Tag Archives: attachment

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?

Love & Anxiety #13: The Peaceful Tortoise vs. the Harried Hare.

Do you remember the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare? The story about the race between the tortoise and the rabbit, where the moral of the story is slow and steady wins the race. While this seems like a nice children’s story, it can also be a cautionary fable about our over-scheduled, distracted, fast paced busy lives. Many of my clients and friends are living a life-style that I call, ‘water skiing across the surface of life’. I know this well because that is how I lived for years. Moving quickly, speed for the sake of getting more done, feeling adrenaline and even, to feel important. (Surely someone this busy must be a valued member of society.)

I am so grateful for wise therapists and spiritual directors who have helped me begin to walk away from this lifestyle. However, many people I know are still stuck racing across life at the water ski pace. There is comfort in this speed, you stay so busy you don’t really have to feel much of anything, and you don’t have to face the unpleasant things or sensations occurring inside your body because you are just moving way too fast to pay attention!

There is a huge downside however, in the long run, this pace causes ill health and physiological problems. And, sadly, you are actually getting less done and accomplishing less than you think you will. There have been recent studies done on human attention spans and productivity and the same results show up. The best cycle for productivity is to be “on” or focused intently for 50 minutes, then “off” or resting for 10 minutes. Our bodies and brains are wired to be at maximum potential when they are working intently for a short amount of time and then resting. Stopping and taking a break makes us more productive mentally, not less. So that “balls to the wall” lifestyle where you don’t take a lunch break, don’t stop to pee or even eat, is not conducive to productivity. You look really busy and important, but you are so full of stress chemicals your mind is not able to work correctly and your ability to focus intently is mostly shot.

The other problem with this lifestyle is that speed generates adrenaline, which is not your friend! It is a stress chemical and its job or purpose is to be released in times of danger, to help us run from a tiger, or lift a car off our child, it is not meant to be used like a secret stash or cache of methamphetamine. When we race about all the time our muscles are braced and the adrenaline is coursing through our bodies. So we unconsciously/physiologically feel as if we were in danger, which brings in our old nemesis, body anxiety. If you don’t believe me, do an experiment. The next time you catch yourself racing, wolfing down your food, moving as if you were being chased, catch yourself. Stop and deliberately move at the speed of a turtle, for a bit. It will be challenging and you may even feel a bit more anxiety at first. However, if you stick with it, notice how your shoulders begin to detach from your ears and how your heart rate begins to decrease and how your breath begins to come in deeper and slower. One of the gifts of Slow is that you will feel calmer and more grounded.

So this week, try slowing down at dinner with the family or friends, slow down as you drive (the freeway will be a safer place), slowing down when you have a conversation and see that you are able to be more present, more available. And the best part, you will be able to feel the love you have for the people in your life and feel their love for you. Love and anxiety originate in different brain regions. So, getting out of the racing/anxiety mode, will allow you to access the parts of your body and brain that experience and take in the love. The love you are blessed enough to be surrounded by on a daily basis. For more information and benefit, read the book called, “In praise of Slow”.


 non-harried haresImage

Going Deeper:

1) What is your normal life pace? Is it manageable and relaxing, or is it too fast and too stressful? If so, what maintains this pace on a regular basis? Is it habit, or choice?

2) Take inventory this week. Notice your weekly/daily activities. Is there space to “be”, to breathe, or are you rushing from one activity to the next? Are there places you could create more space and rest by leaving earlier, or saying NO to some invitations or activities?

3) Try doing everything much slower this week. Slow down while eating, washing dishes, even exercising. Try to enjoy each activity and notice how a slower pace allows you to be present in your life. Let me know how it goes!