The nervous system is the missing link for so many of us when it comes to our mental and physical health. Understanding how our emotions impact our bodily wellness, how our minds and bodies communicate and are one, and this lens of the nervous system is such a powerful tool for grounding and centering ourselves in our bodies. Then we can attend to our minds and actually do thought work that works, thought work that sticks and isn’t just us telling new stories, but rather, believing new narratives in our bodies and spirits.
Our nervous systems are wired to protect us, first and foremost from imminent danger, which is why we have the negativity bias that is built into us as humans.
We are built for social connection and to assume that thing moving in the corner actually will very much murderate us any minute, even when it turns out to be a fluff ball. This is the work of your fantastic amygdala, the fear center, and that lizard brain, your most ancient brain, that holds this belief that you need constant vigilance.
Pair that with a history of walking on eggshells all the time, which is so typical of us externalizers, codependent, perfectionist, people pleasing thinkers, because remember —when you are looking outside yourself for your self worth, you are constantly on guard for someone to say or show you that you’re not worthy of love, care and the air you breathe, right? You’re subtly, or… not so subtly, expecting drama, chaos, disappointment or more suffering around every corner.
So when we grow up in chaos or in the rigidity of perfectionism and the story that we must be the good girl to be lovable or however the drive to live in codependent, perfectionist, people pleasing ways was taught to you through your socialization, conditioning and inner child brilliance, those stories can keep you externally focused.
Showing up to be who you think others want and need you to be instead of showing up as your actual, authentic self.
From that place of not thinking the real you is good enough or worthy of love, you lose touch with your own capacity to support yourself in deep ways.
And because we have spent so long believing that we need other nouns—people, places and things—to soothe us, we spend a lifetime projecting our stress and discomfort outside of ourselves, which leaves us not believing that we can soothe ourselves.
This is where nervous system resourcing comes in.
To remind us just how powerful we are, and that we can show up in a deeply embodied way to honor ourselves, our inner children, our protector parts and our nervous system and can find that internal locus of safety and wellness and can then reach out for coregulation.
Let’s pause to define some terms right quick:
Our nervous systems have three main states: sympathetic (fight, flight, activation), dorsal vagal (freeze) and ventral vagal (safe and secure).
There are combination states in between like high activation freeze, when you’re checked out but revved up, which used to look like a buffering cleaning tornado for me.
Regulation is built into us as humans and it’s also a skill set we can learn. Life shunts us out of ventral vagal for our survival, and that’s a good and important thing. Our bodies, our thyroid, digestion, cognition, mood, adrenals, reproductive systems all work best, we are most able to show up as our anchored selves, from ventral vagal.
Regulation is the skill of bringing ourselves home to ourselves, of calming ourselves back to ventral vagal from sympathetic, bringing in some gentle activation energy to shift out of numbness towards ventral vagal.
This is regulating, like you do with the gas and the brakes on your car, more break, less gas for sympathetic, more gas less break for dorsal.
Coregulation is when we regulate our nervous system with another person, place or thing, which has a calming effect on everyone involved.
We need to anchor our healing work with resourcing because it’s about you learning how to show up for you, to validate and hold you, which most of us outsourced to others for so long.
It’s vital that we experience ourselves as being able to ground and center ourselves so that we can then learn how to coregulate from the energy of wanting to connect with others, versus that clawing grasping need for someone to calm us because we don’t know how to do it for ourselves.
I am never about an individualistic framework to healing, but rather, community is everything, central, vital. It is from a white, settler-colonialist framework that we’ve been taught that healing is an individual, siloed experience, and I am all about coming back to the collective. AND.
As externalizers we don’t know how to do that yet until we know how to come back to ourselves.
We need to individualize because we haven’t done that, so we start there and then flow outward.
Nerd alert! Studies show that approximately 80-90% of the way our brains detect safety or threat is vagus nerve mediated via afferent motor neurons which monitor the state of our internal organs and use the vagus to relay messages to the brain that then create the downstream experience of fight/flight/freeze/calm.
Our bodies may then remain in that high-alert amped up state or that collapsed state based on the somatic or bodily tension patterns our bodies have historically known. So if you always clenched your jaw or held your shoulders up to your ears as a kid when a parent was scolding you, you likely do that now when a partner or boss or friend says those dreaded words: we have to talk.
Your body then reacts like it always has, even though you’re an adult and you’re likely Completely Safe in this actual moment, and that tense posture in your soma, your body, maintains the feeling that there is something threatening that you need to be on alert to.
When we have lived with stress, distress and/or trauma in our lives, our bodies respond to things in the present moment as though we were still in the past.
We anxiously attach or avoidantly don’t attach to new dates like they’re our dad, we accept crumbs of love and care now because that’s what we grew up used to, or we get activated in our nervous system or actually triggered by something now that reminds our mind/body of something in the past. This activation happens at the level of mind and body at the same time, and will stay the way it’s always been until you learn the tools— thought work paired with somatics—so you can regulate yourself in that moment.
Resourcing is a gorgeous tool for regulating or bringing yourself back into alignment with your glimmers, the opposite of triggers. They are the things that bring us back to ventral vagal.
