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Nervous system regulation and nervous system healing is about learning new inputs, doing subtle techniques and identifying a new language system, to override our habitual responses. This is done through actually listening to the body, following the body’s cues and practicing a more sophisticated awareness.
Oh and practicing radical self acceptance!
Think of your body as a smart phone or computer with its own operating system. That operating system has default settings that run in the background. If you do not update the operating system or input preferences, the default is what will run.
Your autonomic nervous system is your default operating system. It comes with pre-installed operating systems based on people, places and things. There are preloaded software systems that were imputed before you could speak or understand language. Preverbal.
There are programs that got installed in school, from friends, from family, from work…all running in the background. Until you can recognize those pre-loaded, default programs, and update them to your preferences, they continue to run on autopilot. Thus-autonomic nervous system.
Best news is, it is totally within your capability to install new programs, recognize when the old programs are running, reboot, upgrade and continually improve your experience, through nervous system regulation and nervous system healing.
What I have witnessed with many of my clients is that they have denied their body for so long, stopped listening to it and following the body’s cues that it takes a minute, to actually re-attune to what their body has to say.
So a quick simple tip I can share right now would be to go to the bathroom when you need to, sleep when you are tired or drink water when you are thirsty. These basic needs, when answered, can help you attune to the body’s requirements instead of the habitual default of, overriding what you need in the moment for finishing a task or just straight up denying a basic need because we have been conditioned to.
Remember being in school and having to ask to go to the bathroom? Ingrained responses run deep.
Nervous system regulation is a brilliant practice and one that you can practice all on your own. You get to be the subject, practitioner and teacher. You can learn this new language system and practice the techniques all by yourself.
Of course, having a therapist, pet, family, people around you to co-regulate is important and I will talk more about that in subsequent series.
For now I want to empower you with the awareness and knowledge that you can upgrade your own operating system. And yes, have a support network too, just know that a little goes a long way and you can start today, right now, well, when you finish reading!
Why is nervous system regulation such a big deal?
Because as a society we excel at emotional suppression and avoidance. Unwittingly, we have all internalized and celebrate the societal norms of over working, people pleasing and using drugs and alcohol to numb out.
Without realizing that these can be trauma responses cloaked in approved behaviour.
Being an adrenaline junkie, micromanaging, workaholism, codependency, being boundary less, over serving or over giving can all be signs of a dysregulated nervous system.
That dysregulation has originated from pre-loaded inputs from your life, that have caused you stress, harm or pain.
Allow me to quickly interrupt and say, that frankly, I think the word trauma is overused and abused in our culture. I think most people are not aware of what trauma is, so they use it like an adjective. Trauma is real and there is big T and little T trauma, but for mine and your’s sensibilities, I will instead use somatic stress and stored survival responses.
Somatic stress is stress in the body and is caused by accidents, chronic illness, anaesthesia, surgery and injury. Stored survival responses are the inputs and default software that have been accumulating since birth. These included the preverbal pain points (not being soothed when crying) and all the times we missed the opportunity to return to safety.
There is no self blame game here, please be gentle with yourself as you read this. Just reading about nervous system regulation can activate you and make you feel feelings. If that happens, take a pause, orientate yourself to your present surroundings. Look around the room or space you are in and identify, 5 things, feel the texture of your clothes, ground your consciousness in the now moment and breathe.
The nervous system heals through feelings not thoughts. So at times it may be uncomfortable. I speak about titration in this video here, but for now, know that you can titrate your experience, meaning, take in info, process it, back off, re-approach it. You add slowly. Just like when you were a kid learning how to do life. You didn’t just jump on the bike. You had someone old the frame while you peddled, then you had training wheels, then you took off the training wheels. Titration is similar to this, you add slowly and take away when needed. It is a somatic experiencing term as well as a scientific term.
The nervous system consists of your brain, autonomic and peripheral nervous system, para-sympathetic and sympathetic nervous system and our memories. Our brains have a negativity bias = this bias means we are more likely to pay attention to threats than we are to safety. This bias is compounded by the autonomic nervous system that is our main operating system that has been pre-loaded with software from the culmination of our life experiences, which has many, stored survival responses, as pre-loaded templates or just default storage, using the smart phone/computer metaphor.
I will talk about survival responses in my next series but for now, I am sure you recognize these responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze.
