Anger, hopelessness, despair, panic, rage and other "dark" emotions can hijack our nervous systems whenever we are overwhelmed. Those who have struggled with betrayal trauma know this territory all too well.
Overwhelm can come due to a new discovery about our mates' secretive sexual behaviors, it can overtake us when we witness a natural disaster such as an earthquake, widfire or hurricane or it can be due to a political system in distress or transition, as what just happened here in the United States as well as recently in Britain.
I think it's worth taking note of, that no matter which half of the country (USA) one currently feels aligned with, that still leaves roughly half the population that is angry, feels resentful, disappointed, etc. In other words, there is a lot of activation in the environment, regardless of whether your side "won" or not, or whether you participated in voting or not.
The difficult fact is, we now live in a super-charged climate that has the ability to dysregulate our emotional systems whenever we have to interact with the outside world.
So how do we do that without insisting on isolating ourselves inside our own tribe of like-minded others?
The same question applies to us, post-Discovery and in our relational lives.
How do we go out and interact with our young children, relatives, work colleagues, neighbors and others in our community who are not privy to the deception we discovered in our marriages/ primary relationships, thus burdening us with feeling separate from others?
Do we crawl under the covers and hide? Maybe for a time we do...but eventually we have to expand into living closely with others whose reality we don't necessarily share right now.
Regardless of whether our high activation levels arise from Discovery, issues of politics or any other events that potentially divide and separate us from others, what matters most is regaining our ability to regulate our own nervous systems. Here's why:
Very much like the safety announcement on a flight reminding us to put on our own air masks first before helping others, we must prioritize re-regulating our own nervous systems first in order to effectively mobilize any next actions, or even to do any productive thinking.
Our nervous systems are like exquisitely sensitive computers that will crash or freeze if we dump more commands into them than they can handle.
Once tended to, however, those same systems can handle many more demands with flow and ease. For those of us who work with our clients' trauma directly, we use the term "resilience" to describe this systemic flow.
Internally, this resilience or flow means our immune systems function better, our sleep systems work well, our cardiovascular, digestive, inflammatory, neurological, etc. systems all function at higher levels.
Externally, tending to our nervous systems allows us to connect better, communicate from a more centered place and allows us a greater capacity for enjoying life.
So how do we accomplish this re-regulation of our nervous systems if they become over-activated?
First, wherever we can, we deliberately choose to limit how much time and exposure to triggering material we will allow to enter our visual, auditory and other sensory systems.
Not only can an overload of activation cause our systems to become retraumatized from whatever the original "event" is that we're overwhelmed by, but this newer trauma may have also hooked older trauma of a similar resonance.
Plainly put, if we are overwhelmed by feeling powerless currently, for example, that same frequency experienced in the here-and-now from a recent overwhelming event can hook into an earlier trauma in our life, perhaps as a child or teenager when we felt utterly powerless to change a threatening situation.
There is a good chance we never had the opportunity to work that through when we were young.
The result today would be an overcoupling of these traumas, past with present, which together, can create problems for us: emotional brittleness, easy startle response, feeling shaky and "hollow", being too spacey to function, sleep disturbances, panic attacks, etc.
However, this overcoupling of traumas is not untreatable and benefits from being processed through with a trauma specialist in order to avoid a "frozen" or "stuck" response in our nervous system.
But there are also at-home remedies for working with our trauma. These techniques/ tools can be complimentary to any therapy you may be receiving, or if professional help is outside your reach right now, you can work with these tools yourself.
These are gentle techniques that generally will not tip you into unmanageable states of anxiety; they actually work to release anxiety as well as condition the overwhelmed nervous system to gently make room to handle input with more ease.
There are also other do-it-yourself techniques you may wish to explore in a recent blog post I wrote:
Proficiency at these self-regulation skills will transcend the original incident(s) that caused you to seek them out in the first place; a resilient nervous system will benefit you in every area of your life going forward. Knowing that can incentivize you to set some time aside for these essential self-care skills that can help de-escalate overwhelm, trauma and post-traumatic triggers.
