Understand Yourself as a Nervous System

“Workout Within”

My Workout Within program is designed to help you “Know Thyself” and to do that, you MUST “go there”– to the place within you that scares you AND to the place where you can learn to feel safe. This PLACE is your nervous system, specifically your autonomic nervous system.

“Know Thyself”
from a Nervous System Point of View

Deb Dana’s Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (2018) is a GREAT place to start if you’d like to learn more about yourself through learning about your autonomic nervous system and its role in how and why you behave as you do. If there are behaviors and emotional, sensory, and cognitive experiences that are causing you distress and dysfunction in your life, you can learn more about what’s happening within you in order to re-shape your own nervous system for a better life. I use her work with clients and have summarized some of the key points for you here on my website. 

Traumatic Stress

If you aren’t sure if your mindbody dysregulation is related to trauma, I would direct you to Peter Levine’s Healing Trauma (and his other work) to learn what trauma is, its symptoms, and somatic ways to heal it. You have the resources within you to do this! You can also find a therapist who specializes in Somatic Experiencing and other body-focused modalities to help you heal, which I would recommend. As always, you can contact me for referrals and resources at landscapesforlearning27@gmail.com.

The BASICS for Knowing Yourself as a Nervous System

I give you basic steps I use with clients for helping them know themselves, to learn more about their mind-body system, directing them inward to discover their nervous system and its functioning and utilizing their built-in resources for shaping it and working with it (rather than against it!) for better health– which is relative to each, unique person.
The information below is for everyone.

First…Education: You are an Embodied Being 

Your body has wisdom.

Perhaps you simply relied on your thinking mind to tell you who you are.
For some people, there’s fear and resistance about their body. Some of us never get beyond judging the body aesthetically, or according to what it looks like. Some people are terrified of mirrors. This may be you…

Eventually, if you want a better life, you must direct your attention to your body.
You can learn to explore your bodily sensations. You are an embodied being.

Education also involves finding out how your body learns.
Partly, I am referring to procedural and implicit memory and the autonomic nervous system’s habits, patterns and processes that involve neuroplasticity.

Education also includes learning about Interoception, Exteroception, Neuroception, and the Window of Tolerance, as well as the meaning of regulation, co-regulation and self-regulation. (This link takes you to these terms.) Education also includes learning about the “structure” of the autonomic nervous system as a hierarchy or ladder of physiological states as outlined by Deb Dana who uses Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory as a framework. (You can visit this link to learn more about that.)

Education about who you are as a nervous system also involves learning about your stress arousal, your stress responses, your adaptive reactions, and ways to calm and regulate yourself with behavioral tools.

Look within!

You already own behavioral tools, some of which include breathing, focusing your eyes, and feeling your own body with your hands; nourishing your body with healthy whole food, nutrients, and water; moving your muscles and relaxing them on purpose; exposing your body/eyes to natural sunlight; sleeping, and hugging and loving other people and pets, and much more.  These tools help you learn about how you are a.) oriented in the world, b.) how to ground in your body and c). how to be in the present, sensory moment.

You are an embodied being in the world, but perhaps you were unaware of this because nobody taught you– you simply didn’t get the education! The yogis knew these tools and resources existed — they didn’t need to go online and find a website about them or to the bookstore or library to discover them. You don’t either. This is the classic wisdom that has existed for a very long time.

Next…Resources

Your resources include somatic (body-based) resources, grounding, posture and alignment of your body, your breath, and a sense of boundaries and containment. Mindfulness practice, trusting relationship with a therapist or well-regulated other, and neurosensory exercises and other resources are some of your tools for regulating your stress arousal and to calm and also to mobilize your system if it needs that. Maybe you just need to shore up the resources you are lacking or are missing. You will learn more about this if you decide to Workout Within!

You use your resources and build your capacity to pay more deliberate attention to your experiences (inside and out) and your responses to them, especially challenging and uncomfortable ones. The goal is to know yourself by becoming more familiarized with your own bodily sensations, emotions, and cognitive experiences. With education and use of resources to build capacity, eventually your experiences become more familiar and known, and you will likely feel less afraid and less anxious and uncertain. And when you are familiar and more confident/less fearful, you will have gained a sense of empowerment and agency over your experiences that happen within you– whether those experiences are expected or unexpected, wanted or unwanted.

