We all have a nervous system. Throughout the day our nervous systems get stressed and anxious and feel down and depleted. Our job is to keep our nervous system’s ups and downs within a zone that we can tolerate. If we don’t we’re gonna freak out or hit a depressive/shut down state. Self awareness is key here. Observation by scanning out bodies for signs that we are getting too tense or getting close to withdrawing from our loved ones into isolation-mode is step one.
How do we know if we are getting close to our limit of what we can handle?
Our bodies give us cues such as tension in our jaws, shoulders, chest, and stomach. We might feel emotions like agitation, fear, or overwhelm. Sometimes just pausing to tune into our bodies is enough to regulate us back into a state that feels manageable. The goal of mental health isn’t to be calm, happy and relaxed all the time. It’s to be regulated enough that we are able to cope in ways that are in line with our values, mature, and are actually good for us. Being unaware puts us into a risky place where our old ways of dealing with life from childhood might happen. Perhaps we snap at someone we love, or we pretend we are fine but we need a hug. Maybe we turn to a substance, TV, food, or porn to cope with the stress. These coping mechanisms might work temporarily to get someone to back off, to keep people from seeing us as weak, or to numb us out. We can thank these old coping mechanisms for getting us through childhood, and unburden them. You did what you had to to survive. These old ways of dealing are now allowed to be unburdened because they are no longer needed.
You have new tools today, or you can develop them. Tools that are more adaptive (meaning they actually work and are what a healthy adult would to do deal) include: taking a few belly breaths (deep inhale, exhale slowly), calling a friend to share about how we feel, taking a walk and looking at nature as we go, setting boundaries, or joining a support group. If you are unsure what the best tool would be to deal with your symptoms then you could get more information. Google, “how to deal with…” and watch some YouTube videos on the topic, order a book, or read some articles.
Progress, not perfection. Forward motion no matter how slow is still forward motion. A few times each day, check in with yourself, tune into your environment and notice what you can see, hear and touch. Intentionally relax your muscles, stretch if it feels good. Spending time doing regulating actions before you hit your limit of what you can tolerate will help to widen your zone. As will setting boundaries, increasing self care and making sure you get adequate rest.
Being introspective can also help. Taking time a few times a week to journal and notice patterns. What in your week heightens your anxiety? When are you at your lowest? Do you feel lonely? Sluggish? Numb? If there’s an old coping mechanism you’re trying to replace with some new ways of responding to triggers, what activates it the most?
Trauma therapy can be helpful in that it both releases the stuck trauma stress in the body, and it allows our defenses to see that they are no longer serving the role they were created to do. In EMDR, using future templating, we imagine handling difficult situations in ways that are adaptive while using bilateral stimulation to create new neuropathways. As we imagine ourselves handling life in these new ways, it promotes confidence and brings a sense of ease. It feels more exciting and less scary. More hopeful and in control.
You are not alone. If you are struggling with triggers, coping mechanisms that no longer serve you or have no idea what to do to deal with life therapy may be a helpful solution to guide you through the process. When there are things you haven’t tried yet to improve your life, there is hope in that. A bit of anxiety is normal and actually welcome because it means the brain is alerting us to a change. Change is always threatening to the brain because it doesn’t know what to expect. Reach out and feel free to ask any questions your brain needs to know before starting your therapy journey.