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My chest cavity filled with the internal tautness of anxiety, a pressure so deep inside that I was not sure where it separated from the sensations of my anatomy.
In the throes of panic, anxious and desperate to talk it out in order to be heard and feel a connection, my sensations threatened to suffocate me.
My thoughts started racing, repeating themselves. Questions without answers:
Why did he do that?
What did he mean by that?
What should I do?
I would work out dozens of explanations, digging into the perceived psychology of every minutia, desperately looking for clues that could release and relieve the pressure in my body.
Yet, no matter how much I assessed and analyzed, I never felt even the slightest bit better. As the story took up more time, so too did my panic.
“And then he did…”
I had no idea how to be witnessed in my experience by another person—even though it was what I craved most deeply.
My childhood was filled with love, and I had all the advantages of middle-class childhood, yet I was often stressed out.
I had parents who loved me, cared for me, and tried their best, but they also lacked the skills to interpret my body signals or guide me through my emotional experiences.
I had no empathetic abiding presence or witnesses to my pain. And I had nobody to talk to about the anxiety things caused me. Had I shared it, I would have been dismissed for being “silly,” or videotaped so that we could later watch my “performance.”
So I learned that the best strategy for managing my emotions was to think it over, use my rational brain, and keep my mouth shut. By age six or seven, I was already a pro at my chosen coping mechanism: rumination.
I was emotionally on my own as a child. So as an adult, when emotional overwhelm would overtake me, I turned to journaling, time in nature, breathing, and meditation, and I found them not only agitating but also activating, or drawing me into anger, overwhelm, or avoidance.
We all know we are supposed to meditate or write in a journal to “feel better,” but what do we do when they make us feel worse?
We need to harness the power of our nervous system.
Children with developmental trauma are difficult children.
Stressed out children “talk back” or “sass” our parents. We have outbursts of anger or are perfectionists who want to get everything just right. We might lie awake at night wracked with anxiety.
When we grow up living in a near-permanent state of hyperarousal, we are in “dorsal” nervous system mode, a state of activation or agitation, where our animal instincts take the reins. We experience the push of flight, the pull of fawn, the shutdown of freeze, or the reactivity of fight.
When we are in this state, we will often find ourselves flustered, disconnected, dissociated, agitated, and activated, and most of our behaviors are dictated by childhood coping strategies.
This is a state that most of us consider so normal that it may not occur to us that we are not calm. As adult fighters, we overwork, are perpetually overbusy, and self-identify as Type A or perfectionists. We go to yoga and work on difficult postures that challenge us.
The “flighters” or “fawners” or “freezers” will pattern by shutting down, sucking up, or avoiding.
If we had healthy, secure attachments as children, we have easier access to the “ventral mode” of our nervous system. In this state, we are calm and can integrate our rational thoughts into our choices. As adults, we are culturally encouraged to access this state by way of time in nature, yoga, journaling, and so on.
Yet, there may be no bridge between these two systems if we have developmental trauma. The vast majority of us get limited benefits from these activities until we harness the third nervous system—the social nervous system—to invite safety.
Stimulating our vagus nerve and inviting other beings to witness us in our experiences helps us heal, stay regulated, and achieve calm and stability as we repattern our wounded nervous system.
Human facial expressions are associated with, or reflect, changes in our heart rate, digestive system, emotional state of being, and nervous system.
When we feel connection, we feel safety. And we are instinctively aware of this.
We already have an unspoken force deep within us, and we almost universally associate the physical feelings of emotional connection as one of emotional contentment.
We are already experientially familiar with the calming impacts of a kind expression or a soothing word, and we generally feel compelled to share our problems and victories with important people in our lives.
We instinctively know that relationships impact us deeply, and most of us seek out friends, family, support groups, colleagues, partners, or children in times of crisis. Without needing to be told, we know that we need other people to attune to, mirror, and act as empathetic abiding witnesses to our process.
We can now use this information with purpose.
If the beloved tools of the “self-care” and “self-love” armies on Instagram make us feel worse, we need to find a regulated person, look them in the eye, and use their nervous system to teach our nervous system.
We may have to change what we are currently doing. This is telling stories, solving problems, or devising solutions.
We need to engage in purposeful practice of activating our social nervous system.
Once we have chosen an empathetic abiding presence, we sit with them, make eye contact, and:
>> tune into our body sensations
>> name what is happening in our bodies (for example, “My throat is closing”)
>> name the feeling that goes along with the sensation (for example, “I am scared”)
>> hold space for the sensations and feelings without dismissing, dissociating, or overriding them
Attuning with others in this way can shift our disorganized nervous system toward calm. And we can use this practice to move us to safety, using our mirror neurons as a doorway to recovering from our developmental trauma and achieving a regulated state.
The experience of another person holding our experience in compassion, without judgment, helps us experience the blueprint of calm in our nervous system, a foundation that we can build on—once we can learn to attune to another, we can enter self-attunement.
At this point, the commonly prescribed tools of journaling, meditation, breathing, yoga, or walking in nature become an effective access point for self-connection.
No matter that we have been told that “we must love ourselves before we can love another,” that we “must be whole and happy on our own,” social connection comes first rather than second.
We can break the cycles of rumination and find that it will no longer matter to us “why he did that” or “what he’s thinking.”
But first, we need to sit the f*ck down, feel our physical and emotional discomfort and pain, and make eye contact with a regulated person.