Desperate Times Just when we thought it was safe enough to live again, all of our hope, optimism, and relief were rudely yanked away. Just like that, we are back to living in the reality that there is little we can know with certainty regarding what will happen next in this time of pandemic-monium. In the last eighteen months, I have done many things to calm my inner YIKES. There have been podcasts, neurobiological training, and endless meetings with friends, family, and clients via the inner webs. I have cooked new recipes, explored new interests, and bought a rowing machine. I settled with relief into the less connected, less social way of being. I relished with delight the time I spent with my partner. I mourned the absence of my kids, their wives, and my family. I angsted over what to do, and what not to do. I rigidly protected myself by saying NO!, loudly and vehemently, to anything that might put me or those I love at risk. I felt depressed and anxious. I experienced more extreme insomnia and I took to my bed for afternoon naps that left me feeling lethargic. Research scientist and founder of Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges says: “The body will reorganize when it feels safe.”
Notice and Name The hours I spend “noticing and naming”* what was happening in my nervous system set the framework for me to manage the extreme lack of safety I experience as a result of the imminent threat to everything I know. At-risk is health and wellbeing, healthcare systems, structures of relationships, as well as, operational practices that move the world along. On the one hand, these stalwart societal behemoths need to be challenged and on the other hand, I long for a gentler path to reorganizing the way things work. When we are able to regulate smoothly between the in-breath and the out-breath, we have the possibility of experiencing a safe and secure connection with Self and others. The polyvagal theory maps the path to connection and regulation.
The Story I Tell Myself… Long before I deepen a story I have about someone, I have a biological experience of the people, places, and things around me. Without awareness, my nervous system detects and catalogs cues as safe or dangerous. This is what Porges has dubbed neuroception. As soon as there is a neurocepted cue, my nervous system produces a chemical response. Safety cues bring a wash of serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine into my body. My heart and lungs responded by adjusting to meet this flush of happy hormones. I begin to have an emotional response to the chemical cocktail. There are behaviors that generally occur when I have happy, safe, at ease feelings. Based on those behaviors, like laughing, smiling, and touching, I form thoughts and beliefs that make up a story that I tell myself about whatever is happening at the moment.
Fight or Flight Has its Own Story And there it is, the story. That powerful narrative becomes my experience regardless of how factual, or not, it is. The story is the last piece of the puzzle. In the same situation, if my nervous system detects cues that it perceives as a danger, my body produces cortisol and adrenaline in response to the situation. Within 15 minutes of exposure to stress, there is a significant rise in cortisol in the body that will remain at an elevated level for hours afterward. Cortisol serves a variety of functions: it reduces inflammation, regulates blood sugar, and preps the body for a fight-or-flight response. It also serves to manage mood, motivation, and fear. Too much cortisol can derail normal body functions and lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, digestive issues, heart disease, and weight gain.
Connection is a Biological Imperative Being connected to others is a significant indication of resilience. And if we need nothing else, right now, we need to be resilient. Managing the biological response we have to an excess of danger cues is a start to building resilience and a reliable sense of safety. When I am asked “what are you feeling in your body,” my mind immediately goes blank. But when I am asked to notice what is happening to my breathing, my temperature, and my heart rate, I realize that I know what to say. Next, I notice how I am moving, what I am doing, what is appealing to me. When I am stressed, my breathing gets more shallow, my heart rate speeds up. Because I have very low blood pressure, it does not take much for my rising heart rate to lead to a sense of agitation. This agitation is generally expressed as anxiety. When I am anxious, I talk faster, I multi-task, and I crave chocolate. I find myself starting lots of things and never finishing them. I have a hard time staying focused.
In Amelia and Emily Nagoski’s book, Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle, there are 7 suggestions for completing the emotional stress cycle. Stress left unexpressed gets trapped in the body and contributes to the pattern of ills that follow when we fail to discharge cortisol or adrenaline after the danger has passed. Calming my inner YIKES is crucial to my well-being. Complete the Cycle
physical activity: anything that can raise your heart rate for 5 minutes
breathing: choose your favorite 4/4/8, resistance breathing, belly breathing, yogic breaths
positive social interaction: spend time with someone in a way that will undoubtedly be positive
laughter: look for reasons to have a belly laugh
affection/tender touch: a silent heart-to-heart hug for 60 seconds, or at least until your body relaxes can work wonders, no talking
have a “big old cry”: sometimes it clears the way for the next thing
creative expression: sing, dance, move, open yourself up to possibility and spontaneity
In addition to these, we now know that anything that we can do to stimulate your vagal nerves will begin to regulate your nervous system. Regulating your nervous system means that you can experience connection, social engagement, and co-regulation with others. Loneliness or feeling alone in the midst of hard times is exceedingly damaging. Finding ways to self-regulate so that you can reconnect with people sets us on the path to resilience and safety that we need to thrive.
Blowing Bubbles Helps To Calm My Yikes When I notice signs that I may be moving away from connection, when I am receiving cues of danger, I immediately address my breathing. I am a natural breath holder. I have to remind myself to breathe in AND out. I bought myself a harmonica and a Bubble Bear from Pustefix. Having a reason to blow out air helps me stabilize and reconnect with myself. Holding a glass of ice water can be enough, but in these damndemic times, I have taken cold showers and used cold washcloths on the back of my neck to calm my inner screech. Lowering my body temperature is regulating. What appeals to your nervous system? Is breathing helpful? Is movement soothing?
Safe And Sound Protocol In addition to these common household solutions, I went a step further with my study of Dr. Porges’ work and trained on the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP), an auditory tool designed to reorganize a dysregulated nervous system. Porges explains the impact of the pandemic on people: “the crisis elicits threat-related responses, disrupts our capacity to regulate our behavioral and emotional states, interferes with our optimism, and compromises our ability to trust and feel safe with another.” Using this non-invasive polyvagal regulating tool, we are able to feel better, think more clearly, and engage more easily. Learn more here. Contact Hayley Hoffman, LPC, CIRT, Workshop presenter, SSP provider
The Safe and Sound Protocol is designed as a non-invasive polyvagal stimulator. Research shows that use of the tool while working with a certified pract6ioner can help to regulate your nervous system, and improve focus and concentration while making social engagement easier and more accessible.
What you hear, and how you hear it, influences how the body responds.
Listening is connected with the vagus nerve, the body’s internal control center for processing and responding to cues and signals from the world around us. The SSP uses specially-filtered music to train the neural network associated with listening to focus on the frequency range of the human voice.
We look, speak and listen with the same system. When the voice changes, the body responds. As we learn to focus on the sound frequencies of human speech through the SSP program, the vagus nerve becomes stimulated and the state of feeling more safe and calm becomes accessible.
The proof is in the playlists. Specially treated music playlists are part of the SSP program and all help ‘prime’ the nervous system by exposing it to different sound frequencies. Listening to these playlists through over-the-ear headphones helps the nervous system to more readily achieve balance, or “homeostasis.” Learn more about SSP Here
*Deborah Dana, LCSW, clinician, and consultant in Polyvagal Therapy, uses the phrase “notice and name’ to help clients become aware and tuned into their nervous system so that they can befriend it and begin the deep work of embodied healing. Mapping the nervous system is a practice that creates paths to move from a protective survival state to a safely socially engaged state.