Taming the Wild Beast
May 29, 2020 04:20PM
By Alison Shaw
Have you ever tried talking yourself down from a stressed state, or tried talking sense to your fluttering stomach, clenched muscles or lumpy throat by saying to yourself, “Get a grip,” “Calm down already” or “There’s nothing to be so freaked out about!”?
That inner dialogue between the reasoning brain and primal brain usually turns into an argument that only amps up our stress. During these precarious times, stresses exist on many levels, from health to finances to a loved one’s well-being. Just living with the uncertainty of what is next keeps our nervous system in a state of alarm.
This is the fight or flight (or freeze) response, aka “the stress response”: an unconscious series of physiological changes that mobilize the body and mind to seek safety. Muscles tighten, heart rate rises, breath becomes shallow and every organ is altered. We feel emotions like anxiety or fear, perhaps irritability, and our thinking brain goes into hyper-warp speed trying to figure out what’s happening and what to do.
This response is triggered when something scary happens in a moment, but can also stay on slow burn in the background, impacting our health and mood over time. The most powerful stress management practices create changes not just in our conscious awareness mood, but in our bodies and deep primal nervous systems.
Some important facts about our brilliant (and not so brilliant) primal brain are:
1. It’s not very discerning. It can’t tell the difference between a clear and present danger, a possible challenge that might be out there in the future (but might not), or a memory arising from the past.
2. It’s not reasonable and doesn’t understand language. It can’t even hear these demands to
3. It’s concerned with only one thing: Am I safe or am I in danger (physically and/or emotionally). And, it has only one response if it perceives danger: the fight or flight response.
4. It easily understands and responds to physical sensation.
Our primal nervous system does a great job mobilizing us to face immediate physical threats like being chased by an angry dog. Unfortunately, it doesn’t recognize when the threat is a thought, belief, memory or future speculation. It reacts the same way and fails to register that we may be just fine and safe right here right now in this moment. Our fears of the future are not the same as angry dogs.
A BETTER WAY TO CALM DOWN
When we realize that our primal brain is just doing its job without perspective, we can help it discern the present moment where, on at least the physical level, we are actually okay. We can help our nervous system perceive safety and settle by doing the following: Notice your immediate environment with your physical senses. Find the simple evidence that in this moment you are safe. Look around the room, notice the walls surrounding you, the roof above your head, the floor supporting your body. Stay with it for a few minutes. Can your body feel that the ground is still and gravity holds you? Can you feel how these perceptions of safety shift how your body feels? What does it feel like to be in a body that is not being physically threatened right now; more solid, still, open, or relaxed perhaps? You may notice a deep breath happen. Deepening your breath consciously can help, too.
It’s so basic that our thinking brain may say, “I know, I know!” The goal is to get our non-thinking body to feel it and stop listening to thoughts and emotions. Our primal brain will understand the sensations of safety. Once it perceives that, it will settle and calm the body, emotions, mood and outlook.
By becoming aware of how our body and mind respond to different stressors, we can help our nervous system through them and build a pathway back to the state of calm, center and presence. It takes some practice, but keep at it, one present moment at a time.
Alison Shaw, RNP, HNB-BC, LMT, CBHS, is a certified holistic nurse, licensed bodyworker, certified energy medicine practitioner and integrative therapist currently in private practice at Bodymind Repatterning, in Lexington. She provides in-person and online integrative therapy. For more information, call 781-646-0686 or visit Bodymind Repatterning.com