Today’s post is about the practice of activating the social engagement system (also known as the social nervous system) through the often subtle impulses for play, rest, ease and connection. These are keys to healing from trauma. It is also how healing old wounds supports the process of healing symptoms of chronic illness. Enjoy – and tell me your challenges and successes with honoring your own similar impulses and voices from within.
We live in a culture that identifies happiness as the ultimate goal but where taking the time to experience simple pleasures can be judged as unproductive, labelled as lazy and seen as a waste of time. When we live with a chronic illness, experiences of pleasure can make all the difference even as they can be subtle and few or far between. It’s common to be caught in states of vigilance, anxiety, and dread; or to feel deadened to the joys of life and overwhelmed by the challenges. Our impulses for play, fun and pleasure come from the social engagement system. This branch of the nervous system is designed to help us shift gears between states of self-protection to states of safety and support. It’s how we are geared to naturally recover from stress and trauma. It is also a different way of thinking about chronic illness and healing.
In this post I will give you an example of how this issue came up for me in the past few weeks and how I dealt with it once I realized what was going on. I will introduce you to the science that explains why learning to identify and follow your impulses for pleasure and ease is a physiological pathway to the process of healing. It’s all about the vagus nerve. I will then present some of the many benefits of this process. In the future I’ll outline some ways of helping you more easily identify and follow your own impulses for pleasure.
The pictures in today’s post reflect some of the simple pleasures I found myself enjoying last summer and in this one.
I. When We Get Stuck in One Gear
A few months ago I started devoting more time to my burning desire to write, write, write. I had a blast until recently, when I found myself getting grumpy. I’d had my nose to the keyboard and suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. I had to force myself to work on a page that I’d been unexpectedly struggling with for weeks. I felt the tease of being “almost there” and having the sense that if I just worked a tad bit longer or put in a little more effort or pushed just a smidge harder that I’d be able to crank it out and get ‘er done. And “then” I’d feel satisfied and be able to take a well-earned break.
But it wasn’t happening.
The fact that I was getting cranky was information in and of itself – it’s one of our bodies’ ways of saying “no” (this is a version of the fight response).
I was no longer feeling the positive energy of my writing and I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and anxious (these are qualities of the flight response).
These were healthy, appropriate clues suggesting the need for balance that I wasn’t quite recognizing.
Another clue that my body wanted to shift gears came from increasingly frequent impulses to take a break. This wasn’t about avoidance (the freeze response), it was an impulse for pleasure. Increasingly, all I wanted to do was to find a good book, curl up in my comfy bed, and escape in the luxury of a day off.
When I found myself tired and lacking interest in writing my biweekly blog post I finally acknowledged that I had crossed the line of no longer having fun. I was running a familiar pattern and overriding my body’s signals that it was time to change gears.
Does any of this sound familiar?
When our nervous system can’t shift gears
One of the challenges of living with a chronic illness is the difficulty we have in shifting from physiological states of vigilance, sensitivity or distress – to states of ease and calm, rest and recovery, and comfort in connection. Despite years of practice with this particular pattern, I still get caught in overdoing and overriding. I resist the impulses to slow down and want to keep going until a task is complete – or until I’m too tired to keep going. I repeatedly forget that pausing and taking breaks can actually be enjoyable. It can give me fresh energy and ideas for my project.
This difficulty in changing gears is only partly about me and my desires. It’s mostly the result of a nervous system state that has gotten stuck in modes of protection and defense. It’s about a nervous system that is caught in action mode and wants to keep going; of a system that unconsciously fears getting caught in immobility and freeze if I slow down.
Both of these are real fears because they happen all the time with a nervous system that is out of balance, which I believe is an underlying force that drives the symptoms of chronic illness.
The antidote is to recognize the impulses that help us shift to different gears and to respect them. Knowing why this is helpful makes it easier to follow these urges, which are often subtle.
Impulses for play, pleasure and connection create balance
When I was unable to write the blog post I gently took myself by the shoulders, sat myself down, and made the conscious decision to take a break. I got a little help, encouragement and support from David who had been noticing my irritability as well.
I acknowledged to myself – and to my body – that I’d been blowing off my impulses instead of listening. I had gotten focused on the end goal rather than on the process.
I was able to switch gears by first allowing myself to slow down.
Changing gears is not always automatic
When we are in full health, the process of slowing down, finding balance and shifting gears happens automatically. We wake and get ready for work, eat then rest, play and sleep. Our blood pressure, blood sugars and heart rates increase and decrease as needed.
When we have a chronic illness or are experiencing the side-effects of trauma, this process gets derailed. Our access to our social engagement system, which is the part of the nervous system that keeps us out of fight, flight and freeze, becomes more limited.
One way of recovering our inherently normal cycles of back and forthing between activity and rest, excitement and calm, ruminating over our response to unsolicited advice vs getting curious about our spouse’s day at work is by paying attention to subtle impulses.
When our autonomic nervous systems are caught in states of protection and defense our social engagement system gets supplanted by anxiety and fear (the sympathetic nervous system response of flight), by anger or irritability (the sympathetic response of fight), or by lassitude or boredom or depression (the parasympathetic freeze response).