Experience is experience– your sensations are sensations, but you get to decide in your brain what they mean to you and how to respond to them.

Much of the time, with less awareness and less knowledge, people react to experience and assign stories and meaning to sensations and emotions that make things worse rather than better. Their perceptions and interpretations are skewed or inaccurate, so their vocabulary and narratives they believe and live by need to be revised and clarified for better accuracy and better health (get honest, get healthy!)

You are automatic and conscious

Typically, many people don’t realize that they have “automatic functioning” happening within their bodies/nervous system. When you begin to use your education and your resources to build capacity for learning about how you are functioning both rather “automatically” and more consciously (by leveraging your cognitive ability to choose your responses and your narratives about your experiences), it will transform your life.

No safe spaces in the world, only safe places within you!

We use resources to build capacity and practice with tools you already have to make yourself feel safe and regulated.  YOU MUST FEEL SAFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT in order to learn, heal, and grow.

Mind-Body Working Together Synergistically:
Accurate Sensation & Story

When you learn about tools and resources through education about the nervous system, you can use your new cognitive knowledge and your own felt interoceptive awareness of your body’s inner state. This may allow you to realize that your “old” stories about your inner state have been slightly “off” or even totally and wildly inaccurate.

For instance, you may learn that your felt sense of your heart beating rapidly does not mean what you unconsciously and “automatically” concluded it meant– e.g. you are having a heart attack; something is very wrong or a story that created a fear response within you which then made your heart beat faster until a feedback loop happened and you had a panic attack. But your heart breathing quickly could have been because of something you drank or ate or from some other source of stress. Or perhaps you never exercise and rarely experience your heart beating rigorously so when it does, it frightens you.

With a little education and insight about your own inner landscape, your innate resources and tools, you can self-regulate and ultimately become your own therapist, coach, guru– you can heal and thrive!

The importance and value of education and utilizing your own mindbody resources is that you can  learn to both re-experience your stress without being overwhelmed and derailed by it and you can also create and link a new “story” to these experiences. You can literally give new meaning that is more accurate, adaptive, and functional. You can replace the “old” stories that may have served you at one time but are no longer helpful or healthy. (*Note that the nervous system isn’t about good or bad wrong or right– it is about safety and danger. Your behavior is always adaptive).

Then…Regulation

When you can safely feel into, explore, and remain curious about your bodily sensations (without becoming overwhelmed ) through practice, using resources and building capacity, you are learning to regulate your stress arousal in your nervous system. You are self-regulating through self-knowledge.

What’s the upside of regulating your nervous system? When regulated, you are better able to be a more “objective witness” of yourself– noticing and observing how your arousal levels go up and down and thoughts and sensations and emotions come and go– without critical judgment and without placing any value or meaning on “what’s happening” in your experience. This is access to mindfulness / present moment awareness.

Cultivating regulation and mindful awareness will take some repetitive practice (This can be done solo or with help from a calm and regulated other/therapist/meditation teacher/yoga teacher). If you notice that you are becoming dysregulated, you have your knowledge and tools and resources (see above) to utilize to self-regulate. THIS IS REAL SELF-CARE. (It’s a bit different than lighting candles and having a bubble bath– even though these are nice too!)

Self-regulation is also what I call RESPONSE-ABILITY . You are concretely shaping and training your nervous system and developing your capacity and resources within to RESPOND to experience. You are creating your own life through your ability to choose how to respond to what happens.

Instead of being totally unaware of what’s happening within you on your inner landscape, you are more aware, and you are what I call “traveling,” which is practicing using your resources and continually learning all the time about how to care for yourself through understanding the stress arousal and calming processes within your nervous system/mind-body being.

Reminder: You cannot remain curious and playful unless you feel (mostly) safe and regulated! This is motivation for process living and learn…always and forever and ever. There’s no end point to learning and changing– and that means failure is part of the ongoing process and NO BIG DEAL. Welcome failure.

