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Caring For Your Nervous System

Some time ago, on the way to visit a friend, a traffic officer pulled me over, came to the car window and after asking for documentation, said: “You were driving above the speed limit, are you in a rush to get somewhere? “ “No, I am not, officer. I was unaware of my speed”, I responded. “You need to be more mindful when you are driving”, the officer said. Hearing this felt a bit uncomfortable to the ego, especially since one of my jobs is to facilitate mindfulness courses. A few days later an infringement notice arrived in the mail which included a fine and listed demerit points. This was enough to get me reflecting on what actually happened and what had led to the incident. I remembered seeing a traffic light changing to yellow and putting the foot on the accelerator rather than slowing down. Why was I speeding up when I wasn’t in a rush? What was the underlying pattern operating? The answer is when getting stressed my inclination is to speed up. On the day the traffic cop stopped me I was upset about bad news I’d received just before getting into the car to visit my friend. I had totally missed being aware of internal warning signs of stress. The fight and flight reaction triggered by bad news was manifesting in getting speedy. Reflecting on the incident turned out to be a wake-up call to be more attuned and bring greater attention to situations when there is an urge to speed up.

When becoming triggered the following four practical self-management skills are particularly effective to help with rebalancing the nervous system and remaining embodied during stressful situations. No matter if the disconnect from the present moment is by speeding up, overthinking, judging, or if it is presenting in mindless distractions, the following skills are particularly effective:

~ Pausing into mindfulness when noticing tendencies to leave them here and now space. Then asking yourself: what do I get from disconnecting? Notice which attitude you bring to your practice, is it kind, supportive, open or is there aversion and closing down?

~ Breathing fully and feeling the body, connecting with the belly and grounding into the present moment. Being aware of the contact points the body is making, ie feet on the floor, hands on the thighs etc. Giving more time to the out-breath then to the in-breath has a noticeably calming effect on the nervous system.

~ Moving a little more slowly and consciously to help with feeling the body, staying connected and remaining present from moment to moment. To remain present we need to be able to anchor into the body. Mindfulness tai chi is particularly helpful in developing embodied awareness. Solo practice and partner work give us opportunities to explore embodiment in a safe and supportive environment. This allows us to bring mindfulness more readily into day to day life situations, especially when interacting with other people.

~ Opening to whatever is happening in the moment, noticing what it feels like in the body. Bringing curiosity to experience and asking yourself questions such as:  Am I operating on automatic-pilot mode or resting in embodied presence? What does it feel like to be embodied vs being caught up in the head? How am I relating to what is arising? What would most support me right now?

 

It helps to have a clear intention, to check in frequently, to slow down sufficiently during stress trigger times and to remain present to whatever is happening in both mind and body.

The tendency to speed up when triggered by stress is still there for me, yet I am able to catch it sooner when the nervous system gets activated. A total disconnect happens less frequently. I remain embodied for longer periods of time and rather than reacting to stress it is becoming easier to pause into mindfulness, attune to what is emerging and bring kindness and compassion to what I am experiencing. This allows me to respond more skillfully to whatever situations are presenting themselves.

Exploring our triggers mindfully helps with getting more comfortable with what is creating discomfort. It’s a rewarding process which allows us to become better resourced and to move into deepening embodied presence.

If you wish to check in with your own experience, ask yourself the following questions:

What are your ways of disconnecting from the present moment when triggered by a stressful event? Rushing, overthinking, judging, or distracting yourself from the moment? How are you relating to your experience? Is there acceptance and kindness? What do you most need in moments of stress?

Your body is a unique natural ecosystem. Listen to its wordless communications. Tune in to create and maintain a sense of balance.

The crucial environment to care for is first and foremost your own inner one.