When people around you are in an uproar, there has been a flood or school shooting and you are feeling heartsick with grief, when people close to you are anxious, try to not add to the chaos. Steady yourself. Come back into your body, breathe, and let yourself become still.
“The greatest gift you can give the world is a peaceful mind.” ~ my meditation teacher Swami Veda Bharati
He would sometimes say that whoever has the strongest mind field “wins” so to speak. That is why when we meditated with him, our minds would be more still and we could go deeper into meditation. The calm in his mind would help to settle ours.
Years later I interviewed Dr Gabor Maté and learned another way of understanding this – we are co-regulating in our nervous systems. Babies and children do not have the brain development to regulate their own nervous system. They need a stable adult to co-regulate with. When children don’t have this, their brain and nervous system is not as healthy and resilient. This is referred to as developmental trauma.
As adults, we have developed more capacity to regulate our own emotions and we have tools like breathing and grounding. Even with that, we are still highly affected by the people around us. An example is being with someone who is broadcasting a strong signal of anxiety and fear. Our mind and nervous system unconsciously respond to that energy and we may find our shoulders tense up or we’re holding our breath. Humans evolved to pick up cues of safety and danger from others. This is how our system works.
Let’s come back to this idea that the “strongest mind wins”. In this case we’re not talking about dominating someone. We are talking about being so grounded and calm that the other person automatically relaxes as they co-regulate with us. They pick up that our nervous system feels safe. This works in both directions.
When we pick up signals of danger from someone, our nervous system considers that their evidence might be true. The negativity bias of the brain feeds into this. A hypervigilant person was a valuable asset when threats were largely physical and they warned the group of danger. The problem now is that many people who are hypervigilant have unhealed trauma and are reacting to danger long past. This raises the group level of anxiety and fear. Our nervous system doesn’t know the difference between vividly imagined danger and a real and present moment threat. We become alarmed and off kilter.
We’ve all experienced both sides of this. We come home and our bad day fades a bit as we hug our partner, children or dog. We come back into a state of trust and connection. Or we have a fight with our partner and turn to an unhealthy habit, which doesn’t really comfort us. We have other options.
When you are with someone who is anxious, focus on coming back into nervous system regulation. Let your belly soften and your breath become smooth and continuous. You might do some other regulating practices like speaking in longer sentences, holding your own hand, noticing cues of safety in the room, and reminding yourself that you’re not trapped like you may have been as a child.
Have you ever been in an argument when someone was ranting at you? This triggers a fight/flight/freeze response. If you have discovered through experience that they are more willing to escalate and you won’t win that way, you may give up on fighting although you may eventually leave a relationship when you are no longer willing to put up with their dysregulated nervous system.
In a freeze or flight response, we become less responsive, waiting until it’s over. This pattern may help in the moment but it makes authentic, close relationships impossible.
When you feel your stress level rising, check if you are in fight/ flight/ freeze and use tools to self-regulate if you are. To recover and feel secure and calm, we need to come back to a state of trust and connection. This may incidentally also help the person you are with.
Coming back to being grounded in our own body is opposite to fight/flight/freeze. It may not intuitively come to us as an option and is not easy to do because it is not how our group nervous systems evolved. Regular practice helps develop strength and resilience. Long practice with keeping our cool (self-regulating) gives us options that we didn’t have before.
Offer yourself kindness and compassion, especially when you are struggling. This is the fastest way to heal the disconnection and distress of being in a survival response of fight/ flight /freeze. Cultivate patience with yourself. It is hard being an adult with so much fear and uncertainty. We live in difficult times. Don’t shame yourself for having a responsive nervous system.
The strongest mind wins. I experienced this first hand with my meditation teacher. I could feel the love and stillness emanating from him. I saw how people softened and settled when they were with him. “The greatest gift you can give the world is a peaceful mind.” We can all build the capacity for this in our hearts and, most especially, in our nervous system.