Enlightenment

An important point here is to recognize and realize that you are becoming more familiar with “what’s happening,” so the fear does not feel as urgent or absolutely terrorizing. You are NOT the fear. You are NOT the thoughts. You are NOT the emotions. These are experiences that simply flow through your system which is a system of tubes (blood vessels, digestive organs, you get the point). When you learn and become more intimate and familiar with this tubes-flowing-with-energy process that you are, then you can participate in it, with it, with increasing awareness, then you can work WITH the energies instead of being scared of them due to ignorance, unknowing and uncertainty about “what’s happening.” This, to me, is a form of EN-LIGHTEN-MENT because you are coming out of the dark of ignorance (and fear), literally shedding light on what’s going on within you with your own attention! How about that?!

Once you become very practiced at this process of using your education and resources to build capacity, if there is trauma and traumatic, chronic, ongoing stress you’d like to heal and handle with more regulation, then through your voluntary choice, when you are ready because you feel safe enough, you can certainly process trauma through gradual exposure and un-coupling the traumatic stress with the old response and pairing it with your new, regulated and more realistic/rational responses.  *I would advise you to do this with a trained professional. The process of learning to regulate your nervous system for healthy functioning, which is what I have been describing above is the same for everyone; however, people with trauma need more help. It’s essential to know that trauma includes stress, but not all stress is traumatic (Levine, Healing Trauma, p.7).

 Exposure: Do What’s Hard to Suffer Less!

What I have outlined in the steps so far above is exposure therapy already, as you have been gaining tools and resources for exposing yourself to yourself. Uncovering the inner resources and tools has been exposing you to what you already own within you. Through exposure– learning things about your inner experiences maybe you didn’t know– you have brought them into explicit awareness. You’ve put the spotlight of your attention on them to better understand them rather than running from them or denying or using unhealthy coping to deal with the discomfort. Learning is going from the unknown to the known — it’s going from relative safety out into the unknown and relatively dangerous and back again. Learning is hard and is an ever-changing and ongoing process, without end. Learning is life.

When people refuse to learn, usually this refusal and resistance to change is because of fear– fear of the unknown and uncertain which feels unsafe. Resistant nervous systems are afraid which causes them to be stiff, stuck, and rigid.  When people decide they will push back against the flow, resist movement and change, ignore or deny or fight back against learning– this path, these cognitive choices and these behaviors, creates blockages within the system. The synergy and flow is interrupted/corrupted between mind and body, and dis-ease and pain and suffering manifest as a result. A lot of the time, people who don’t know this is happening and that they are in fact causing their own suffering, suffer more– the feedback loop occurs and they are stuck in hell. This is why everyone should learn about who they are as a nervous system.

The steps above help you to: realize that you are embodied life; your body has inner wisdom; you can begin to access the inner landscape and travel it; and you can become more intimate and familiar with your experiencing of experiences that are ever flowing throughout your mind-body system. This is “Knowing Thyself!”

The flow of energy as experienced is an ongoing, ever-moving and changing process of which you are a part.  Who you are is a process of energy moving. In this view, you are no different than anything else in the universe because everything is energy moving. It is you and you are it! Crazy, right? The only separation is that belief which our intellect creates.

Exposure Therapy for Trauma Processing

The steps/information above about inner awareness and self-regulation has prepared you to uncouple the involuntary automatic sensations arising from the events of the past (implicit memory) and the emotion and the meaning you once attached to these sensations and memories (likely subconsciously or with less conscious, cognitive awareness). Learning that your own nervous system can be tuned and shaped and re-tuned and re-shaped matters for everyone, not only for the most traumatized individuals.

Creating New Somatic and Cognitive Narratives
(Promoting MindBody Synergy)

Obviously, healing traumatic stress and other powerful emotions and animal defenses is helpful to do with a therapist who is trained in somatic healing. It’s a good idea to have someone who can provide you with added safety and co-regulation to help you practice your self-regulation and lead you mindfully through trauma healing treatment.

