speak that, and also how to speak to your body, and knowing what interoception is, your internal body awareness. So when we can do that, and when we can regulate our nervous system, even just a little bit, it gives us some distance, some space to really acknowledge: Oh, I’m in one of my regular survival patterns, and it’s now affecting my work, it’s now affecting my relationships, it’s now affecting my self-love. Because you will generally end up in a lot of self-blame as you go into these patterns. Not always. Some people blame others, and we’ll get to that and all the different patterns that people can go into. But it does give you some space to go: Oh, I’m in a stress pattern, I am speaking my stress language right now, instead of coming from a place of relative calm. That awareness alone can be really healthy and beneficial. 

Just to go back to how you described some of your journey as a physical therapist, I’ve had dear friends as physical therapists and echo the same sentiment. My husband actually was a massage therapist, way, way back in the day, no longer. But he also felt the similar observation that people had great improvements on the table, but then they would go into their life, and then it’s back. He kind of questioned how much responsibility they were taking for their own health and well-being and their process, and that he felt like people were back to square one. I can raise my hand here. I will get a massage and I’m like, I swear I just got a massage, and one of my stress patterns is I carry a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, or I’ll notice I’ll shallow-breathe at times to be a little bit ahead of myself if I feel pressured about whatever tasks. Just to be in the noticing or how I’ll structure my time, that it gives me that space. So it’s been a learning curve for me too, and I’m sure many people can relate to what you’re describing feeling. Whatever investment as you said, whether or not it’s a hot yoga class, or whatever it is that feels restorative. Then we can hop right back into the pattern, and that we may not get to feel the extended benefit of what we just engaged in. 

Really, it’s finding out what works for you. It could be that massage helps you, and I think it’s really great that you’re seeking that out. I started out as a massage therapist as well. Touch can be very healing. But if we are thinking about all of the things that we need to do while we’re getting our massage, maybe not so much. So maybe changing the way you approach massage, and really focusing on the hands, on your body, and really reconnecting with your body, that way can be more downregulating for you. And really playing with that, and playing detective. Oh, when I approached the massage this way, in a very passive, like this person is going to help me relax, that didn’t work. But then when I participate in the massage and really pay attention to what my body is telling me, with the guidance of this other person’s hands, then maybe that helps you downregulate. So really figuring out how your self-care can be a downregulating tool.

The breath, and how we are responding and maybe relaxing and releasing, it’s huge. This is wonderful. So do you want to describe the stress impact in the language that you’ve developed?

So what I talk about in my book is learning your partner’s stress languages. It’s a play on love languages. So the book, The Five Love Languages was written by Dr. Gary Chapman, and he talks about these five love languages that we all can have, and how learning your partner’s love language can really improve your relationship. 

And knowing your own language can be really helpful, too. 

Exactly, going back to self-care. Yes, knowing your own love languages. Like, my love language is physical touch. So massage really is a good self-care tool for me. If people don’t have enough money to do massage, and physical touch is their love language, you can do dry brushing, or find ways, a weighted blanket maybe. There’s all sorts of ways in which physical touch can be incorporated into your self-care, if that is your love language, absolutely. So stress languages are very similar in that there are five of them, and once you become aware of your own stress language and your partner’s stress language, it can really help your relationship and it can help guide your self-care.

Even you mentioned the interoception, and the other thing that we might also bring into this conversation is the neuroception, and how our nervous systems are always attuning to the nervous systems around us. And when we look at intimate partnership, we are going to be responding to our partner’s nervous system, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. So to have this framework and to have this awareness can be very helpful. Because things move quickly. And when one person has a reaction, it’s often running before we even knew what happened.

