Last week, I talked about coping and soothing; however, I feel like more information on soothing is necessary. What is soothing? Soothing, is the act of regulating your emotions from a distressed or unbalanced state to one of regulation and balance. Typically, as infants we are soothed by our appropriate caregivers because we are not capable of self-soothing early on in our lives. We learn this skill, or at least we hope to, by our parents/caregivers. We are defenceless. We seek attention through crying, wailing and kicking our wee legs and arms about. If that crying is met with love and affection, our needs being met and our nervous system given the opportunity to regulate in the presence of our caregivers balanced state. When we don’t get that opportunity, trauma and the issue with unregulated emotions or unbalanced nervous systems results.
That leaves us in a position of learning how to do self-care by watching those around us. How do they handle stressors? What do they do to create balance and health in their lives? Do they choose healthy practices or are they numbing out and/or distraction themselves? Depending on what we learn from those around us, the primary individuals in our lives, we either adapt to learn how to soothe and create healthy coping habits or we are further fractured. Between lacking the appropriate soothing as infants and children and not receiving the proper instruction on how to create healthy coping habits and perform proper self care, we are even further left behind in our resilience. So, what do we do?
Start with reflection: what do you do when you are overwhelmed, stressed, sad or angry? When your emotions are elevated and life is turned upside down, how do you make yourself feel better? How do you regulate your nervous system? Do you binge eat? Do you lose your appetite altogether? Do you exercise more, work more, go, go, go, in an attempt to outrun the source of your problems? Do you shut down, pull back from everybody, and find it difficult to summon the energy to care? Reflecting on how you respond to emotional challenges and life stressors is the first step in understanding what you do and whether they are healthy choices.
That doesn’t mean that you can never “numb out” or “distract“ yourself and it doesn’t mean that you can’t push yourself a little harder at times. What your insight can reveal is whether the habits you have chosen are healthy or not, self serving or harming, beneficial in the long term or something you need to address and minimize use of. Such as, distracting yourself binging on Netflix. While in a “sometimes” category, it is not unhealthy; however, when that is what you are always doing, it is. Finding balance is what you are after, not perfection. We cannot expect to be perfect but, we can strive for excellence.
What activities can we incorporate to self-soothe, that create a cohesive environment with our minds, bodies and spirits? Activities such as: grounding, breathing (breath work), mindfulness, affirmations, visualization, movement and touch. By paying attention to the subtle changes in our nervous system - increased/decreased heart rate, increased/decreased respiration, increased/decreased temperature, shallow breathing, tremors, pressure, pain, and more, we learn when our nervous system is disregulated. We begin to determine what our emotions really are based on those sensations. We can understand how the sensations we are experiencing, confirm the emotions we are feeling and sometimes, we learn we were not recognizing the correct emotion and/or we see the connections we have to our past experiences.
When the thoughts are running rampant, the best thing you can do is take control and silence/change those thoughts. Silencing can be accomplished by meditation and mindfulness. Changing those thoughts can be achieved through affirmations, visualization and good old, imagination. For example, if you were ruminating on a past experience that was very traumatic and it was driving your sensations to fear and anxiety, stopping or altering the thoughts and focusing on the present will pull you out of the anxious state. If you are not careful, it will continue to elevate and be harder to de-escalate while potentially turning into a panic attack. We want to stay in our rest and digest state as often as possible.
While being elevated into Fight/Flight or depressed into Freeze/Disassociate states, your entire system is not functioning correctly. You have decreased immunity, lower pain tolerance, risk of disease, injury and illness. Chronically being stressed has been proven to lead to autoimmune diseases due to your immune system not functioning properly, plus the host of other issues that arise when your nervous system is out of balance. These other issues include: not eating properly, shutting down and not exercising or getting movement, and utilizing poor coping habits that harm, rather than serve you, such as, escaping through drugs/alcohol/food/TV. When we restore balance to our state, we reduce our risk of disease and accompanying relationship issues that result from poor/negative/unhelpful/toxic coping patterns.
One way to get into connection with your body sensations, emotions and thoughts is through the NEST Meditation. When assigning a number to your emotions: 5 is the middle number that represents neutral. The closer you go towards 1, the more happy, healthy, and blissful you are. The closer you go towards 10, the more towards anger, anxious, and worse. 1 is ecstatic (positive/good) and 10 is critical (negative/bad). See Slides Below:
When it’s our bodies who are experiencing sensations, based on what we have detected from our environments that aligns with previous experiences, and it’s not our thoughts that are out of control, we need to ground and/or do breathing exercises to get into balance. Other activities include yoga, dance and other forms of movement. Our physiology has changed due to our detection of a threat and we have either entered Flight/Fight state of hyperarousal or the Freeze/Disassociate state of hypoarousal. Flight/Fight is like putting the gas pedal to the floor, whereas, Freeze/Disassociate is like applying the brakes. Your body is the car and it works best if we slowly accelerate and apply the brakes when needed. Just like a car, too much time with the gas pedal to the floor results in you running of gas, breaking down. Similarly, trying to move through life while you have a foot on the brakes is only going to result in a burnout.
It’s important to note that it takes time and consistent effort to change. We will consistently resort to our previous patterns of coping. We’ve spent years honing and perfecting them, utilizing specific ones in certain situations. It will take us time to unlearn those behaviours. Reflect on the previous blog post to see some of the unhelpful thought patterns we acquire and combine that with your insight into how you manage when you are stressed. Do you typically get hyperaroused and occupy yourself with busy work as a distraction or do you shut down and numb out, avoiding dealing? Knowing is half the battle.