It’s still summer time for just a little while longer and I’ve been talking and writing a lot about trauma. It’s time to play and I want to introduce unexpectedly fun ways to support your social nervous system (also known as “The Vagus”). I’ve updated this 2016 post with new content and pictures.
These are also ways that support healing in chronic illness.
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 or seen as a waste of time.
The fashion for “loud” neon shoes is a contrast to that view. For me, my pink shoes have “acting out energy.” Having them on, or on my computer screen, and peppering them throughout this post makes me smile, just as it does to get my feet dirty or to play in the sand. For some reason taking pictures of feet and foot prints just makes me happy :-).
Our impulses for play, fun and pleasure come from the social nervous system. They are different for each one of us.
Impishness, fun and joy belong to the nervous system designed to help us shift gears between states of self-protection to states of safety.
This happens through connection, play and support. It’s how we are geared to naturally recover from stress and trauma.
When we live with a chronic illness, it’s common to get caught in states of vigilance, anxiety, and dread; or to feel deadened to the joys of life and overwhelmed by the challenges.
Things that resource us or feel pleasurable, on the other hand, can make a big difference.
They can sometimes also be difficult to access.
Here’s what you can do along with a wee bit of the science that explains why learning to identify and follow your impulses for pleasure and ease strengthens a physiological pathway that supports healing.
Supporting The Vagus in this way can be enough for some people to recover. Most of us also need to resolve what drives our strong underlying physiological patterns of fight, flight and freeze (often with tools such as these somatically based trauma therapies). Doing both is typically necessary.
The following are ways we support the branch of the vagus nerve known as the social nervous system, which in health is able to inhibit fight, flight and freeze unless it’s really needed.
1. Clues to Getting UnStuck From “One Gear”
Back in 2016 when I first wrote this post, I started devoting a lot of time to my burning desire to write, write, write. I had a blast for a while. But then I found myself getting grumpy.
I’d had my nose to the keyboard and suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
I was forcing 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.
Does this sound familiar – in whatever form it takes for you?
The fact that I was getting cranky was information. It’s one of our bodies’ ways of saying “no.”
This is the social nervous system’s energy efficient version of setting a boundary instead of going into a full blown fight response or overworked-type-of-tantrum.
I was also beginning to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
These are qualities of the flight response.
These are healthy, appropriate clues suggesting the need for more balance.
Another clue that my body wanted to shift gears came from increasingly frequent impulses to take a break.
What I realized, with a little nudging from my body, was that this desire for time off 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 I finally acknowledged that I had crossed the line. I was running a familiar pattern and overriding my body’s signals that it was time to change gears.
Most of us overlook these impulses. It’s a culturally promoted habit that we need to ignore. It’s also common in chronic illness.
2. Our Nervous Systems Can Have Trouble Shifting Gears
One of the challenges of living with a chronic illness is the difficulty we may have in shifting from physiological states of vigilance, sensitivity or distress to states of ease and calm, rest and recovery, and comfort in connection.
This difficulty in changing gears is only partly about us and our desires. It’s also the result of a nervous system state that has gotten stuck in modes of protection, defense and survival.
It can be about a nervous system that is caught in action mode and wants to keep going. Or stuck in freeze and not wanting (or able) to do a thing.
These are things that happen in our physiology – rather than in our heads. It’s about epigenetics and biology rather than psychology.
For myself, it’s also been due to an unconscious fear of getting caught in more immobility and freeze if I slowed down.
These are all real fears. 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 gears.
And then do what we can to respect them.
Knowing why this is helpful makes it easier to follow these urges, which are often subtle.
3. Uncomfortable Emotions Sometimes Have a Not-in-the-Present Purpose
Uncomfortable emotions have a purpose.
Fear and anger help us mobilize to escape threat, set boundaries, and keep ourselves safe.
The accumulated effects of trauma, however, can deepen and prolong these emotions and states so they happen even when they don’t serve us.
This is because the effects of adversity and other events that overwhelm our body’s ability to adapt, cope, or overcome threat leave our nervous systems stuck in the false perception that we are still trying to survive, escape or succeed.
Even if what triggered these states is long in the past.
When our autonomic nervous systems are caught in states of protection and defense, our social nervous 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, boredom, exhaustion or depression (the parasympathetic freeze response).
So when we have a chronic illness, chronic pain, a mental health condition or other chronic symptom, we have to pay attention with the specific goal of listening for impulses towards ease, joy, rest, play and the like.
This is one way of helping our bodies and brains get the message that we aren’t actually in danger now and don’t need to be in survival mode.
4. Social Nervous System Impulses for Play, Pleasure and Connection Help Us Shift Gears
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. Or we sleep in on a day off. We 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 blood pressure gets stuck in high or low modes or oscillates between extremes. Or our blood sugars, energy levels, cortisol, thyroid and other physiological processes get stuck in on, off or other positions that can’t adapt to our actual needs of the present moment.