When I talk about the somatic stress and stored survival responses, I am referring to how these responses got trapped due to injury, surgery, trauma, experiences or chronic illness or injury and how they override cognition, how they will run on automatic, how they are an operating system that is preloaded. We all have a continuous feedback loop and outdated operating systems of faulty alarms before we practice nervous system hygiene.
And again, know that you can influence, heal and change by doing nervous system regulation. Stay tuned for a deep dive into thsese survival responses.
Have you ever been told ‘your glutes are turned off’ or ‘you need to fire up your quads’?
Can you suffer from muscle amnesia? Yes and no.
Recently I have been focussed on disrupting my regular breathing patterns to encourage abdominal activation. I am loathe to say I am doing core workouts because I fear you will envison me doing planks for days with one thousand sit ups.
In Somatic Experiencing, which I employ in my own yoga therapy practice, the concept of sensory motor amnesia was coined by Thomas Hanna, the man who developed Clinical Somatic Education.
Sensory Motor Amnesia describes the loss of motor control and sensation that can occur when we move our muscle or learn new patterns.
After carrying and birthing twins and a subsequent head on collision motor vehicle accident, that resulted in 4 herniated discs….my abdominals were stunted, torn apart and suffering from amnesia. And my pelvis had issues as well, trying her best to harmonize with my upper and lower halves while the nerves had gotten annoyed, shot and ran and hid for cover.
The loss of motor control and sensations in my pelvis and core has been palpable for years.
I detest most suggestions and industry recommendations for core rehabilitation but will save that for another post.
Suffice it to say, yes I had/have muscle amnesia, but I am actively rehabilitating myself out of it and you can to.
Provided that is what you have.
You see, muscle amnesia has become a panacea for maladaptive bodies and inactive people.
Unless you have suffered from neuropathy or a neuromuscular injury, whereby the nerves lack their spark and stop reaching their mark >>> you most likely are suffering from underused or undertrained muscles.
Doesn’t sound as sexy does it?
Contrary to the popular term, muscles actually do not have a memory of their own!
Our muscles are controlled by the nervous system! The nervous system is an incredibly efficient system in our bodies and responds to the inputs and learned patterns of the body. Meaning when the nervous system recognizes repeated patterns, static postures or duplicated movements it makes those inputs automatic.
The brain and nervous system have so many jobs~keeping us alive being paramount, automation is a clever device it employs, regardless if that input serves us or not.
We can develop maladaptive coping strategies, bad posture and poor muscle engagement out of efficiency and not even be made aware of it.
The body simply adapts to the input we give it.
The body tells the brain what to do.
Sometimes it is easier to label parts of our body as being ‘turned off’ or suffering from amnesia because it creates one degree of separation from our personal responsibility.
And I get that.
But here at Sadohana, we are all for exposing the sly ways we tell ourselves stories that keep us stuck and limited. Stories that do not serve our highest good.
And we love to dispel common myths in our industries.
The dispelled myths today are
1. Muscles do not have memory
2. Is it amnesia or lack of use
Moving your body in novel or new experiences , like trying yoga therapy or jiu jitsu for the first time, will introduce your body to underused muscles, new patterns and sensations.
Not being good at these experiences is to be expected.
You have yet to acquire the necessary strength, coordination and correct inputs that will lead to an optimal experience.
Until you learn how to hold, move and engage the body correctly, you could develop patterns of pain.
Don’t give up and accept that your body is deficient in some way.
You simply need to learn the right inputs, develop muscle control and awareness and then practice those inputs correctly so the brain learns this pattern of control and memory.
At some point I will investigate further, because the nervous system is such a delicious source of discovery and I would hypothesize that we have all sorts of unknown neuromuscular personalities and quirks from our collective, unskilled approach to processing trauma….that who's to say we ALL don't have some form of covert neuropathy?
But for now, I ask you to be astute when you or they want to label your muscles with amnesia.
Is it true ?
Or are those particular muscles just neglected, under used and under trained?
For now, I can confidently say I have both amnesia and under used muscle groups. I will share as time goes on how I am reactivating my core and pelvis and how these new patterns are becoming automatic!!
Dysregulation can happen sneakily. When I have been triggered or been in an uncomfortable situation, I try to get possession of my mind and think out my emotions…Cognitively I will rationalize what is happening and look for solutions and salve. I feel like I am in control when I can think of scenarios, reasons, solutions.
