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Showing Up For Your Nervous System In Tragedy

how to show up for your nervous system in times of tragedyI’m not here to talk about a specific tragedy, but rather to talk about how we think about process, and sit with this level of grief, this level of tragedy. It starts with this: The purpose of thought-work is not to make us feel better.

The purpose of thought-work is not to ignore what’s happening, what’s real. It’s not to gloss over our suffering or pain on the personal or collective levels. It’s not to say, “Oh, I can just think differently about these atrocities so I can feel better about them,” because, well, that’s gaslighting ourselves.

If you’re a coach, and you’re doing it, it’s gaslighting your clients. It’s also not realistic. That’s not how brains and bodies work. 

I don’t believe it serves us in any way to pretend that there isn’t massive, human, acute human suffering happening right now.

What I want to say so clearly is that thought-work is not about attempting to pretend that everything’s good, everything’s fine. The whole #positivevibesonly thing is so profoundly detrimental to our experience of being human, of being alive.

The goal of thought-work is not to pretend that horrible things aren’t happening, that there isn’t suffering, but rather, it’s to recognize that life is in fact rife with pain. Life is full of loss, disappointment.

When we attempt to use thought-work to gloss over or ignore the shitty parts of life, we deny our very humanity, and rob ourselves of the opportunity to truly grieve, which is vital. And, in my world, is a prerequisite to even being able to begin to shift our thoughts to create new feelings.

Instead, I propose that we use thought-work paired with somatic practices and an understanding of our nervous system to do the work, to expand, what the literature calls the window of tolerance, in our nervous system. I prefer to call it the window of bodily capacity.

Meaning, our ability to stay present with our feelings. Yes, even the most challenging ones. As a way to expand our ability to be with what is real. To thereby, fear feeling our own feelings a little less every day. Because, what we fear, we give power to.

Instead of processing our feelings through our bodies, we avoid them, we buffer against them, we pretend they aren’t there.

And, attempt to only focus on the “positive things” in which… A: doesn’t work because, science and B: renders life so lifeless.

It’s only when you can hold loving, compassionate space for the painful feelings, that you can open your big, beautiful heart, to feel all the joy of life. It’s only by staying present to it all that we can live truly intentional, aware lives full up with the realness of it all.

I know it hurts and I know it’s challenging. But I, for one, would rather live a life with some suffering, and some joy, and a whole lot of realness, instead of a life I’m not conscious to, or present for.

What’s key in feeling your feelings, while staying grounded, and not totally friggin’ losing it and spiraling in that place, is one of the skills I want to teach you today. That skill is called “pendulation,” a term from the nervous system literature.

So, I’ll invite you to think of a pendulum swinging. Can you picture it? From side to side, side to side… In order to expand the window of capacity in our nervous system, without triggering or activating our bodies into full-on sympathetic fight-or-flight or full-on dorsal shutdown is the following.

One, we begin by resourcing ourselves

Resourcing means connecting in with something actually real like a crystal, a plant, a pet, a loved one, or the thought of something. Connecting in with something that’s grounding, calming, centering, even joyful.

Step two, moving slowly and gently toward something painful and challenging. 

While grounding yourself in a resource, in order to stay present with the challenging. It’s about giving your nervous system an anchor, so that you can swim out into the choppy waters of life knowing you’re tethered to the shore.

So, this could look like sitting in your favorite comfy chair and starting with a resource. Getting present to the feeling of the soft stable wood and wool beneath you, feeling it holding you up, cradling you, and not just thinking about it. But really letting yourself feel that physical experience of being held. Letting it expand into your body, letting yourself feel grounded in it, safe in this one moment with you, with that chair.

I laid down in my backyard, and let myself feel what it is to be held and loved by the earth. And, when I felt deeply connected there, when I could feel every cell in my body connected, I let myself think about all those families. All those madres, tias, abuelas, those bebitos and I let myself cry it out.

When my chest ached, and my eyes stung, I returned to the earth. Grounded myself, resourced my nervous system and went back to my crying. 

Like a pendulum I went to my resource and my pain. 

Like a pendulum swinging in my heart; love and pain, pain and love.

And in this way, we create the internal safety that allows us to begin to become present to our feelings in a profound way. 

Thereby, to process them through our bodies in a way that not only gets them out, instead of trapping them within as tension patterns or chronic pain responses in our nervous system, but also expands our capacity to feel those feelings with greater ease when next we’re called upon to let sadness, loss, grief, anger, move through us.

Through this process, we become less afraid of feeling our feelings, because our body will remind us, “I have felt this pendulum swing before, and you have always honored me with a return to a resource.”

