I was teaching a self-regulation workshop this past weekend to a group of health and wellness practitioners.
I was a bit nervous and definitely not feeling regulated in my body. My heart was racing, my breathing was tight, I was sweating up a storm (the stinky kind) and I noticed a lot of tension in my jaw, shoulders and hands. I felt anxious, irritable and uneasy. My gaze seemed to be pulled toward every bright shiny spot in the room, making my ability to focus on anything almost impossible. My body was reacting to the situation like I was waiting for a tiger to attack. Full on survival response. Which of course didn't make any sense as I was standing in a space that I’d been in many times before. If you haven’t been to the Healing Collective before I can promise you that it's lovely, peaceful and calm - and totally free of roaming wild cats. :).
I find this very ironic. The very systems and tendencies that evolved specifically to help us humans survive are now part of what causes us to feel overwhelmed, anxious, worried, irritable, reactive or shut down.
And chances are that our survival responses are getting triggered not by actual life-threatening events like running from a tiger. Instead, our survival responses are likely being triggered by everyday situations such as running late for a meeting, being stuck in traffic, a looming deadline, having an argument, feeling ashamed or anxious or overwhelmed, or like me, giving a presentation.
Whenever your nervous system detects danger (whether real or imagined) and the automatic survival responses kick in, no amount of insight or understanding alone will be able to turn the survival response off. As long as your nervous system is in survival mode, that response is driving your perceptions, your psychology, your behaviour and your physiology. When you find yourself in an automatic defensive response, you are primed to survive and not primed to be happy, relationally connected, or at ease.
So time to practice what I preach. I immediately went to three self-regulation practices that always help me when my body has gone into survival mode:
1) Orienting with my surroundings
2) Rolling the sole of my foot
After just a few minutes I noticed a shift in my physiological state - more relaxed, slower heart rate and my breath returned to something that was easy and natural. Still nervous, yes. That anxious energy was active and remained present in my body but it was more contained and channelling down to the ground through my feet (instead of swirling up and out of me chaotically). I could feel the edges of my body in full dimension. My mind was less cluttered and more organized. Rational thought had returned, yay!
Engaging with these simple nervous system regulation practices helps me feel better in my body and improve my mental clarity and attention because I had brought my “flipped lid” (prefrontal cortex) back on-line (check out Dr. Dan Seigel’s Hand Model of the Brain). This allowed me to take in the faces of the people who had started to fill the space and tune into their conversations without being distracted by the world outside. My social engagement system was also activated. This is that desirable state of regulation that is optimal for rest and restoration and promotes a calming and soothing effect on the body. When it is activated, the survival system is deactivated.
This is what fascinates me about our nervous system. It is the connection between your brain and body and can give you good information about how you most often show up in life - whether that’s regulated or dysregulated. It is an essential skill for you to be able to listen or tune into your body-system in this way. You can receive information from your body about how you are feeling and then act on that information in your best interests. This is good self-care in action. Noticing that you are dysregulated and being able to choose to return to feeling settled is a necessary life skill for us all, but especially if you have lived your life riding the roller coaster of dysregulation (hello!).
Many of us grow up and have no idea how to regulate ourselves. In fact, it was my own dysregulated nervous system that brought me to doing this work. After all, self-regulation is built on co-regulation which we first learn in utero and from our earliest caregivers. You can think of co-regulation like one regulated nervous system supporting to help calm and regulate another nervous system that might be stuck in a survival response. It can take many forms and typically involves warmth, a soothing tone of voice, communication that acknowledges the other person’s distress, supportive silence, and an invitation to reflective problem-solving.
As with a mother tending to her child, the defining characteristic of effective co-regulation is that it is calming and designed to help manage overwhelming emotional arousal. Rather then "fight or flight or freeze" think “tend and befriend”. So a goal of mine as a practitioner/friend/family member (human really) is to be a regulating anchor whenever possible.
And there are many reasons why we might not have learned to self-regulate, but the great news is our nervous system is constantly learning based on our experiences. So if we can engage with practices and methods for shifting nervous system states now, as adults, during the good, bad and ugly times, we can enhance our ability to savour life.
Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering, the presentation was a hit. Phew!