But then it seeps in, the mind keeps hashing out thoughts and opinions whilst my body moves thru the fight and flight until I can feel the panic, the overwhelm, the distraught tightness and rattled self. Then I shut down, immobilize, frozen by the activation.
Learning how to give myself grace is key here.
Less the downward spiral of self deprecation and self blame swallow me whole. After all, the dysregulation occurred because I didn’t honour what the body felt. So to add insult to injury is pointless but so common.
Having self compassion is a life saver here. Showing yourself consideration, kindness and understanding is how we hack the system to become regulated. It is a form of activating our self social engagement system-giving ourselves what we need. Which is almost always more love and understanding.
What does it feels like to be dysregulated?
A person, place or thing makes you feel a sensation you do not have vocabulary for. But something gets registered in the nervous system as an activation.
You are upset but don't know why necessarily and so you go thru the mental gymnastics of hashing out the rationale, conjecture, thoughts, suppressing emotion and sensation, while convincing yourself that you are fine, it is all fine.
And before you know it is 2am and even though you meditated, took some extra magnesium and watched a show to calm and distract you, the adrenaline is pumping now and the train has definitely left the station?
That is what it feels like for me at any rate. It comes on like a tsunami of sensations.
My breathing becomes shallow, my body will feel tight, needs to stretch and move or be as still as possible. What first presents as a various muscle aches. radiates into my armpit and down my left leg, specifically lodging itself behind my knee. It is then I recognize my dysregulation is developing into anxiety. My body has received impact. She registered the threat as immediate and responded in kind.
My mind was so clever at thinking herself out of it that she ignored the body. And the body always wins. She keeps score of all of it!
This is odd for me to admit as I practice and teach, yoga therapy daily, do breath work, chant and meditate, do jiu jitsu every week and consider myself quite in tune with my body. These have been my body practices for over 30 years. They are my constants and hoorah for that.
But the point I wish to impart is that nervous system dysregulation gives zero fucks - our nervous system stores trauma, it will relive it at the slightest prompting when chronic dysregulation has been a theme in your life.
Forgive yourself and accept this. You are not bad, you are healing.
Are sneak attacks inevitable?
For now I believe so.
The more I heal and understand how to take care of my body so my nervous system can regulate, the less so these episodes will be. Healing is a process and a journey.
Dysregulation doesn’t mean you did something wrong! Not at all!
It will happen over and over again, granting us the ability to be swifter, more inclusive in our strategies and kinder to ourselves, knowing the opportunity for change and growth is ever present.
You see even though I have these practices that have sustained me, it has not been a wholly integrated approach as I never had the language to match the body. Meaning sure, I can get a good work out in, I can move the sludge. But without articulating the sludge and being kind to myself whilst self talking about the sludge and coupling that with conscious movement and intention, it doesn’t all come together.
We have all had the sensation of doing a yoga class and afterwards feeling like that was just what we needed. No agenda or motivation other than wanting to move the body and afterwards we are calmer, clear and feel a whole body relief. Those are good moments.
But what I have learned this past decade as I have studied nervous system regulation in particular, is that it is a purely intentional practice that warrants a system, follow thru and excavation of self to determine what is and isn’t working.
This particular dysregulated sneak attack, I am grateful for.
Because it means I am processing in real time! I have not delayed too badly to tune in and move the energy thru me. For decades I could not real time process. I would respond and react weeks after being triggered or upset and hold onto “it” for much longer than was good for.
Never truly conscious of it. Always finding excuses as to why I was angry, impatient and touchy, sad, depressed, moody…thinking this was normal behaviour.
I see this in others, my family in particular. They will chew over a conversation or interaction with someone, for weeks, months, days, even years….trying to dislodge their own accountability and shirk the carriage of their own disappointment, or anger or sadness.
They run the same conversation with different characters as time moves on, but the story line remains the same. How they were let down by someone’s actions or disapprove of how someone handled something…and the things are trivial and inconsequential but they take it all very personally. Like it was intentional to cause them discomfort when really, it is their own inability to self regulate their nervous systems.
They self blame in a way that is also a sneak attack. They will question what they could have done differently or better or how they were right and the others were wrong. When most times it is just that they want to be in control of their feelings and situations. Never registering the impact on their body when their social activation system let them down, or when they went into hyperarousal activation.