Uncomfortable emotions have a purpose. Through mindful attention, curiosity about our impulses, and often the need for some degree of will power at first – we can invite in the healing effects of the other branch of the parasympathetic known as the social engagement system or the social nervous system. This is the part of our autonomic nervous systems that supports the capacity for digestion and sleep, rest and joy, connection and intimacy (1)Learn more about this Polyvagal Theory, which has been developed and extensively explored and tested by physiologist Stephen Porges.
Enlisting the qualities of the social engagement system is how we heal from trauma and how this process also enables us to begin to heal chronic illness.
II. 8 Steps to Enlist the Social Engagement System
The following steps are some of the ways I’ve learned to activate my social engagement system in my journey of healing from chronic fatigue. I start by listening. Many of these steps will be familiar to you. Understanding what they are and why they are helpful in the process of healing will give you more permission to follow them too:
- Make a conscious decision. I started the process of shifting gears by putting a hold on all non-blog-post writing and allowing myself to come into the gentler pace of summer and the downtime that I’d been craving. Just as I’d honored the craving to write, I needed to respect my craving to take a break.
- Start with one impulse. The night I decided to stop working so hard on my writing I enjoyed taking the time to find a new book to read instead of feeling burdened by it. I’d been putting the task off for months. I perused my local library online for digital books, looked for the latest in hot new fiction on amazon, and tried out 5 or 6 samples on my kindle. I then read a whole book (Ender’s Shadow), which I couldn’t put down, in a day. It was bliss.
- Tolerate a little squawking. Even though I often feel relief when I listen to my body’s need for change or to slow down, it’s not always comfortable. Some parts of me complain. Others resist. This time, for example, I felt a little sad, as though I was giving up on my dreams for my big vision for my blog and completing my ebook. Because of this trauma-based perspective about the importance of the social engagement system, however, I recognized that this internal message wasn’t actually true. I could also see how the impulse that keeps me from slowing down is not necessarily healthy. So I stuck with my plan to take a break.
- Take time for underlying needs. When I took my daily naps for the first few days after deciding to slow down I found myself sleeping longer than usual. I hadn’t realized I’d gotten so overtired and my body was grateful.
- Notice what happens next. After a few days of increased rest, I wanted to go to the Boulder Reservoir. I had the capacity to tolerate the sun and to enjoy laying on the beach for a couple of hours. When I’d first thought going the week before I had been too tired to take action. Slowing down gave my body room for the healthy aspects of the sympathetic nervous system, which are about taking action without the components of fight and flight. I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years and this was the first time I’d ever been to the beach. I’m not sure I’ve quite had the physical capacity to lay in the sun on a beach full of people and kids in the past, so finding an interest in doing this was a surprise. And it felt like heaven. Surprise and joy are signs that we are on the right track in activating the social engagement system rather than just finding another to keep busy. So was the connection of having a friend in Australia send me this picture in response to my Facebook post. She, too, has a chronic illness.
- Look for clues that you are on the right track. The day after relaxing at the beach I felt amazingly light, as well as less heavy with fatigue. The sadness was gone. And I was excited about writing the next blog post. This kind of shift is common when we follow an impulse that supports the social engagement system. Surprise, joy, lightness, an easing of the burden – these are actually a way our bodies give us feedback that we are on the right track. For me, the shift usually takes more time and I was amazed at how letting go of self-imposed deadlines lightened my load.
- Practice. Learning to follow our impulses is a process that takes time. And practice. It often involves unlearning what we’ve been taught to override, such as through messages in childhood, in our work environments, as part of a cultural norms etc. Paying attention, learning to listen, having curiosity about impulses that often feel like interruptions is a process. It involves respecting our bodies and ourselves and over time we gain experience. Paying attention to the clues and feedback enables us to learn and to recognize when we’re on the right track and when we need to make a course correction. In time our social engagement system becomes more easily activated and we no longer have to do it all through conscious choice and will power.
- Watch for the next impulse. After shifting gears I suddenly had the desire to make an overdue phone call to a relative. To pull a couple weeds that had been calling to me for weeks. And to transplant some evening primroses to a place with more sunshine where they could thrive. Changing gears gave me a little “margin” and I was able to pace myself and complete each activity. I paced myself and did so on separate days. Rather than performing my tasks from a place of urgency in order to get them over with, it was a pleasure. It was more than I could have done in the previous year and the thrill of being able to do these things myself (rather than needing someone’s help) was a tonic in and of itself.
Enlisting the social engagement system by listening to our cravings and impulses is a way of healing from trauma.
It starts its own feedback loop where one positive experience increases the chances of having another.
This is how we heal from trauma.
Enlisting the social engagement system counteracts the unresolved trauma patterns that drive our symptoms of chronic illness – which involve intelligent but unhelpful patterns of protection and vigilance, anxiety or irritability, or fatigue and distress. Enlisting the social engagement system by listening to our often subtle cravings is a key to experiencing more support and pleasure.
III. How do You Enlist Your Social Engagement System?
Some friends shared their pictures on how they have followed their own impulses towards health.
One completed some of her last business calls one day from her “summer office:”
She then wrote me and added, “Sometimes heaven can be in your own backyard :).”
I couldn’t agree more.
And here’s a new one from my visit to Canada to see my family last week. I took this picture with my cousin after we had laughed to the point of tears while taking goofy selfies at the beach:
What impulses are you following? What little voices have you had difficulty listening that might need your love and attention?
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Learn more about this Polyvagal Theory, which has been developed and extensively explored and tested by physiologist Stephen Porges|