That’s one of the purposes of having good knowledge of your stress language and your partner’s stress language, is that if you don’t know your partner’s stress language, you can oftentimes take things very personally. Even though they are having a biological reaction to a stressor, and that stressor can be outside of the relationship. It can be a stressor that they brought home from work, a deadline let’s say, or a boss said something very negative to them, whatever the case may be. Or it can be a stressor that’s mutual, so both partners are under a lot of stress for the same reason. Either way, if you don’t know your spouse’s and your patterns. I know your listeners know who Deb Dana is, she’s lovely. For those who don’t know who she is, I highly recommend listening to your episode that you did with Deb Dana. She’s a social worker, and she works in conjunction with Dr. Steven Porges from the polyvagal theory. She calls herself the polyvagal translator, which I love, because she just really helps people understand how to implement polyvagal into their lives. So she calls these tendencies that we all have, to go to a particular stress pattern or stress response, she calls them patterns of protection. Indeed, they are patterns, because we tend to go back to the same one time and time again, and they are protective in nature. 

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“All of our stress responses are trying to help us; they are adaptive, until they’re not. They help us in trying to protect us, and then we get stuck in these patterns, and then they’re no longer protecting us, they’re actually hurting us. So having that awareness is how you get out of that stuck pattern.”

I’m aware. I had a client give me the book, and I’ve really enjoyed it, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Laurie Gottlieb. She talks about the analogy of these adaptive strategies as almost clothing, psychological clothing, and that they will be entirely too small when we perhaps were four in our clothing. Like, it fit at the time, but if we’re 30 trying to wear a four-year-old’s clothing, it is constrictive and perhaps not helpful.

I love that metaphor. I talk about stress sometimes in terms of scar tissue. As a physical therapist, I’m very familiar with scar tissue, and scar tissue is adaptive. It’s your body’s way of saying: Oh, there was an injury, we need to make this area stronger. But the reason we ice and try to get rid of scar tissue is because it can become too bulky and inflexible, just like our stress patterns. So you end up limping through life with these stress patterns because it has limited your range of motion in various areas of your life.

I love that analogy, that’s so helpful. Because we can see how we might be constricted or limited in our range, and yes, that was a protective thing that happened, and yet it still has impact on how we’re functioning. Do you want to give us the breakdown, would it be helpful, of the five languages?

I do, I absolutely do. I’m going to start with a caveat though. So there’s a bit big neon sign here: caveat, caveat for everybody who’s listening. These can come across as labels, and I tend to shy away from labels, because labels can be dangerous and backfire.

Yes, and used to weaponize. We don’t want to do that. 

Exactly. So these stress languages are used for reconnection and co-regulation. They are used for you to understand your partner, not to try to blame or fix your partner. I feel like it can be used a lot for judging, as a judging tool. Like, my partner does this, and using it in sort of a toxic way, like you said, like a weapon. That is absolutely not why I created these. I created these as a way for you to empathize, to understand, and to know when your partner needs more support, more love, more empathy, more understanding, all of that stuff. So this is to be used for good, not for evil.

Well, and this is precisely the whole purpose. That when we can cultivate more safety and more of that warmth and comforting and support, there’s a relaxing and a soothing that we’re wired up for. So there’s an assist, if you will, in this articulation, and also the inquiry around how you might wonder or explore in this very safe way that is supportive for that relaxation and that unwinding.

Exactly. As you mentioned earlier, things can escalate really fast in a relationship, and knowing your partner’s stress patterns and stress language, and knowing your own, can help with taking things personally and automatically having your nervous system go into defense mode. Because you think you’re being attacked. Versus: Oh, let’s get curious what’s going on with my partner. That looks like one of their tendencies, their usual stress patterns. That looks like their stress language. So how can I get curious about what they need now? Do they need more space? Because they’re in a defensive mode. So instead of me going into a defensive mode, I’m going to give them more space? Or do they need more support and more love? That’s where you can bring in the love languages.

Yeah, no kidding! I can recognize my husband and I and our patterns early on, and it still sometimes has a flavor, I’d be interested in hearing your typology. But I have noticed him go more inward or more of this self-containment, and it can even look like he’s unhappy or upset. He typically does want space, but he also does want to feel like supported of like, it’s going to be okay. But I would take it personally in the past, I would think I did something wrong. Is he mad at me? I would go into question mode, and those questions are intending to engage. But that’s not what he’s needing at that moment. That would be a little bit of a cycle for us, which, fortunately, we’ve learned so much, but probably the long way. So hopefully, you can help streamline this for us. 