When we connect with our nervous system resources, we are inviting our mind/body to attune to those glimmers, to sensations, however small, of safety, of okayness, of goodness and alrightness and I’ll survive this-ness.
This is the work of showing our nervous systems that we can experience stress and can come back to calm, like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. Stress, resource and anchor in self, stress,resource and anchor in self.
Effectively, you’re doing the work of showing yourself that you can actually have your own back, in real time, and it’s so powerful!
It shows us, mind and body, that we don’t actually stay stuck in the extremes of experience. Which I know is something I feared during my deep dark depressions, that if I let myself cry it out, I would get stuck in the pit of despair, would die cold and alone on the mountaintop.
Resourcing helps us to see that we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for when it comes to regulating our nervous systems. We really can bring ourselves right on home, which then helps us to start living in our whole bodies, and not just from the neck up.
Thereby it’s safe to feel all our feelings because we know we have the tools to ground ourselves.
We come to believe that we do actually have a resilient nervous system that can move back and forth between action and calm, alertness and rest—a process us nervous system nerds call pendulation.
I am a huge fan of kitten-paw sized steps here, a process known as titration, meaning start low, go slow. It means not to jump in the deep end with a very traumatic or stressful thought to see if you can resource your way out of it. I’d recommend you practice resourcing with small things first, minor inconveniences, and then take it from there. If you’re living with trauma in your history, consider working with a trauma therapist to help you with this skill.
First, we start with pausing.
I know it sounds too simple to be helpful, and I’d be remiss not to quote Viktor Frankl here who said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When you pause before reacting, you remember that you do have a prefrontal cortex, that executive center in your mind, from which you can make the next right decision for your life. You can attune to your breath, and can take a moment to bring your awareness to sensations in your body that come up with whatever stimulus or circumstance is happening in the present moment and what it’s bringing up for and with you.
When you do that, you allow the magic (and the science) in your body to proceed, and the sensations in your body will often move towards completion of the protective responses that you weren’t able to carry out in the past. This is called completing the stress response cycle, which is a process your body knows how to do when you give it the space to. Notice how your body already does this.
When you were a kid and things were stressful, could you escape your home? Run fast and away? Hit or scream or criticize back? Mostly that’s a no because we were small, so all that energy stayed inside us, and wants to come out now.
So we notice—awareness. Pause. Attune to your breath. If you can move and want to move, let yourself. Take a moment to go to the loo and shake your hands and arms and legs and let that energy out before resuming your conversation. Remember that you, my love, are a mammal, and let yourself be one!
Next up, my favorite resource is to get support within ourselves from outside of ourselves.
It can be so helpful when we feel revved up or shut down to connect with a person, place, thing, being, entity in the world, like a person we love, a pet, a plant, mother nature/pachamama herself. But that’s not always possible in real life, and the skill here is be able to connect energetically, in our minds and bodies with that someone, someplace, something that calms, grounds and centers us on our own.
To really learn how to do that for ourselves, so we can get to a place in our nervous system where we can ask someone else to coregulate with us.
This is particularly important to learn when we are working on shifting from anxious and avoidant attachment towards more secure attachment. When our attachment systems get activated we lose touch with ourselves, we lose our grounding in reality and we need to learn how to anchor ourselves in ourselves so we can connect with the people in our lives in a centered way.
Let’s go through some examples:
I often resource by talking to my plants, or to a tree out my window, to the stars, the moon, the sun, the rain. All of creation can be a resource, and connecting with nature this way reminds us that we are nature, we are creation, we are interdependent with the trees and the plants and the wind and we depend on one another’s respiration for survival and that is a beautiful thing.
Let’s use an attachment example.
Let’s say you’re newly dating someone and you’re aware of your historical habit of anxious attachment. You find yourself starting to get activated, wanting more contact than your date is giving you, missing them an hour after your date ends, starting to feel like you need them. That’s a great time to pause and to go inward before you get ramped up into sympathetic or drop down into that dorsal “no one wants me” place.
That’s when you can connect with the energy of someone you feel purely positive about, to invite them in to support you in that moment. Maybe it’s a tia, an abuela, a teacher who really believed in you, your coach or therapist. You can picture that person soothing you, reminding you to get present with your body, to orient to time and place, to be here now. You can practice receiving their support and love and care to remind yourself that it’s okay to ask for help.
You can feel their love permeate you, reminding you that you have your own back, no matter what happens with this date.
Same goes for avoidant attachment. When you feel that drive to push away, you can bring yourself back to a place of deep love and can soothe your mind/body and spirit by giving your nervous systems something to hold on to, to ground with.
The work of building resources for our nervous system is to connect with whatever energy, a person, place or thing, that brings us into vental vagal, a glimmer we can communicate with, talk to, be present with.
It may sound silly to talk to your long dead grandma or a poet you’ve never met or to get support from a plant and to that I’ll say: fine. Let it be silly. Just do it.
Let the world show up for you, let you show up for you, get and be present for yourself in whatever way you can so that your nervous system knows it is safe to trust you.
That you are the most loving and reliable parent you could ever have.
From there you can start to widen your idea of what you can handle. You can experience yourself as being able to come home to you, and that is one of the most beautiful gifts possible in this life. To know that you can anchor yourself in you.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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