Tip #1 : Start attuning to your internal, physical self, even if only for one minute every few hours. Stop everything you're doing and just notice your internal experience of yourself as a body. This drops us out of our thinking, busy minds into our bodies which is where regulation needs to occur. We cannot think our way out of distressed states if our bodies are feeling terror.
Allow time to slow down as you scan your system, simply allowing "what is" to arise in your felt senses. See if you can make room for whatever you notice, pushing nothing away.
As you get quiet and deliberately allow everything to slow down a bit, see if you can find a place in your body that feels relatively calm. I teach my anxious or depressed clients not to overlook areas they might not normally be cognizant of, like earlobes or pinky fingers, toes or elbows and so on.
Usually there is at least one area that feels noticeably quiet or calm.
Once you find one, invite your awareness to land there, just allowing the experience for a minute or two so the calm can infuse the rest of your body and your entire system can start soothing itself. Remember that the body needs time to broaden and then anchor these feeling-states.
If you simply cannot find a single spot internally that feels "ok enough", that's ok. Try this next one:
Tip #2: Call to mind someone you would consider a competent protector: this can be a grandparent, a best friend, an older sibling, a religious figure, a guardian angel, or even a dog we might have had who protected us. Or it might not be a person or being, but rather it might be however we picture the embodiment of Love or well-being. Perhaps we imagine it as a radiating heart or a glowing sun, for example. Whatever image works best for you will be effective here.
All yourself to imagine that being or state that represents a competent protector near you.
When I practice this exercise, my competent protector usually shows up either standing behind me with their hand on my shoulder, or sitting opposite me taking my hands in theirs while looking at me with utmost love and acceptance.
Next, allow yourself to just be with, and resonate to this being or embodiment of positive force.
Feel any points of contact they have with you, including from their heart to yours.
Maintain this receptivity to their love and blessings for as long as you can, without forcing anything.
You may notice that afterwards, your entire system has down-regulated towards a sense of peace.
Importantly, nervous systems resonate with other nervous systems, also called co-regulation. When we surround ourselves with others who have calming energy, we pick up on their calmness and our systems start to settle, which is a perfect segue to:
Tip #3: You might call to mind sitting in prayer at church, synagogue, mosque, or wherever you worship. Or you may recall a meditation or yoga class. One colleague I know goes to the redwoods and finds a place to sit at the base of an ancient tree in the forest. No matter the spiritual environment you consider your special place, think about how the leader there not only taught but demonstrated a calm, centered or serene state.
Even if your mind feels scattered, your body remembers being there and noticing the leader's serenity. Draw upon that lived experience of yours by intentionally reconstituting the scene in your mind.
Allow yourself to be transported back to where you were when you felt that mantle of peace settle over you. Then, give yourself the gift of a little time to simply re-experience the well-being you felt then. Use as many of your senses as you can.
Practicing these gentle, easy and relatively quick self-care tools over time to combat traumatic effects, the cells of our body start to "update" to the better-feeling states we reconstitute in these practice sessions, instead of being perpetually stuck in a feedback loop of difficult feeling-states.
Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change itself, is a remarkable scientific discovery that we can rely on to help us navigate our way out of trauma's effects on us.
With a little time and practice with the tools I've mentioned, we can reinforce and reinvigorate our own innate blueprints for resilience and well-being that have been uniquely ours since birth.
We invite you to start building your personal toolkit so you can regain confidence in your own resourcefulness and ability to heal yourself.
What tools, skills or tips have helped YOU to self-regulate your difficult emotional states? What do you rely on most when you feel derailed by strong emotions?
Please share your experiences with us and our readers in the COMMENTS section below!
Note that you must enter a name and email below in order to submit a comment. The name you enter will show up along with your comment (your email will not), so if you'd like to comment anonymously, please enter a name such as "guest" or use your initials.