Absolutely, and that’s such a great example. I have a husband and I’ve been married for over 26 years now. I’ve been together for over 30. He also does exactly what your husband does when he’s really, really stressed. He has another coping strategy and another stress language that he goes into when it’s a moderate amount of stress. So that’s what you were talking about with your husband. I call that imploding, that’s the stress language. Now, the vernacular that’s used in polyvagal is freeze. 

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“So when we go into imploder pattern of stress, or a freeze pattern, what’s happening is our bodies, so the neuroception piece is that we feel like there is a threat that we cannot escape; we feel trapped, for whatever reason. Because this can be real or imaginary, and it doesn’t matter, your body is going to respond in exactly the same way no matter if it is.”

It could be relationally or something outside even.

Exactly. Now the thing with when we implode, is that we tend to internalize. We tend to feel helpless, hopeless, depressed, paralyzed, shut down. We don’t want to engage with others in the world, because we want to hide. We’re an escaped turtle tucked into their little shell mode. Even facial expressions can get muted. When I’m here, I feel like I can’t even smile. I want to smile and co-regulate with somebody, and I feel like I can’t. My vocal proximity, which is the quality of my voice, becomes very muted and dampened. So this is not a choice. Again, this is biology taking over. This is someone feeling like they are in a threat that they can’t escape, and they need to hide. So when your partner goes into this, it’s knowing. So for me, as I said, my husband does this as well, I called it the wall. I thought he was putting up a wall between us. But what he was doing was protecting himself, and it continues to be his way when he’s super-stressed to protect himself. It’s what he needs.

Big distinction, that’s like a game-changer for people! If we can interpret this, in a way, we’re able to access some of the insight. Because it’s not visible when all of this is happening, we just see the wall and we make an interpretation about it. Versus this is the best move to feel some level of comfort and protection.

Yeah. I was taking the wall as something like as a sign of disrespect, or that he wanted to cut me out. But it wasn’t his choice, and that wasn’t what the wall was about. The wall was bricks in front of him protecting him from the rest of the world.

Yeah, I want to jump ahead and ask, well, how do you deal with it now? But I don’t want to miss your other four.

Yeah, let’s put a pin in that. So exploding is another stress language, and in another vernacular, this would be your fight-flight response. That looks like somebody, let’s say if we go into this, we become very irritated, angry, aggressive. We tend to blame other people for how we’re feeling. Versus if we’ve imploded, we blame ourselves. So this is more of an outward exploding. And you can become paranoid about everything during this phase. Because this is fight-flight, the fight is going to be the yelling and the arguing with somebody, and the flight is when we storm off in the middle of a conversation. We just can’t be there anymore. Our nervous system is saying, leave, leave, flee. So that’s going to be a pretty common one with people. I’m going to give you a couple more. So there’s five of them, that’s two. And what you’ll find is that some people blend, they have two patterns that they tend to go into; sometimes they’re separate, and sometimes they’re blended. 

So the third one is fixing, and this one is common with women. It is also called tend and befriend. Tend and befriend sounds lovely. Oh, we’re tending and befriending, it sounds so great. But it is a stress response. It has adaptability, it’s great. It’s particularly great if you’re dealing with children, or the elderly, to tend and befriend. That can help you in emergency situations. When we try to fix our intimate partners, that can look like parenting your partner, which isn’t really a pretty sight. It’s not the best thing for your relationship. It’s certainly not the best thing for your sex life.

Well, and it’s indicating something’s wrong with the other. When really, they just might need to regulate, and that’s like trusting their process or giving them the space or whatever it is to help get back into regulation.

