We carry the history of our fear and anxiety in our body through our nervous system. This is how our past shapes the present. The relative calm or hypervigilance in our nervous system determines our health and happiness, what’s going on in our mind, and our relationships. At least some of the time, we need to be out of fight/flight/freeze/fawn and into a relaxed state of trust and connection to enjoy our life.
We can learn powerful tools and emergency practices to self-regulate, including a soothing diaphragmatic breath, relaxing our body, 5 senses, shaking the tree, and working directly with anxious thoughts that drive hypervigilance. All of these are useful to bring us back into the present moment where our body can notice there is no immediate threat here right now. Click here for Emergency Practices.
A longer term strategy to build resilience is to develop new neural networks for trust and connection, and weaken the established grooves in the mind that drive fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Healing our nervous system is not instant, like an on off switch. It’s more like a continuum of feeling more or less threatened, and more or less stable and grounded in safety.
Try the guided practice below, or pause and reflect as you read through the inquiry.
Over the past few weeks, months or years, how much time do you spend in a relaxed state of connection compared to in fight/flight/freeze? What is the ongoing level of intensity of your nervous system reactivity? Is hypervigilance more of a background worry, or are you often absorbed in catastrophic thinking?
Some people are in challenging situations personally, and we are all affected in various ways by the global pandemic, climate change, financial pressure, and social injustice. We are highly affected by our assessment of threat in our life.
Notice the negativity bias in the brain is likely leaning towards focusing on stressors. What are the positives or the sources of strength and enjoyment, like getting together with friends, curling up with a good book, walking in nature, or cuddling with your pet?
Do you have engaging and satisfying work? It might be your paid job, or maybe it’s creative work – you paint or play music in a band. Volunteer work can enhance our sense of contributing to a better world and meaning in life. Even if we don’t find our paid work all that thrilling, what are the moments of connection? For many years I was wait staff in restaurants and bars. The work itself was difficult, but there was often a feeling of connection with customers and other staff. We had fun together.
As you reflect on what brings you meaning and satisfaction, focus on something or someone specific. Bring it to mind in detail using your senses. What are the sights, sounds, smells, textures? What do you feel in your body as you remember? Does your heart soften? Stop your mind if it goes off into criticism or minimizing. Return to a particular moment or person and your sense of enjoyment and meaning.
Another component of happiness are activities we enjoy. It could be simple, like breathing in the fresh air after it rains, the aliveness in your body when you’re on a hike, or the warmth when someone reaches out when you’re feeling down. Focus on each for 20 or 30 seconds, then move onto another memory of happiness.
Stay in touch with your breath. Continue to feel it in your body. As your shoulders relax and your belly softens, maybe you enjoy a few deeper breaths. Your heart feels lighter. You smile.
Now bring to mind times when you faced a physical, emotional or socially challenging situation. Maybe you took a deep breath and set a boundary with family or a friend. In longer term difficult circumstances, find a moment. You found the strength to be kind and attentive to someone who needed you, even though you were tired and cranky. Don’t let your mind go into being critical of the times you didn’t. Focus on the times you did and feel it.
A potent example of strength and resilience is when we are able to stay regulated enough to be kind and on our own side. Even when we make a mistake and need to apologize or make reparations, instead of a vicious inner critic shaming, let yourself come quickly back to kindness and compassion for yourself.
Think of a specific situation or vividly imagine one. What does being on your own side feel like in your body? Relax your shoulders. Take a few deep breaths.
Modern neuroscience is proving the power of using our mind to build strength and resilience and to heal from our past.