Does your mood ever change suddenly for reasons that you can’t explain? Do you sometimes suddenly feel anxious or suddenly feel exhausted? I can say yes to both of these questions and most likely you can, too. I just spent four inspiring days at Kripalu in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. I attended a training for psychotherapists in Polyvagal Theory. Not only were the grounds incredibly beautiful (I took the picture above at Kripalu), but the training was enlightening. I have worked with anxiety, depression, and trauma for many years and I have never before learned about the way in which our nervous system rules our emotional world. In a nutshell, Polyvagal Theory helps us understand our nervous system as a three-part system that has evolved over millions of years. One part is responsible for system shutdown (freeze), one part is responsible for system defense (fight or flight), and the last part is responsible for helping us navigate our relationships (connection). The interesting part to me is that when our nervous system picks up on something that activates our older parts that signal shutdown or defense, our energy is taken away from being able to stay connected to ourselves or the people around us. Given that a big focus of my work is in helping people improve their relationships, that’s pretty critical information. The kicker is that when we have trauma in our pasts, our nervous systems can be perpetually tuned to shutdown (depression/passivity) or defense (anxiety/attack). None of us can live in our connected, “ventral vagal” state unless we feel safe.
What can help us to send signals of safety to our nervous systems when we realize that we are in a fight/flight/freeze response and there’s no imminent reason to fight, flee, or freeze? That’s a very individual question since all of our nervous systems are different. I loved spending time during the class thinking about the moments that I feel most connected and calm in my life. I felt like I was on a treasure hunt for ways to calm my nervous system. I thought of many beautiful activities, many of them involving the outdoors. Interestingly, after sitting in a classroom for 3 days, my nervous system was feeling a bit edgy. I skipped out on dinner one night because the thought of sitting in a cafeteria full of people felt triggering. Since we had been learning to pay attention to the nuances of our nervous system for several days, I decided to listen to mine. I put on hiking shoes, grabbed some water, and headed out into the woods. Within a few minutes, I noticed that I was whistling. I have always noticed that I have a hard time whistling or singing when I’m in a bad mood, but I have never known why. Now I understand that whistling and singing are a sign that my nervous system is calm and that I’m feeling safe. I was able to take my newly-calmed nervous system on a beautiful hike full of flowers, trees, streams, and birds. I loved every step. Nature is definitely a healing medicine for my nervous system. I know that there was nothing inherently unsafe in the Kripalu cafeteria, but listening to my body allowed me to have a perfect evening for me on that day. I slept better than my prior nights there and woke up feeling renewed.
I’m excited to keep paying attention to the things that help me rise out of shutdown and defense as I enjoy my life so much more when I’m connected rather than disconnected. It’s always interesting to try to figure out what sends us tripping down the neural pathway from connection to disconnection, but as I learned in class last week, we are only guessing. What we know is that we are disconnected – the story of how we got there is not as important as what tools we have to help us climb out of despair and back to the summit of inspiration. Not only do we feel the difference emotionally, but our physical bodies know the difference. Our hearts and our bellies know the difference as the vagal nerve runs through both and deeply affects our physical health. When our nervous systems are calm and connected, our organs can have all of the energy they need to do their jobs rather than having their energy stolen so that we can shut down in a crowded cafeteria and eat food that we probably won’t digest well anyway. I suggest that you spend some time paying attention to the activities, thoughts, and sensory experiences that leave you feeling connected. Remember to use them when you need them….your body, mind and spirit will thank you.
May we all find a multitude of ways to return to connection and calm. And may we remember to practice those sacred ways.