In short, never realizing that they got triggered and dysregulated.
That is not to say people don’t act badly. Or that you can be triggered or upset by something valid. Not at all.
Rather it is an observation of myself and those close to me that I see as a coping mechanism to bypass the real feelings. The sadness and grief that occurs when you are hurt, dismissed, passed over, disrespected and not knowing how to express your feelings or even that it is safe to express those feelings.
Dysregulation makes one feel like it is unsafe to claim your feelings. Those feelings are most likely overwhelming you and it is easier to blame others than to sit within our feelings.
Acting out the play of characters who disappoint you is way safer than saying I am vulnerable because of my feelings. My feelings are unmanageable and causing me to withdraw, shutdown, dissociate, to binge watch, to drink, smoke, get high, shop, be busy and productive.
All signs of hyper arousal in the nervous system that we are not taught to recognize and manage.
It is acceptable to have a drink at the end of your day and binge watch an entire tv series over the weekend, but to talk about how you need to disengage, calm yourself down, cry, write, somatically move and feel safe, is not yet normalized in our culture.
Lets normalize the conversations around dysregulation.
Lets normalize that we all need and want more love and compassion. And let’s keep healing, so we can recognize the sneak attacks.
Healing even more is possible.
Practicing Gratitude is scientifically proven to help us with managing our nervous system so I thought to share with you printable planners you can use. The daily practice of writing out your Gratitude is a wonderful self regulation technique which I link to in this email to my subscribers.
What is Resourcing
Resourcing is the practice of inviting our mind body to attune to sensations of safety or goodness. It is a practice of invoking memory or thoughts, in the present tense, that give you a sense of ease, a sense of calm and a feeling of ‘okayness’.
In my Yoga Therapy classes, I can initiate your internal resourcing by asking you to follow along with a visualization technique or meditation. An example would be; “ I invite you to let this now moment be enough. To be here right now. Allow yourself to feel a sense of ease, dropping the mind field away and breathing into your body. Feel the air pass your nostrils, connect to the texture of the mat and turn your ears down, quieting the noises around you right now”. This can anchor your thoughts & sensations into the present moment and override the incessant pull of your mind.
But it is more beneficial to learn how to do this yourself and I can show you how!
How the nervous system responds to stress
First a quick overview of how the nervous system responds to ease and stress so you can understand why and how resourcing works.
Our nervous systems are designed to be relaxed but alert. If you observe animals that are not under threat, they are naturally eating, resting, playing or having sex. Humans nervous systems are much the same, though we have significantly more complex social constructs to navigate and bigger brains.
When we get stressed or are out of alignment, emotionally or physically (because the body feeds the brain, not the other way around ) our first line of defence is what is called the social engagement system. We rely on our environment and the people within it to soothe, calm and reassure us. We learned this social engagement system from when we were babies, we would cry and we were soothed by a caregiver. As adults we rely on this same mechanism. When we are distressed we seek out others to help us calm down, thru communication, gestures, reassurances and/or just being able to vent and be heard.
If others are the source of distress or the compounded life experience of people, places and things, our social engagement system becomes disabled.
Our next line of defence for our nervous system when we are stressed, is the fight or flight response. This is a healthy, normal response of our nervous system. For example, speaking up in defence of your actions can be a form of fight. Leaving a conversation that is going nowhere is a form of flight- healthy, normal activated responses.
In Fight or Flight response, the amygdala (part of the limbic system) hijacks the brain and influences our body and mobile defences. The pupils dilate, our sense of sound becomes heightened, blood rushes to the extremities and cortisol is released so our bodies can be stronger at fighting or fleeing. It takes from 20 minutes to an hour for our liver to process the hormones, we may feel an adrenaline rush.
What happens if we cannot execute the fight or flight response successfully?
We can go into Freeze or Fawn response. The blood rushes back from our extremities into our core to conserve energy for our organs and we go limp. If you have ever seen a wild animal being chased by a predator, they are wizards at the freeze response. They are also wizards at discharging this response by shaking or twitching to release the hormones that got stored and activated. Most humans internalize, suppress, compartmentalize and carry on, without recognizing that the energy transfer from the natural fight/ flight/freeze responses has nowhere to go.
But the body keeps score!
And trauma gets stored in the body every time there is a significant, traumatic event that we don’t process.