Our access to our social nervous 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 that involve safety, pleasure, joy, ease, rest or their tiny almost unrecognizable cousins that are easy to pass over.
Here are additional specific steps that will help you recognize and act on these social nervous system impulses more easily.
5. Slow Down
When I was unable to write the blog post I finally, 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 and use the following steps.
Understanding what your impulses are and why they are helpful in the process of healing gives you more permission to follow them too.
Many of these steps will be familiar to you.
6. Make a Conscious Decision
Start by actively, mindfully, consciously deciding to listen as closely as you can.
I started the process of shifting gears by putting a hold on all non-blog-post writing. Then by 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 hunkering to take a break.
7. 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 the process. I’d been putting the task off for months.
I perused my online local library, 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.
8. 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 first ebook.
Because of this trauma-based perspective about the importance of the social nervous 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.
9. Make Room 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.
My body was grateful.
10. 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 of 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’d lived in Boulder for 15 years and this was the first time I’d ever been to the beach. I’m not sure I’d 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. It was also a likely indication of progress in my healing and capacity.
And it felt like heaven.
11. Look for Evidence You’re On the Right Track
Surprise and joy are signs we are on the right track. These are indications we are activating the social nervous system rather than just finding another way 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.
She too, has been growing the ability to listen and befriend her social nervous system in support of healing.
12. More 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 nervous system.
Delight, relief, 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 for many of us we may very well need days, weeks or even months of focus on social nervous system and basic needs.
This time I was amazed at how letting go of self-imposed deadlines lightened my load.
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 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. 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 nervous system becomes more easily activated and we no longer have to do it all through conscious choice and will power.
14. Watch For The Next Impulse
The photo above is from a few years ago when I went to the beach with my cousin. That was the first impulse. And then we just got silly. We ended up laughing until the tears were running down our cheeks. It was a total extra bonus.
After shifting gears from blogging back in 2016, 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 listened some more.
I played some more in my garden.
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.
Today in 2019 I have a lot more margin.
I can dig in my garden for a few hours at a time. I can talk on the phone for an hour with no problem most days. I was able to travel all the way to Spain a few months ago to work on multigenerational trauma. I’m planning to give some talks, including one on ABEs (adverse babyhood experiences) at a perinatal conference in November.
I am slowly and surely getting better.
15. Keep Practicing – It Gets Easier
A month ago, in the 2019 update to this post, I reached a similar place of irritability in trying to work on my blog. This happened after all-out efforts I’d made in promoting myself after being nominated for a #WEGO Patient Leader Award. It was exhilarating and exciting to go for it, and rewarding to get such support from you guys (woohoo!!).
It was also exhausting at an emotional and physical level to put myself out there so fully and forcefully.
So I needed to pull in and hibernate to balance things out.
Over the past few weeks I’ve taken a lot of naps (which I rarely need any more), lay in bed doing nothing, read a bunch of fiction, gone to the beach, rescheduled events for September so I could switch into much-needed summer mode, taken some hikes – and went to McDonald’s to honor my desire for my first Big Mac in 10 years (I’m a sucker for the sauce).
My food sensitivities are almost gone since setting some boundaries with a family member in November, which was simply a layer I reached after years of attachment work (working with invisible ACEs).
I had some fries and a shake to go with that. It was delicious and completely satisfying. My body was totally fine with it all too.
This is how our bodies slowly (and for some, more quickly) heal as we resolve the underlying trauma and perceptions of threat that drive our symptoms.
I suspect my process of healing and recovery is taking me 20 years in part because this is a new way of thinking, but also in large part because I have wanted to understand every single step of my process. Steeping myself in the trauma literature and discussion has also slowed things down since it is a painful field to immerse oneself in.
Healing, however, is continuing to happen – just as our bodies are designed to do.
Enlisting the social nervous 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 one of the ways that supports our natural ability to heal from trauma.
How Do You Guys Enlist Your Social Nervous System?
Some friends shared the pictures below on how she followed her impulses towards health after I first published this post (one is named above, the other below).
This one was after a friend completed some of her last business calls from her “summer office:”
She then wrote me and added, “Sometimes heaven can be in your own backyard :).”
I couldn’t agree more.
What impulses are you following? What little voices have you had difficulty listening that might need your love and attention?
Add your picture in a comment, I’d love to share what YOUR personal resources are as part of spreading the social nervous system love :-).
It can be whatever is a resource for you, whether it’s play or ease, feet or nature or your cat etc. If you have any problems uploading an image send me an email. I’ll respond and you can then attach a picture.
Read This Post in a PDF
The form will appear momentarily.
Shhhh, Listen! Do you Hear Your Social Nervous System Calling?
See friend and colleague Dr. Arielle Schwartz’ page for ways of actively and directly stimulating the vagus nerve