Many of us are raised in households where we were scolded for our “stinking thinking” or told that “we could get glad in the same pants we got mad in.” Often in therapy, we are taught to use affirmations, identify cognitive distortions, and refute negative thoughts. While these modalities can be useful and the spirit behind our family member’s instruction was good-natured, for some people, these solutions seem like band-aids for gaping wounds. Our mind is a complex mechanism, and cognition is a glorious gift. However, when the body is on high alert, and our nervous system is dysregulated, our feeble attempts at subduing anxiety, depression, intrusive memories, and sleeplessness by changing our thoughts fall hopelessly flat.
First, let’s talk about the nervous system
Human beings are living organisms; we often differentiate ourselves from other animals because of our frontal lobe and our higher reasoning. However, we have a nervous system that functions essentially the same as other animals. Our nervous system and ancient centers of the brain keep the human organism alive at any cost. Fight, flight, and freeze – are lifesaving impulses that are carried out by the sympathetic nervous system. These are innate unconscious drives that the body uses to protect the human organism from imminent danger. These systems are unconscious and are mobilized instantaneously, much faster than we could decide to do so. As a result, during fight, flight, and freeze, the prefrontal cortex, the center of reasoning and conscious thought, is offline.
That means that if you are being attacked by a real or perceived threat, the body will respond to protect you. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of revving up the engine and mobilizing the body to defend, flee, or freeze. When the threat has disappeared, and the nervous system receives the message that it is safe, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body return to homeostasis or rest, digest, and connect, after the fight or flight response.
So what does this mean for your thinking?
The first thing is that a threat can be anything dangerous or triggering in your environment. The amygdala and sympathetic nervous system are preverbal and do not communicate with the prefrontal lobe, the brain and body instead use road maps to determine the safety of a situation based mostly on previous life experience.
Early childhood experiences are encoded into our brain and body regarding the safety of the world around us and our ability to take care of ourselves.
The more adverse life experiences we’ve had and the more chaotic our early childhood experiences were (growing up with a parent who was mentally ill or abused substances, death or illness of a primary caregiver, natural disaster, abuse, and neglect, etc.) the more likely we are to have a dysregulated nervous system.
Modern-day stress can be communicated to the nervous system as a threat. This is why when you’ve had a stressful month at work, you’re in a room full of people you don’t know, or you get up to give a big presentation, that giving yourself positive affirmations or trying to change your thoughts, will not change your experience or reduce your symptoms.
There is a way out
If we want to change the way that we are feeling emotionally and how we relate to the world cognitively, we first have to change the experience in our body.
By practicing breathwork, somatic meditation, and guided imagery, we can help shift our bodies out of high activation and into the parasympathetic nervous system. However, many of these triggers and reactions we have been living in for decades, so, re-training the nervous system will take time.
A few techniques to help regulate the nervous system are:
- Grounding: This can be as simple as scanning the room, when your eyes land on something pleasant, identify what it is that you like about this object, notice where you feel the pleasing sensation in your body. You can also use your five senses to identify something you hear, smell, taste, see, and touch. Activating all five senses helps bring your awareness into the present moment, and allow the nervous system to recognize that it is not in danger.
- Broaden your visual field: Along with grounding, it is helpful to broaden your field of vision, narrowly focused vision is a signal of sympathetic nervous system activation and that your brain is mobilizing to act. By doing the opposite, widening your field of vision, you’re indicating to your brain that you are safe.
- Breathe: Breathing is one of the first areas to be affected by nervous system activation. When your body is being charged up, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Spend some time focusing on slowing the breath down and making your exhale double the length of your inhale. This pattern of breathing is like an emergency brake for your system, helping the nervous system to downshift.
- Visualization: Imagine that you’re with someone that you feel safe with, or at the beach, or on a favorite vacation, or resting in your bed. Whatever image represents peace and calm to you, focus on that image and notice any accompanying sensations that lend themselves to a state change towards relaxation, this will trigger somatic memories of times where you felt safe and peaceful.
Using positive thinking, refuting negative thoughts, CBT, and affirmations are powerful interventions but it is essential to know when and how to use them. When we’re in a state of relaxation, these tools can be great for augmenting our healing. But next time you’re feeling anxious, upset, or nervous instead of trying to think your way out of it, try skipping the middleman and go straight to the body.