Question: “I have noticed lately that I am on edge more often and struggling with daily life more than normal. I have been anxious and irritable for no apparent reason. Any thoughts as to what may be causing this?”
I saw this meme the other day. It was a picture of an adult holding a small child that said, “Here is life. It will be both beautiful and terrible. Do not be afraid.” It struck a chord with me, and when I read your question, I couldn’t help but reflect on it. The world is at our fingertips these days. We are absorbing the state of the world like never before in history and it leaves our systems overloaded with information. Where and how do we even begin to process all of what our bodies and minds are taking in? In response to your question, I will explore how the body may be at play here when it comes to stress and anxiety and how to harness the body’s power to help cope with the distress you are experiencing.
“Do not be afraid.”
The meme I mentioned encourages us to not be afraid. Wouldn’t it be great if with just a little encouragement – poof! No fear – just like that? The reality is that our bodies as humans (along with animals) are hardwired to experience fear. Fear can be an incredible tool if we can develop intimacy with it. We need to have specific tools to work with our bodies and our minds to be with fear when it comes up. There are two ways the body and the brain communicate with each other. This is all done through a highway system of nerves. One of those ways information travels is from the “top-down,” which means that the mind (the thoughts) signals to the body a particular impulse that cultivates a fear or safety impulse and then reinforces either a message of safety or a message of danger based on the quality of one’s thoughts. Then there is the “bottom-up” approach, which happens when the body’s sensory experience (i.e., how the body is seeing, feeling, hearing, intuiting, and physiological experiencing like breath pattern or fascial/muscle movement) communicates to the brain either a message of danger or security. What’s important to note is that approximately 80% of the messages of safety or danger will come from the bottom-up. The body often is the main communicator of how secure we truly are in any given moment. The issue with that, often, is that many of us are disconnected from our bodies, and long before our minds have begun to become aware of the anxiety or irritability we are feeling, the body has already been imprinting a message of distrust and fear long before that. Many people may not even realize what they are feeling and are stuck in the negative loop of fear-based stories in their mind. This leads to an unconscious swirling of fear messaging moving back and forth up and down the body/mind’s highway systems (i.e., vagus nerve), thus creating a ripe environment for chronic stress, disease, and dysfunction – both internally and externally – even if there is no real threat around us.
Making the unconscious – conscious
Reader, you are already ahead of the game! You have been able to identify that you are stuck in some distressing emotions that are having a habitual negative impact on your external world. Perhaps you have already been giving yourself pep-talk statements such as, “It’s ok, you can do this!” or, “There’s nothing to be upset about, you have so much to be grateful for.” Or a myriad of other cheerleading statements that can be very helpful in managing anxiety and stress. We call this approach cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. It is when we identify, challenge, and reframe the thoughts coming through our minds to help shift any difficult emotions or problems occurring in the body or our lives. Continue to do this. It helps….20% of the time. But when it comes to recurrent stress patterns, chronic anxiety, or agitation, we need to bring the body on board. By the time you notice the mind’s negative stories about any given moment, the nervous system (particularly the autonomic nervous system or ANS) has already been assessing and taking in information about a perceived threat. The ANS operates below our level of awareness, like the heart or the lungs. I call it our “spidey sense,” or professionally, it is referred to as Neuroception.
Neuroception is a wordless experience. It is like a lighthouse that is constantly watching for cues of threat or safety. As we explore how to reduce anxiety, we look for ways to bring our awareness to those body cues as quickly as possible. Going into the lighthouse to see for yourself what it may be seeing and letting your conscious mind and conscious body (more on that in a minute) give a second opinion on whether or not the current experience is an imminent threat or not. Because for many people, this experience of neuroception brings a mis-attunement or a mismatch. The level of reaction in the body and mind is not in concert with the experience happening in the external environment.
A “Bottom-Up” Approach to Healing
The first skill to practice is interception, which is becoming aware of what is happening inside the body. This will require some level of effort or discipline at first. We must be able to slow down. For clients, I often suggest practicing orienting with their external environments first to really build the skill in the brain, especially if they are having trouble feeling inside the body. This orienting practice itself is a calming strategy for the nervous system. Take a moment to look up from this article and name one thing you see in your sitting space. Get descriptive as you gaze at the item as if you are seeing it for the first time. As you get into this practice, start to bring it into the body.
Take moments to close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Notice your feet on the floor, how is the weight distributed on your feet? Notice your breath. Are you breathing into your chest or your belly? Is it slow or fast? Notice your heart, is it closed or open? These two orienting practices can even be put together – pendulating the awareness from the external object to internal experience. The hope is that you will start to help your body feel the sense of safety in the environment and expand its database with moments of calm rather than looping imprints of fear and threat. Most of the time, there is no imminent danger present. Of course, this may be a good time to note that we need our nervous systems, especially when the threat is present (i.e., swerving to miss hitting a car or ducking when a baseball is coming at you, etc.) There are many other orienting and regulating techniques to build consciousness and calm in one’s system. This is just one strategy that can be helpful in beginning a somatic or body-oriented approach to coping with stress.
The Four “R’s”
The Polyvagal Theory is an approach to understanding and working with the body’s nervous system. It was developed by a man named Stephen Porges. In the book by Deb Dana, “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy,” the author describes that the polyvagal approach to therapy follows the four R’s.” These are:
1. Recognize the autonomic state.
2. Respect the adaptive survival response.
3. Regulate or coregulate into a ventral vagal state.
Above, I have already described in more detail the first R, recognizing the autonomic state. This is the building awareness and vocabulary to name what is happening inside the body at any given time. The second R, respecting the adaptive survival response, speaks to the need to honor the body. Our system is intelligently designed and requires our deep reverence. Notice what happens (even if it is a misattunement) when we appreciate our body for attempting to keep us safe by signaling danger through anxious feelings or thoughts. Frequently, there is a slight bit of softening or opening to shift when our conscious mind acknowledges rather than criticizes. The third R, regulate or coregulate into a state of safety is when we bring on particular coping mechanisms that can assist the body in calming/regulating. Just a few short examples of body-oriented regulation, including breathwork, physical touch with another person we feel safe with and are in a regulated state, walking slowly in nature, bodywork, and movements such as yoga and various eye and facial exercises, etc.). The final R syncs the mind with the regulation of the body by reframing or redefining the stories that we have in our mind about ourselves, our experiences, and the world around us. For example, many find that when they use body-oriented approaches to healing from trauma and chronic stress, their memories from the past or perceptions about themselves in the present change dramatically.
Suddenly, not everything in life is so terrible – but instead – most of life is quite beautiful.