Love & Anxiety #24: Stress Physiology: The other side of the coin.

You know how sometimes life can feel too heavy, like there is just too much going on? Have you been there, recently?  I have lived there the past month. There has been a lot going on recently, including a very ill family member who happens to live 3000 miles away. Distance blocks certain things, but seems to amplify others. Such as the heavy, dense sensation of dread in my chest and belly, as I am made so aware of my own helplessness and inability to make things better, or to protect loved ones from pain.

And, like you I am sure, when my body is in this state of overwhelm, when the heavy dread feels all-consuming, like a dense fog taking over a previously sunny day, I am unable to experience all the good that is still in my life, such as friends, love, health, work, clean water, safety, etc. I want to feel the good, I try to, but in my body it “feels” like this heavy feeling is winning. That it will be my reality forever! There is a physiological reason for this phenomena, the temporary inability to perceive good when we feel threatened or in danger and it comes from the nature of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The metaphor of a coin helps explain this phenomena of our ANS. Like a coin, our physiology has two sides or modes and they are mutually exclusive of each other. In other words, you cannot be in both modes at once. Just like a coin, when you flip it repeatedly you will only get Heads or Tails, not Heads & Tails. In this Universe, with that type of matter, you can only have one or the other.

I am over simplifying a bit, but this is how our ANS works. In the moment, you can either experience heads or tails. You can be feeling safe, calm, and grounded, or be feeling stressed, anxious, and keyed up, i.e., feeling overwhelmed by your life. When the later is occurring, your body and ANS are in threat physiology. In this moment you are preparing to survive the danger you know is coming, or the danger you are looking out for, by worrying and over analyzing. If you care to notice anything besides your frantic, racing mind, most of your body systems are involved in this process. Your heart rate has changed, as well as your respiration and your digestion, to name a few. The body takes survival very seriously and this is why that dread-filled, heavy feeling can seem like a huge monster, (think 1970s movies of Godzilla flattening Japan) threatening your wellbeing. As if it is so powerful, it is impossible to shift it. But it is not impossible, just difficult.

It is important to remember that this feeling is part of being human, so as not to get too freaked out by it, or believe your future will be all pain and fear. Sometimes life is too much, things are too heavy and we feel alone, undone, and pounded down to our knees. When that occurs, it is also important to remember that you will NOT be feeling this way forever, it is a transitory feeling (though for some of us it may seem like a long transit), and there are ways to move out of it. What we need to recall in these moments is that just like that coin has two sides, our physiology does too. We have NOT lost the mode of safety and calm grounding, we are just not currently experiencing it. It is still available to us and we can get back to it. It helps to have that as our intention when we are caught in stress physiology. And, to ask ourselves, ‘what must I do to get back to the other mode of safety?’

It does help to add to our intention to change modes, tools that tune our bodies back into the other side of the “coin,” out of threat physiology, back to calm sense of safety. I will write about some of these in the next blog, so stay tuned. For those who don’t want to wait, if you re-read my past 10 blogs, in each one of them I include one or more research-based, helpful tools.

Up the crick, at least there is a paddle
Up the crick, at least there is a paddle

Going Deeper:

1.) Can you relate to this blog? Do you have times or seasons in your life that feel intolerable, or like they will never end and that you are doomed to feel this miserable forever? If so, can you look back and see you have moved through it? If so, what lessons have you learned from these times?

2.) What situations are most “heavy” for you, or cause you to experience threat or stress physiology? When you are in that place of stress and fear, are you able to recall your other mode of being? If so, what helps you get back to it?

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1 thought on “Love & Anxiety #24: Stress Physiology: The other side of the coin.

  1. I’m excited to comment on question #2.
    I’ll summarize the best I can here because no one wants to read a 4 page comment.
    I took a bus from Florida to Pennsylvania with no money to my name. I spent 28 hours on the road without anyone to turn to for support. That event ignited my anxiety. That was about 6 years ago. Since then, I have climbed back up to a place of almost total “normalcy”. I still have a difficult time driving for long distances no matter who I am with or where I am going. The trick I have now is that I understand that my mind will try to mess with me when I’m in the car. I know this, so whenever an anxious thought appears I am able to embrace the thought without giving into the fear of the thought.

    This took a long time to learn, but for me it has been the greatest tool in my anti-anxiety toolkit.

    Great post! Very detailed, and your questions are quite engaging.

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