Because of the education, resourcing, and capacity building and practice with co-regulation and self-regulation, you may now be more able to connect with your overwhelming stressful and traumatic events and use your resources to regulate your arousal back to baseline, consciously aware of what you are doing the entire time. You’ve learned and taught your PFC (higher, rational brain) to override the “automatic” old pathways — teaching them that they are not the whole story like they used to be and they cannot throw you into limbic dysregulation (fight-flight and freeze response) like they used to back when when you were less aware and less regulated and without tools to take control through deliberate and mindful action. Whoa!

When you get trauma treatment, you can learn to recalibrate your nervous system by pendulating or titrating (Levine) through gradual exposure with mindful focus on sensations and their movement and resolution. The exposure involved is only to “slivers” (Ogden) of memory of traumatic triggers that cause autonomic arousal, with the goal of keeping your PFC online to use language to name sensations and “stay with the sensations” without the sensations overwhelming you. This is best achieved with help from someone who understands trauma and healing trauma.

*Notice the rhythmic movement that is associated with the words “titration” and “pendulation.” The nervous system is energy moving and flowing, and it likes rhythm and regulation a lot. Just imagine a mother rocking a baby to soothe and calm the baby; Imagine a father bouncing a toddler on his knee (trot trot to Boston, anyone?); Imagine dancing; swaying to music. And what the hell– imagine puppies playing only for how adorable that image is!

Uncoupling and Expanding Your Window of Tolerance

Creating new more accurate narratives to name your physiological states will be helpful in knowing your true present self.  Continual practice through exposure while accurately labelling your sensations and emotional experiences will help keep the PFC online and “in control” to respond rather than automatic unconscious reactivity, emotional overwhelm, and fight-or-flight and freeze taking over.

Through such practice, you are expanding your window of tolerance (increasing distress tolerance). You are becoming courageous by facing your suffering and challenges, so you can “do hard things” and “lean into” the challenges that will inevitably come your way in the future. Regulating your nervous system and becoming more mindful and aware is about becoming a warrior– the hero of your own life!

You are no longer the same person you were, because you have re-shaped your own nervous system. You will have also proved to yourself, through REAL lived experience, that you can make yourself feel safe and contained. And, with more personal agency and felt sense of safety and grounding, you can  settle the sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight system), choose to lower your defenses, and connect with your true nature and to others to experience love, joy, and creativity. (*We need to connect with others to be whole and alive and to be whole and fully alive and well is to be healthy. Many people with dysregulation and trauma fear and loathe other people).

Resources 

If you would like to learn more about how to build your resources and capacity to better know your self as a nervous system, check out the people below who I have learned from and from which the nervous system information above and in other places on this site is drawn. Visit my MindBody Resources page for more.

The Huberman Lab Podcast
Understanding nervous system function, stress (voluntary and involuntary), arousal, alertness and calm; mental health disorders as nervous system dysfunction, including episodes on anxiety, ADHD, depression and more.

Dr. Nicole LePera: How to do the Work
#selfhealers on Instagram

The Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Podcast (Dr. David Puder)

Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory In Therapy, 2018
Charting your autonomic states through developing interoceptive awareness and using the hierarchy / Explaining Story and State  

Irene Lyon: Resources online and programs that include neurosensory exercises, building capacity, education about nervous system health and regulation.

Peter Levine: Defining traumatic stress and human biology; Somatic Experiencing; Healing Trauma,  and Waking the Tiger 

Pat Ogden Creator of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy which contains much of the information above about education, resources, tools, attachment and healing trauma in psychotherapeutic settings.

Dan Seigel, concept of “Window of Tolerance;” Author of Neurobiology of Trauma, Mindsight

Elizabeth Stanley’s Widen the Window: combines mindfulness and nervous system regulation information and protocols for managing stress and creating health. Becoming a warrior!

Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body That Keeps the Score: a groundbreaking resource on the nature of traumatic stress, brain and body function, limbic system, and autonomic nervous system function.

Dr. Gabor Mate, When the Body Says No; trauma and addiction expert.

 

 

 

 

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