The thing with our limbic brain (emotional brain) and the reptilian brain (body brain; physical needs for reproduction/safety/calories) is they only remember in real time, present time. They do not understand past or future like the neocortex. This is important because when trauma gets stuck in the body, we can relive this trauma over and over again even if our present, cognitive state is safe or unaffected.
This is why when we get ‘triggered’ or dysregulated in our nervous system, our body is actually feeling the trauma again, reliving it as it is still stored in our cells and tissues. Unresolved trauma can get triggered anytime something reminds us of a past event. Unconsciously or consciously our limbic and reptile memories get activated.
These trauma anchors can become samskaras, imprints or conditioned responses. Just like we have positive characteristics of the 4F trauma responses -Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn we have positive and negative samskaras.
Negative samskaras and negative 4F trauma responses inhibit our development, relationships, quality of life and positive evolution.
How does Resourcing Help
Resourcing is inviting the body mind to sensations of safety and goodness.
It is a practice just like mindfulness! Resourcing creates positive samskaras and readily available, archived memories that our brains and nervous system learn to rely upon. It is a strategy for managing stress that can be done without equipment, anywhere at anytime. It is a conscious creation of feel good energy!!
Resourcing enables you to be in control of your wellbeing. By consciously directing your attention you are able to merge the emotional brain with the rational brain, creating a synapse if you will, for extinguishing the stored fight/flight/freeze responses in the body.
Resourcing can become a habit that creates a positive samskara.. By soothing the limbic system you work smarter and give yourself an opportunity to not just survive but Thrive!
How to Resource
Recall a positive, pleasant, feel good memory. Fill in all the details in your mind using as many senses as possible. Use present tense to bring this into the body mind!
Example: I am walking with my dog Suki in the forest at Hidden Grove. I can feel the cool air of the rainforest and still have the taste of the oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie I ate on the way here in the car. Suki’s white bum is wiggling off in the distance, she is doing her happy trot. I hear my water bottle sloshing at my hip as my feet hit the trail. I can sense Suki in the distance even though her cute white bum is out of site.
The Resource needs to be constructive and only have the feel good elements in it. I would not editorial my Resource by adding the traffic on the way to the trail or the parking or anything negative. The point is to elicit a feel good feeling, a sense of ‘okayness’ and a sense of safety.
Yours could be a memory from your past, it could be a place, it could be a person. Something that truly relaxes you and makes you feel joy is what we are asking. Frame only the feel good moments of your memory. If nothing readily comes to mind, if you have absolutely no feel good memories, make one up and be as detailed as possible. But at all possible, recruit a real memory from your memory bank that is framed in the positive!
Then come back to your body. Notice your sensations, baseline breathing, throat, hands, neck, shoulders. When we go into our feel good memory, our body will relax just as when we are activated by something traumatic, our bodies tense up.
You are in control the whole time when you are Resourcing! You can Resource as often as you like, in fact I recommend doing it frequently so you can create a positive imprint or samskara that you can have at the ready and build up the confidence in knowing that you can direct your thoughts. You can change how you think and how you respond by consciously Resourcing.
For Resourcing to work it must be constructive and not destructive.
Though we may have a habit of dissociative behaviour when we become overwhelmed > we may doom scroll or check out by binge watching to relieve stress; and though both of these have their uses, for the purpose of regulating our nervous system< we want to develop conscious patterns to override the unconscious triggers! And dissociative responses only relieve the fight/flight response temporarily, which can be destructive for repairing the nervous system. A Freeze/Fawn response can be dissociative which can shut off all emotions, going numb and limp with both bad and good feelings. So in the long run, this strategy is not worth it for the brief reprieve you may get from feeling panic.
Resourcing helps our bodies digest trauma, soothes the limbic system, increases our awareness and self perception and regulates the nervous system, all in a self sufficient way.
Build up a bank of constructive resourced memories that you can pull up at any time stress and dysregulation threatens to interrupt your life.
It is always available to you, so start practicing now.
Let me know how it goes for you, when you start to build up your Resource Bank and practice the conscious feeling of feeling good!!
Diane Seamark is co-owner of Sadohana with her husband of 25 years, Michael Seamark. She is a veteran yoga therapist having logged over 5000 clinic hours, is a 5th degree black belt in KoKoDo Jujutsu and a mom to twins.