The thing about expanding the window of capacity to be with ourselves and our feelings, in our nervous system, is that it creates ever greater ease in our lives, overall. 

It allows us to feel the heartbreak without going into nervous system overwhelm or shutdown.

The more we stay present to the small moments of pain, anger, frustration, and allow ourselves to process them, the less internal resistance we experience around feeling our feelings, and we’re able to give voice to the emotions inside us and can thereby decide what we want to do with them. Instead of allowing them to make our choices for us, from an unconscious, unintentional habitual place.

So, my love, this is your invitation to truly allow your emotions, to have your feelings, to honor them, to let yourself mind, body and spirit feel. 

And, if it doesn’t feel safe to go there alone, don’t. Call on a trusted person or team of people: therapist, coach, best friend, pets, Pachamama, the trees, to support you. 

Remember, that trying to use thought-work or whatever other modality, to ignore it or pretend it’s not real, doesn’t serve you. It might feel like it does, because it gives you a temporary reprieve. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t serve you or the collective, or those grieving these terrible losses. My darling.

I want to make two vital points here. 

One, please, don’t just pendulate. 

Take breaks, for real breaks. And I mean, real, real breaks from feeling your feelings. We talked about this in Buffering Versus Conscious Distraction, where the latter is honoring that one little human nervous system can only take so much input.

So, when you feel yourself on the edge of nervous system overwhelm, where you’re spinning and spiraling, and aren’t actually feeling your feelings but are just spinning around them in stress and overwhelm. Or, if you’ve just hit your limit with talking about everything, reading the news, following all the hashtags, please, my darling, please give yourself your inner children your nervous system the gift of conscious distraction.

From our perfectionism, we believe that it’s incumbent upon us to feel all the feels, all at once. 

It’s like we have to grieve perfectly about the tragedy. But no one wins when you overdo it my love. So, please listen to your body, and actively, consciously choose thoughtful distraction, before you supersede your internal limits.

For those of you who may be questioning yourself wondering, “Why am I not more upset?” I will say this, not being as upset as your best friend isn’t necessarily a problem. Maybe the intensity of the loss hasn’t sunk in yet, and that’s okay. Maybe you’re not ready to accept that all this has happened.

Sometimes it takes time for immense tragedy to really sink in, for our minds, body’s nervous systems to allow us to truly feel, to tap into the grief and the sacred anger. 

Maybe your nervous system just isn’t in a place to allow you to feel the feels around this quite yet.

When the circumstances in life feel this enormous, our prefrontal cortex, the executive function part of the brain, often takes a backseat while our amygdala, the fear center in the limbic system, and our nervous system drive the bus.

My love, our nervous systems have their own tendencies. 

Mine is dorsal, which is the freeze response. Foot off the gas, shut down checkout. And so, if that’s where your nervous system most easily goes, then maybe that’s where you’re at right now. 

You may not be fully feeling the grief, the sorrow, the tragedy because your nervous system is saying, “Hold up now. All of that? That is wildly unsafe. I’m in charge of this mammal, and I will not let them go to there. Not on my watch.” 

So, it blocks you from having, feeling, fully being in the grief and the sorrow because it loves you.

Meanwhile, if sympathetic fight-or-flight, getting angry, furious, rageful… If that is your home away from home, then that’s where your nervous system goes. While anger is certainly called for here, this moment calls not just for rage, but for grieving too. 

So, with compassion, curiosity, and care, I’ll say this: If your focus is solely on the rage, perhaps it may be possible that your nervous system is keeping you from feeling all your feels, too. 

And that, as well, is a place to be gentle and loving with yourself, my darling.

I encourage you, in whatever way is safest for your body and your nervous system, to allow yourself some moments of feeling the sad and the anger. Allowing it to move through your body.

From there, looking to build ever greater self-awareness so you can feel your feelings through your body, more frequently, as they come up. 

So, in these moments you can know whether what you’re feeling is truly about this tragedy, or if this is a leftover feeling that you haven’t processed from another moment in your life. 

Another moment where you haven’t allowed, or felt you have the skills to feel your feelings through your body.

A really important thing to be able to say, “Is this about this tragedy? Or, is this unprocessed feeling about my dad, or about when my abuelo died, when I was fourteen? Or, about that breakup when I was twenty-six?” 

That’s a beautiful thing to know about you.

Somatic or body-based practices are truly key in our daily lives, in our regular lived experience and are especially useful tools of profound self-love in moments like this. To allow us a portal inward, a way to be in conversation with our bodies, to be in dialogue, to be able to know where our bodies are reacting and responding to tragedy.

