Did you know that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards? Sort of makes sense, seeing as it’s the opposite of sweet. But that doesn’t mean stress can’t lead to benefits, or at least become a lot more manageable.
No life or relationship is devoid of stress—which isn’t a bad thing. Difficult emotions and experiences can strengthen us, allow us to grow and make brighter times feel more beloved. But when these emotions are especially intense or long-lasting and overtake us, they can can create walls that can feel paralyzing. So it’s not surprising that stress is one of the top factors that stand in the way of sex and intimacy. (While some people desire more sex and intimacy during stressful times, many more find the opposite is true.)
Last week on Girl Boner Radio, I had the pleasure of chatting with the fabulous Kait Scalisi, MPH of Passion by Kait. The sex educator, speaker and writer believes cultivating the sex life you desire often has nothing to do with sex. To learn what great sex and intimacy do tend to require, especially if you’ve been feeling somehow stuck, stream the episode on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio or below! We also explored dealing with stress and emotional trauma with the help of Dr. Megan Fleming, another listener’s sexiest gift response (hint: it has to do with “back door” love!) and more. Read on for just a few of my favorite takeaways.
4 Ways to Feel Less Stressed and Heal Emotional Wounds
Shake Your Groove Thing!
Okay, that was a little misleading—it just felt fun to say! You don’t actually have to dance, for this technique, though you’re welcome to. Kait recommended intentional shaking as a powerful way to release stress from your body and minimize it at the same time.
“This is going to sound really woo-woo to some people, and to other people it’s going to sound like a homecoming,” she said. “You can actually have a bit of a shaking or rebounder practice that can actually help move the stress through your body.”
She’s found this helpful after acute stress-inducing incidents, which makes a lot of sense.. In nature, she said, animals naturally shake after stressful happenings. As humans, we may feel the urge to shake, but work to suppress it—especially when we’re around others.
“Often what that does is it adds to your accumulative stress,” she added. “So if something that has happened—you almost got hit by a car or you witness a screaming incident on the New York City subway, something that got under your skin—let yourself shake. Let that feeling run through you…and just feel the calm coming down. It’s releasing the stress in the moment and it’s also not adding to the stress of just living in a daily life.”
Observe Your Feelings, Rather than Judge Them
Speaking of woo-woo, this one felt so cerebrally-perplexing and intimidatingly zen to me that for years when I heard it, I wrote it off as something I’d never quite grasp. (“What does observe your thoughts and feelings even mean???”) But this past year, when I fell into a habit of criticizing myself so intensely over difficult feelings I was experiencing—related to a traumatic accumulation of things I’ll call THE BLOB—that the judgment itself created its own trauma, I started to get it.
I was about to face a root of THE BLOB when my therapist gave me poignant advice: “Your job isn’t to ‘do well’ or ‘perfectly.’ It’s to learn and observe. Practice awareness of what’s happening and notice your thoughts and feelings. Whatever happens is okay.” I hadn’t even realized I’d been clinging on to expectations that I “should” feel certain ways (unless I “screwed it up”), or how deeply I’d been judging my emotions to that point. That epiphany opened the door to more healing than I can articulate. The experience went a lot smoother than I’d imagined, but even if it hadn’t, I would have fared better because I’d committed to not beating myself up over my thoughts or feelings. Tough stuff surfaced, but I didn’t drown. By the end, I was almost swimming.
To take this practice further, try the Tonglen meditation technique. The incomparable Pema Chödrön recommends it in a book both Kait and I have benefited from, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. You basically breathe in the negativity—for the sake of this post, stress—you’ve been avoiding and breathe everything else out. It may seem a bit backwards, but it works! Negative feelings don’t vanish, but enlarge, with avoidance. Toglen allows us to sit with them, which can bolster wellbeing. Kait keeps this tool in her back pocket and pointed out that naming the sensations in your body, such as “a fist around your heart,” as you practice it can be helpful.
Thought-Journal Your Heart Out
This is one of my back-pocket tools of choice. If not judging your feelings doesn’t feel proactive enough, or you simply want to get all of the “stuff” off your chest, let it flow out onto a page. Handwrite, type or even speak your thoughts out into a recorder, without concern over eloquence, grammar or what the thoughts actually are. Releasing the thoughts in this way can bring clarity by helping you sort out which thoughts are rational versus solely emotionally driven. (If it’s the latter, that’s okay! Awareness of that = groovy.) You don’t even have to hang onto the file or pages afterward if you don’t want to, though it may help to look over it at some point.
Thought-journaling is also powerful if you tend to bottle up or avoid negative emotions altogether. It’s not uncommon to hide thoughts or feelings, even from ourselves, which makes them dang near impossible to address. This practice allows those concealed thoughts to breathe, potentially shedding light on issues in need of addressing. (It’s a lot like Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” as described in The Artist’s Way, only situational versus daily and with no length guidelines; Cameron suggests three pages per session.)
If you prefer more structure, consider more of a chart to track your thoughts, basic details such as time and scenario specifics and positive responsive thoughts you’d share with a friend in a similar place. (Super organized peeps, I admire you!)
Talk About What’s Going On
What we don’t talk about tends to fester. Especially when a stressful or traumatic experience is affecting your intimate life, sharing what you’re going through with your partner(s) is important. In the episode, Dr. Megan answered a listener’s question on dealing with emotional triggers. The listener endured abuse in a past relationship, and her current partner’s BDSM fervor has been drawing those memories to the surface—even though she knows rationally that BDSM is not abuse. How can she keep feeling triggered from interfering with her sex life and relationship?
“Unfortunately, our bodies remember often [trauma],” Dr. Megan said. “It’s really important to understand the how and the why the trauma still exists in our bodies, as well as working through processes to ultimately metabolize and release and sort of reprogram our nervous systems. With all the advances in neuroscience we have a lot more tools to help individualize therapies and treatments to help people to live life really fully. I think it starts with that conversation. It’s really to help your girlfriend know that, as you said, intellectually you see no problem with BDSM.”
From there, she said, numerous techniques can help, such as systematic desensitization or naming and understanding what’s going on in your body with the help of a qualified professional. If you’re dealing with sexual trauma, a sex therapist who specializes in healing from trauma can go far. She also recommended two books for anyone dealing with stress related to sexual trauma:
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
How do you deal with stressful emotions? What struck you most about the episode? Which step above have you tried? I love hearing from you!