And half the time they’re regulated, it’s you who’s not. You’re just trying to fix. Now full disclosure, I am a fixer when I am stressed. I go into that, for sure. Sometimes I blend fixing and exploding, so it looks like really aggressive, frantic fixing. So I will literally be stressed about something that has nothing to do with my child or my husband—when I was writing my book, it was the deadline on my book—and I will start worrying about my child’s college applications, or my husband’s health, or my husband’s business, or whatever. Then I catch myself and I’m like, wait, I am fixing something that A: doesn’t need fixing, and B: isn’t mine to fix if it does need fixing. It’s just I have to laugh every time I catch myself doing it. But again, this is why knowing your own stress language can be so helpful. It is a reset. Oh, okay, I see what I’m doing here, why am I doing this? 

There’s a compassionate quality that you’re describing in the noticing, that we can see and have some compassion and warmth that allows for a shift to occur perhaps, rather than the self-judging or judging the other as we’re witnessing the stress response.

Exactly, it takes away the blame and the shame for sure, and it brings in that self-compassion if it’s your own stress language that you’re noticing, like I was explaining just now. Like I said, I kind of laugh, I kind of go: Oh, that needs to stop. Instead of beating myself up.

Oh, lookit here, look at what I’m doing.

Ah, I caught myself. So there’s those three. So far we’ve done implosion, explosion, and fixing. Now the next two are coping strategies that people will speak as a stress language. When we numb, that is a stress language. It doesn’t have to be addiction per se, we can numb by overdoing things. We can overdo on the alcohol or the drugs. We can overdo on gaming, gambling, online shopping, social media, watching television. We can over-exercise. And a really popular one is to overwork. So these are those distractions and escapism that we were talking about earlier. That’s what that looks like. 

Yeah, it’s a big one. 

It is a big one. As somebody who is noticing that in your partner, it can be very easy to assume that they are making a choice, that they are to blame, you want to nag them. Those are the things that are not going to be supportive, versus taking a step back and going: Oh, they’re speaking their stress language, I need to support them more right now. Obviously, those types of addictive-like behaviors can have long-term consequences. So we don’t want that for our loved one or for ourselves. But coming from, again, a place of compassion and empathy and support is going to be a game-changer, because that’s when they need the empathy.

They might not know that they need it, if it is approached in a behavioral way, whether or not it’s even overeating or snacking, and you’re like: Ah, don’t buy these chips, or don’t buy whatever it is, or whatever the thing is, like you said, watching TV or whatever it is. It’s like, you can approach it from a behavioral. But if it’s not addressing, there’s a real stress response happening, it can be a real push-pull. Because people need a way to soothe. But if they’re not aware, and that’s the go-to, this can be a little bit of a catch-22.

Right. It’s almost like you need to offer a different coping strategy, because coping strategies are helpful. It’s just when you get into a numbing strategy, you’re not down regulating your nervous system. You’re numbing.

Yeah. Then the last one?

The last one is denying. This is where it looks like optimism and positivity, but it’s really just pushing down any kind of stress response that might otherwise want to bubble to the surface. Indeed, you see with people who deny that they are under a lot of stress, eventually, it can turn into looking more like implosion or explosion.

I wonder if this is something, maybe you can help me. I’ve observed in clients. I also know it a little bit myself, not fully. I feel like I don’t do it to an extreme. But it’s almost this willingness to communicate about a challenge, but doing it in a very packaged way of like, I’ve got it under control, or I’m okay, or I’m holding myself up about it. Is that a version of what you’re describing around denial? 

It can be. That can be someone who’s processing possibly, so you’d have to get curious with that. I find with deniers, it sounds more like, everything’s fine. I’m okay. No, I’m fine. It can sound like what you were suggesting. I think that’s maybe a denier who’s not so extreme on the spectrum of denying, possibly. So just getting curious of: are you really okay? Sometimes the people who deny actually need more space, it’s not that they need you to question as much. Because again, their nervous system may not be ready to have somebody approach them about it. It could be that just offering support in a way that is more generic, like: Hey, let’s go for a walk or a hike, or let’s take a little downtime and just have a little mini date, whatever it is.

Let’s not plan too much this weekend, let’s do something more relaxing and do less.

Exactly, yeah. All of those types of support can be really helpful. So those are the five stress languages that we and our partners can go to when we’re not feeling as regulated as maybe we want to.

