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Finding Ways to Reflect and Recharge During Difficult Times

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Using our Nervous System as a Regulation Tool

If someone had told me two years ago that my nervous system could be used as a tool for others and myself, I would seriously question it. Nervous system? Control? In my mind, I didn’t have influence over my nervous system. I never thought twice about how my own nervous system worked or how powerful or harmful it could be. In the process of making a huge life change from living abroad for seven years, to making a shift in career and living location, I learned first hand how my nervous system was fighting against me and then how I can use it to help ground me in the present moment, even when the solid ground under me was no longer there.

Responding to things beyond our control 
Anytime we experience change, it disrupts our worlds. I chose to make some big life changes in 2018, but COVID-19 has forced change upon everyone, and the hardest part is that no one chose it and there is no foreseeable end date. This leaves us all with a few choices. How do I choose to respond to the things that I can’t control? How do I choose to show up for others? How do I ground myself in the present moment so I can be present for others?  

So What Is An Autonomic Nervous System? 
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the fight and flight response that takes over in a threat and the energized state when we feel safe. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the freeze function in a threat but also known for the healing rest and digest component of the nervous system.

Not too hot, not too cold
Humans work at optimal levels when we don’t spend too much time in the Sympathetic Nervous System or the freeze part of the Parasympathetic. I like to compare this optimal level to the well-known Goldilocks and the Three Bears story. It’s not too hot, not too cold but just right. The question I kept asking myself is how do I get into my “just right” state for optimal well-being when I don’t have control over many of my circumstances, as with most cases of change.

Our fast pace society keeps us revved up and activated with lots of stress running through our bodies -- but healing and repair occur in the parasympathetic state of the nervous system. Paul Gilbert, PhD, a renowned clinical psychologist and developer of compassion-focused therapy, has a great diagram that shows what happens when we spend the majority of our days in the Drive System and not enough in the Soothing System with his Three Circles of Emotion Diagram.

According to Dr. Gilbert’s circle of emotions diagram, many of us spend the majority of our time in threat and drive, which can lead to imbalanced emotions and distress. It’s important to ensure the soothing system is developed.  

Digging deeper into the workings of the nervous system
To understand our nervous system a little deeper, it’s beneficial to gain understanding and insight from renowned behavioral neuroscientist, Stephen Porges, who created the Polyvagal Theory. Polyvagal Theory breaks down the Parasympathetic Nervous System into three branches. This model provides school leaders, educators and parents with the practical tools for putting this to work in our lives. This theory can be explored in greater detail in his book, Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation or in shorter detail in The Pocket Guide of Polyvagal Theory. 

However, for a simplified overview, the chart below breaks down the different states of Polyvagal Theory.  

Developing strategies to stay in the soothing rest and digest state
So what does this all mean? How can this information help me deal with the stressors of COVID-19 or help me as a parent/teacher to help others? The power of our nervous system lies in the Parasympathetic Nervous System. If we can find ways and build strategies to stay in the soothing rest and digest state ourselves, both during the day and while we sleep, then we provide our bodies with what it needs to heal and repair. These state also give us energy and space to show up for others and ourselves. After we find ways to do this, we more readily activate the Social Engagement System of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and can help calm others. 

The big question I asked myself once I learned this information is how? In my own personal journey, my personal and professional life had been turned upside down through all of the changes. How could I rest and digest when I had so many unmet needs that impacted my ability to feel safe and secure? Inspired after reflecting on a book that I once read on a long hike in China, entitled The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion, by Elle Luna, I asked myself, what were my musts? Not the “should be doing” but the “musts.” I created a nervous system menu of activities that helped me get into the self-soothing rest and digest state, even if I wasn’t sitting under an umbrella relaxing on a beach or hiking up a mountain in some far off destination. The more I practiced building in more “musts” in my life, the faster I could get into that state of rest and digest and the longer I was able to remain in that state. I turned into a “professional practicer” until I could truly embody the shifts in my own nervous system. You can too!

Powerful Strategies to Help You Use Your Nervous System as a Regulation Tool

1. Create a Nervous System Menu - To navigate uncertainty, identify what works best for you and create a nervous system menu to help give you more moments of rest and digest throughout your day. Sometimes it will only take one or two things to bring your nervous system back into a regulated state but other days it will take a handful. Be patient with your emotions during these times. We are all processing through so many things so creating a toolbox of strategies is one of most helpful self-care options.

My favorite go-tos are:

  • Doing breath exercises
  • Cloud gazing 
  • Gratitude journaling
  • Cooking something new
  • Bird Watching-especially watching for hummingbirds
  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Being part of nature
  • Natural light
  • Planting flowers and digging in the dirt 
  • Yoga headstands

2. Build Mindfulness Moments into Your Day - Once you’ve identified ways to regulate your nervous system, you’ll want to remind yourself about incorporating them into daily living. There are several ways of doing this but here are two simple methods that have worked for me:

  • Digital Option- Mindjogger App- Set the timer to have it go off at certain times throughout the day or go off randomly.
  • Old School Option- Sticky Notes- Write sticky notes with your reminders and place them around the house in places you will definitely see. One tip is to place them above the door so every time you enter you see it. For example: If one of the items on your nervous system menu is deep breathing, then you can place them at every doorway and every time you enter you are reminded to take a deep breath.

Now it’s your turn. What is on your nervous system menu?  What other strategies have you found to help?

 Anna Marie Keil

Anna Marie Keil Mindfulness Coach https://www.eqembodimenteducator.com/​​

Anna is a certified EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Facilitator whose work focuses on the intersection of emotional intelligence, interpersonal relationships, neuroscience of change and wellbeing by using a holistic, mind-body-oriented approach. Anna holds a masters degree in psychology with over twelve years of experience in facilitating change. A former kindergarten teacher, middle school principal, and change leader, with a demonstrated history of working in the education field in North America, South America, Asia and Europe. Anna is currently consulting with Shu Ren International School in Berkeley, California as a Mindfulness Coach for teachers & students. Anna’s mission is to combine insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support well-being.

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