When we’re so used to just moving along, and getting through life, and ignoring our bodies, not just around tragedy, but around the everyday grief of life, it gets held within us. 

It’s only when we can be in conversation with our bodies that we can recognize, and give ourselves what we truly need on that somatic level.

Things like co-regulation with pets, plants and other humans. Things like rest, community connection, care, empathy. We can give ourselves the space to fully grieve, instead of continuing to push through, while wondering why we have a headache, a bellyache, why our chronic pain is flaring. 

We do this work, somatic work, so we can be present to what we truly want and need for our own best wellness and that of those we love.

I’d like to return to the subject of anger. 

The patriarchy has taught humans, socialized as women, that our anger is a problem. 

That our anger is not polite. It’s not ladylike, it’s not nice. That being a good girl is more important than feeling our anger and voicing our anger.

These patriarchal teachings, alongside our co-dependent and people-pleasing survival habits, have us swallowing any feelings that may make us unlovable. So, we hush it down. We don’t voice it. We stuff it down until we explode. And then, we feel guilty. We retreat into our silence, once more.

It’s time for all of us to tap into our sacred anger, and to demand change now, because there is power in the anger that demands change. It is vital that we learn to express that anger. To give it voice, with the goal of holding those in power responsible. To speak truth to power. To speak up against oppression.

So, it is vital that we get in touch with our anger and channel towards good. 

One of the reasons that I’ve dedicated my life to teaching folks how to build a regular practice of feeling their feelings, instead of buffering against them, is so that those feelings don’t stay welled up inside you until a massive tragedy happens. 

Instead, you can show up for yourself, your nervous system, your inner children, your communities with love and care, as your feelings arise.

Instead of being bowled over, overwhelmed to the point where you can’t process your emotions, then a mass tragedy happens, which keeps you in that spiral. It keeps you from taking aligned and embodied action towards change, to make a difference, to be of service.

And therein, it’s vital that we’re mindful of what psychologists, Fishbein and Ajzen, called the “intention-action gap,” which is when one’s values, intentions, attitudes don’t match their actions. While this theory has, of course, been critiqued, because that’s how it goes in science, I do see this at play in us with our perfectionist thought habits.

Because in these moments of tragedy, we get stressed out, we get overwhelmed, we don’t know how to process our feelings through our bodies. We tell the story that we really should help, and we should do it in some exactly right way. 

That desire to take perfect action, then keeps us from taking any action. 

So, we mean to do something, we have the intention to, and at the end of the day, we don’t.

As always, this isn’t about blame, shame or guilt. Because it’s often things like our socialization, conditioning, and the survival skills trained into our nervous system that get in our way and block us from doing things we intend to do. To be part of the change we want to see in the world.

So, my beauty, if that narrative, “I have to do it right,” if that’s spinning in your brain, I want to invite you to put it down and gently step away from it. 

And, to decide to take aligned action, and to do what you can most easily do, first:

  • Sign the petition online. 
  • Donate funds, if you have the means. 
  • Give blood, if you can. 
  • Write letters to and call your representatives and call their offices. 

Please do it again and again. And, perhaps you start with taking the action of grieving, because grieving is a very important action in the face of tragedy.

But my darling, I’ll implore you not to stop there. 

  • Join a committee.
  • Volunteer to impact the next elections. 
  • Talk to your relatives about why voting matters. 
  • Join a Get Out the Vote campaign. 

And above all, recognize that the best intention in the world is of little use, if we don’t take action to make change. When we don’t take action when we say we will, we hurt our relationship with ourself.

It’s time to close the intention-action gap, which starts with coming into right relationship with our feelings. 

Allowing them and processing them through our bodies, not buffering against them. Honoring our need for conscious distraction, for pendulation, and then honoring ourselves and our communities, honoring humanity by taking aligned action. However we can, towards the best and highest good for all.

As we learn how to manage our minds, our lives, how to soothe and care for our hearts, our bodies, our nervous system, our inner children in the face of yet another massive tragedy, I want to say this clearly:

My darling, there is not a thing on earth wrong with you, if you can’t focus right now, if you’re exhausted, overwhelmed, confused, scared, worried, if you can’t get the tasks you want to get done, done, if you can’t be productive.

My sweetness, you are a human, living in a time of tragedy and excruciating collective grief, alongside whatever’s happening in your own life. I implore you to give yourself the grace, to give yourself kindness, compassion, and care to attend to you, now. To let yourself rest, now. 

Your brilliance is needed, your anger is needed. So, be gentle with you now, my darling.

Thank you for reading, my love. My heart aches and breaks right alongside yours. 

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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