Thank you for being willing to unpack that. I know there’s so much more, and I’m hoping people will get your book, because I can just tell how rich, and as you mentioned it in the start, how much it impacts so many spheres of our life. It’s quite surprising how prominent and relevant paying attention to the stress response is. I’m curious to these five stress responses and the language, are there suggestions in partnership if you were aware of one that you would respond? As you’re saying, like the imploding, you probably want to give them space? Would you recommend ways to support differently for these each five, or is it more generic?

In a way, it’s generic, and I’ll explain why. So there’s two ways in which stress can impact a relationship. One is from the outside. So that example that I gave before, if you’re bringing your work stress with you home. It’s possible that your partner is fairly regulated, and you’re feeling a stress response as you walk into the door. So there’s one person who is regulated, and one person who is less regulated. In those moments, calm can be very contagious, especially if that person who is in a calm state is in understanding of their partner’s stress language. That can be just a way to dissipate the potential argument or potential problem really fast. It completely disarms it.

Tell me if I’m on to what you’re saying. I’m recognizing there’s times where I’ve been aware that my husband is stressed and I give him a lot more benefit of the doubt or grace, where in other situations, I actually push back or take issue or challenge his tone or his choice of words, and kind of pick that battle, so to speak. Is that what we’re talking about? Because I have recognized that if I’m calm, and I hear it, and I don’t react to it, and I give a lot of room, that calming is contagious, and he comes and he makes that bed or he makes a joke, and we’re more regulated. Is that what you’re describing? 

Lovely, yes. I call that barometer or a brat. So it’s a game I play with myself. Because there are times when, exactly like you just explained, your husband can say the same thing and you react completely differently, depending on where you are in your nervous system, how regulated you are. So is your husband being a brat? By brat, I mean, is he being disrespectful or inconsiderate, whatever? Or is he a barometer for where you are in your nervous system? A lot of times our loved ones are litmus tests for how stressed we are.

Yes, well, that just took us to another point. Just so I’m understanding correctly, I was using the example if I’m regulated, but you’re saying maybe I’m not regulated. But if I am regulated, and my husband comes home and he’s stressed, and I know he’s stressed and I can interpret it as a stress response, and I stay regulated, and not pick whatever issue with his tone or delivery, then he will often calibrate in that more calm, connected way. Is that an example of the generalized way of being supportive?

Yes. So if someone comes home and they are stressed out and speaking their stress language, so they come in the door and they’re speaking their stress language, let’s say the other partner is a stay-at-home parent, one would think that a stay-at-home parent would be calm. But in general, they have way more cortisol released during the day as a stay-at-home parent than a working individual. So the working individual thinks they have every right to be stressed, and is speaking their stress language assuming that their partner is not. But now you’ve got two people who are stressed coming at each other. Which is different than if one partner comes home and is stressed, and there is a regulated person that meets them. So usually the regulated person is going to be able to have, hopefully, a calming effect on their partner.

Okay. Then I think I have maybe an example of the barometer, and I’ve used this example before, where I am under the gun or have deadlines, or I’m in task mode. My husband’s like, I feel like you’re being disrespectful, or he’s taking issue with me a little bit, like in my language. And I’m like, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I haven’t said anything rude. Then later, I realize and I’m like: Oh, I think I’m just stressed, and he’s reacting to my stress. Is it just I’m not as warm or I’m not as like present? He’s like, yeah. I was like, oh okay. Is this a barometer thing?

Sounds like he’s learning your stress language and is trying to figure it out. So once he gets to know your stress language, it sounds like he will not take so much offence to that, and might be able to just say to you: Hey, do you need some support? You seem a little stressed, you’re speaking your stress language. The barometer comes in when he is stressed and says: Oh, I’m taking you personally, because I am not regulated right now. I’m not feeling that I’m in a place of calm. Sorry, that might have gotten a little too confusing.

I think let’s be super crystal clear. So can you give us an example? Because I’m guessing and totally engaged with what you’re saying. Can you give us an example of what the barometer would look like? I know you just kind of did, but just for people’s clarity.

So let’s take it out of the intimate relationship and talk about parenting. Because I think that’s a really easy example for people to understand, even if they’re not a parent. So I have a teenager, and he’s a boy, and he doesn’t like to clean his room. There are times when his room makes me laugh. Like, huh, he’s just a teenage boy, he has no need to clean his room. Then there are times when I think of it as being disrespectful and rude, and how could he, and I take it personally, and smoke comes out of my ears. Generally, the reason why—his room can look exactly the same during both scenarios here—but the reason why the smoke is coming out of my ears in one scenario and not in another is because of my nervous system. He’s not being a brat; he’s being a teenager. That’s a whole other podcast. 

It is. So one way to reflect on that would be, do I have different responses to the same material or same incident or circumstance, and that different reaction could be an indicator that there are times where I’m very stressed and it will get under my skin and smoke will come out of my ears? Is that right?

Right. And when you have a partner who has a certain stress language, if that stress language activates you, that could be a barometer for where you are. Because again, like we just talked about, if you’re in a place of calm, you actually can have the capacity to handle the discomfort that they’re throwing at you and not take it personally and say: Oh, they’re having a biological reaction to a stressor that I may not know about.

This seems so critical. I’m just aware that with our modern living, that it’s quite likely two people are going to be stressed often together.

Yes. A lot of times, the stress isn’t coming from outside of the relationship, it’s inside. It can be financial hardship, for example, within the relationship, and you both have that same stressor that you are dealing with at the same time. 

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“What I find is that if two people are in their patterns of protection and speaking stress languages at the same time, the best thing to do is to separate and self-soothe.”

So this is where a breathing technique, where you extend your exhalation to activate your calming nervous system, is going to be helpful. Or what I call undulate to regulate. So your sympathetic nervous system lives in your spine. So one activity you can do on your own, away from your partner, is to do spine rotations and cat-cows, where you’re rotating and rolling the spine. That helps to dissipate that sympathetic energy. It also helps to get you out of a freeze state. Undulate to regulate.

I love that, that’s so powerful. Even the exhalation, there’s so much research around extending the exhalation.

That long exhalation is a beautiful way to activate your rest and digest system. So those are somatic tools, in which you are telling your body that you are safe. That’s a good way to approach your significant other in that regulated state, even if you just can regulate just a little bit, so that there isn’t this defense patterns that come up between both of you, if you’re both speaking stressed languages.

This makes a lot of sense, and seems so fundamental, in that if people are wanting to connect, and they have the idea of connecting and the intention to connect, but it’s almost like they’re tripping over themselves because perhaps they are in this stress response. Because from the polyvagal understanding, we can’t really be intimate and creative and connecting unless we’re in ventral, like more regulated.

Exactly. We can’t communicate either. We can’t hear each other. So the really cool thing about when Dr. Steven Porges talks about being in ventral, and he calls it the social engagement system. The social engagement system is not just your vagus nerve, it’s not just the ventral aspect of your vagus nerve. It involves four other cranial nerves, and those four other cranial nerves also start out in your brainstem, just like the vagus nerve does. They activate communication; they help you hear human voice, they help you vocalize (speak), they help you smile, and co-regulate with facial expressions. So all of these communication tools are part of our calming nervous system. 

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“When we are not in ventral, when we’re not regulated, we literally can’t hear each other. So you might be in an argument with a spouse, and I’m sure this has happened to lots of your listeners before, it’s certainly happened to me, where I think I don’t think he’s having the same conversation as I’m having. I don’t think he can hear me.”

Are we speaking different languages? 

Exactly, and indeed you are, probably different stress languages. Yeah, you cannot hear each other properly, and the communication can be totally out of whack.

I almost feel as though there needs to be a paradigm shift around the prioritization of stress. So often, I think people are attempting to get accomplished whatever, if it’s dinner, or the things that need to happen, that the way in which we move through it has such a powerful impact on our sense of connection, or even that secure functioning and attachment. As you again mentioned early on, how much this impacts every sphere of our life. This is critical.

Yeah, it really is. 

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“Connection is so important, and it can be a really big part of why we feel so stressed all the time. So it helps us with stress, and yet, it can really affect our stress and make us stressed. So it’s that reconnecting and reforming and healing the rupture that might have occurred, so that we can co-regulate.”

So when I’m hearing you talk about the stress, is it being disconnected and having difficulty repairing and coming back into connection? Not everybody knows how to do that, or there’s too many things that are in the way and barriers, which make it that much difficult.

Yeah, and that’s why I like to talk about separating and self-soothing, like I just mentioned. That’s a really important part of bringing you back online to be able to communicate again, and to repair and reconnect. It can be really important. If you cannot separate, there are times when, as you said, things escalate really fast, and you can find yourself in an argument where you you might say: Oh shoot, we should have separated and self-soothed, and it didn’t happen, and here we are in the midst of a really big argument. 

I have some tools in my book that I talk about, that you can do in real-time while you’re in the middle of an argument, and I can share a couple of those with you. When we are stressed, our vision becomes very narrow and focused, and that is an adaptive survival mechanism. When we’re in the middle of an argument, in order to tell our body that we are safe, so that we can then hear our partner correctly, can really hear them truly for what they’re saying, and can calm ourselves and feel safe, what you can do is open up your field of vision. So you just take in a 180-degree view, you open up your peripheral vision, and that automatically tells your body: Oh, we are not in that focused mode with our visual system, so we must not be under threat. It just takes that argument down a couple of notches.

Thank you for that.

The other one is, and we talked about breathing earlier, your body responds to speed as if you are under danger, as if you’re facing a threat. So if you slow your breathing, as well as your movements down. Actually, if you increase the pitch of your voice, that can actually help during an argument, believe it or not. But you can slow it down too. You can slow down your voice, slow down your breathing, for sure it can be very helpful. If you’re moving in a really staccato, sort of frustrated, angry way, really slowing down that movement can help just tell your body you’re safe. Then you get out of that defensive pattern, and then your partner will say: Oh, I’m not feeling like I need to be as defensive anymore. Now you’ve got two nervous systems co-regulating again, and hopefully speaking the language of calm.

Ah, I want to be in a workshop with you. 

Yeah, I have workshops. 

Okay, great. Well, for people that are engaged and want to pursue this more, what would you invite people to connect with, with what you’re doing and teaching?

Sure. So I have a company called Body Insight. People can find me at my website, it’s BodyInsight.com. I also have a lot of videos on Instagram and Facebook, lots of videos on how to calm your nervous system and when or why you would want to calm your nervous system. My handle for Instagram and Facebook is @BodyInsightInc. My book is called Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World, and that’s available pretty much online wherever you can find books.

Wonderful. So you have your website BodyInsight.com, you have your social media, and you also have your book, and you mentioned workshops. If people go to your website, what might they find?

Yes, thank you. So if you go to my website, you can sign up for the newsletter there, and then you’ll know when a new workshop comes out. There is also an area on my website where you can click on Workshops and see what I’ve done in the past. I don’t have any coming out right now. I’m not sure when your podcast will be out. But maybe by the time your podcast comes out, I’ll have some new ones. So you can go and just click on Workshop and see if there’s anything to sign up for. I have general workshops on just stress in general. I’ve done some on how to reach a goal without having stress sabotage your goal and hinder you from reaching that goal. It just kind of depends on the time of year. I usually do the goal one in the new year, sometimes I do one on chronic pain. So it just depends on what I have coming out. So check the website out, BodyInsight.com

Amazing! I’m really grateful, with your background and your training as a physical therapist or a massage therapist, just your body wisdom that really gives a lot of intelligence and wisdom behind your teaching that can help people orient. I’m looking forward to engaging with more of your material. So thank you so much for what you’ve shared. This is so rich, and I hope that people get your book and engage with you further.

Oh, thank you, Jessica. I really enjoyed talking to you. It’s really been great.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching