What are you afraid of, really?

Fear has great potential to either be a catalyst for growth and change, or to be the cause of crippling paralysis. Fear is what enables us to run away from a burning building or dangerous animal, but if we have not had experiences of fear mobilizing us into action than we can get stuck in a cycle of freezing. Much of how we respond to fear and what we do with it is based on our early childhood experiences and what our bodies have learned to do with fear.

Most often fear is not actually about the phone call, job interview, or new career venture that we are deciding to make or not. Fear is actually about the neural connections that have fired together in the past. Our Limbic System is the part of our brain that houses our Amygdala; and our Amygdala is the primary part of our brain responsible for our fight/flight response. Our limbic brain, also known as our mammalian brain, can feel emotions (such as fear), but it does not have the rational that our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) has. This means that our limbic system has no way to differentiate between the fear I am feeling when I need to have a difficult conversation and the fear I have felt when I was white water rafting the Nile River in Uganda. All it has the ability to say, as you may have seen in my previous posts, is “all systems red alert!!” or “it’s okay to rest, digest and chill”.

If as children we experienced chronic trauma or stress that was inescapable we can become trapped in a perpetual state of fight/flight or freeze. We may be constantly in a state of unrest that leaves us agitated and prone to outrageous outbursts, or we may be stuck in an immobility response that keeps us stuck in toxic relationships or communities without the sense of self agency to leave.

So what is it that you are avoiding?

Is it that you are really avoiding that big career change, or that boundary that you need to set for yourself with someone else? Are you really staying away from the risk of that new invention? Or book you want to write?

Perhaps are you avoiding the feeling of what it is to set that boundary or make that leap?

We aren’t taught in our Western culture to befriend our emotions. We are taught to not feel, or at least to pretend like we don’t feel. The problem is that this is a bit like ignoring a burning coal that you’ve buried under a stack of wood that has been drying out in a desert for three years. The more we try to hide or look away from our emotions, especially ones that are charged with energy because they are meant for our safety and survival - the more those emotions will come back with a fire that we cannot ignore. Sometimes this smoldering can look like an autoimmune disease within the body, sometime it can look like a forest fire of relationships that we leave in our wake because we have not chosen to address the coal in the first place.

So how do we face the fear in order to use it as a catalyst and not a hindrance? How do we harness the energy and fuel from the fire and keep it from becoming a destructive force to us and to others? I am glad you asked :) Here are some thoughts…

  1. This may sound challenging and absolutely awful, and I won’t say it won’t be at first, but I believe that is actually the main reason we need to do it…

    1. stay. with. the. fear.

    2. Don’t run away from it. Don’t avoid it. Don’t hide it. But listen to it. Ask yourself; what does this fear feel like? Where in my body do I feel the fear? Is it a shudder through my entire system? Is it a hole in my stomach? Is it racing thoughts in my head? Become familiar with what the fear feels like for you.

  2. After you have recognized the feelings of fear see if you can find a place in your body that does not feel afraid, or if you can access a memory of what your body felt like when you weren’t afraid. When did you feel peaceful? How did that feeling feel in your body? Where did you feel rest? Where did you feel spaciousness within yourself? Where in your body did you feel settled?

  3. Now that you have built a certain level of safety within yourself come back to the fear. Has it increased? Has it shifted? Now start to ask yourself, “when was the first time I felt this way?” See if there is an age, an experience, or a memory that comes to mind. Who are the people in this memory? What is the setting? How old were you? Start to create a narrative in your mind that enables the body memory of fear to find one of the places it originated. As yourself, “How was my fear attuned to?” “who helped me overcome my fear or allowed me to feel a sense of agency when I was scared?” Some of these answers may become unsettling to you, and if they feel overwhelming return to point two and continue to build safety within yourself. Returning to the questions and curiosity about the fear when and as you are able to. Letting go of judgment and expectation of if you “should” be able to engage them now- but listening authentically to where you are at in this moment.

  4. After you have located experiences when you first learned this feeling of fear ask yourself, “what did that part of me need?” perhaps there was an experience where you needed to run away or fight off someone or something and you weren’t able to. Allow your body to move in any motion that makes you feel as if you are running away or fighting something off- this can help your body complete the survival response it may not have been able to in the moment. Perhaps what you needed to receive in that moment was comfort and for someone to let you know you were going to be okay, and if that is true maybe offer yourself a weighted blanket, a warm bath, or ask a loved one that you trust to hold your and speak to you kind words letting you know you will be okay. In whatever seems right for you pay attention to your breath. See if you can allow long, deep, slow breaths to fill your entire belly and chest; this will help make sure you are staying in parasympathetic (peaceful) dominance and not re-traumatizing yourself. This can begin to give your nervous system a new experience of what fear is and let you know you are not stuck in a memory where you didn’t have choice or the ability to run or fight. You are safe now.

  5. Come back to point two- maybe even with increased awareness of places of safety within yourself that you have found. Maybe you have found a new level of agency and support that you are able to offer yourself. Perhaps you have now grown a sense of confidence that you can do scary things and still survive. Continue paying attention to and trying to expand and slow down your breathing.

  6. See if you can take this breath and safety with you into whatever that risky and scary endeavor you need to make is. Come back to your place of safety within the fear; allowing yourself to move fluidly between fear and peace; and go for it!

  7. If you found yourself still unable to engage the fear- that is okay! Perhaps you are not ready to, and it may be helpful for you to find a professional that can help you address the themes of fear or terror with you.

Often times the most dangerous thing about fear is how it can be latched on to by people or systems that wish to use it against those that are afraid.

By building our capacity to face our fears and learn what soothing and comfort feel like we can start to reclaim parts of ourselves that feel oppressed and stuck in systems or relationships that are unhealthy for us. We can start to grow our autonomy and safety within ourselves that give us greater capacity to seek out safe and healthy relationships and communities with others.

Thanks for reading!

The Enteric Nervous System: Why is it significant for mental health?

Have you ever heard of the Enteric Nervous System? I hadn’t either until a few years ago. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) serves as a deeply important part of our overall health, as it impacts the movement and flexion of the Gastrointestinal system running from the esophagus all the way to the rectum.

You may (or may not) be familiar with the two more well-known aspects of our Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic (used for our fight, flight resources) and Parasympathetic (our rest and digest resource). The Enteric Nervous System is also part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), but it has now been recognized as its own branch, since it can function without the other branches of the ANS.

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by sankalpmaya/iStock / Getty Images

A few key things to know about the Enteric Nervous System would be:

  • It has more nerve cells than your entire spinal cord

  • 90% or more of the bodies Serotonin and half of the bodies Dopamine lies in the gut

    • Serotonin plays a key role in regulating mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function

    • Dopamine is correlated with our reward-motivated behavior and impacts body movements as well as emotional responses

  • There are many conditions associated with Enteric Nervous System such as:

    • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

    • Crohn’s and other forms of Colitis

    • Reflux, Acid Reflux, and more…

      • (References from video link below)

This means is that the gut (and more exactly the Enteric Nervous System) really is the bodies second brain.

Why is this significant?

For too long psychology has functioned as if we are floating heads, and it has ignored the constant and significant interplay of the mind and body. Candace Pert PhD, a neuroscientist who discovered how emotions are stored at a neuropeptide level within the body writes:

“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other”.

Not only are the mind and body not separate, but research into the Enteric Nervous System shows that the mind is IN the body. Because the neurotransmitter’s Dopamine and Serotonin are responsible for our mood and our bodily functions, and are predominantly located within the belly, this part of the body must be engaged if we are to pursue holistic healing. The ENS does have the ability to function on its own; however, because of its proximity and correlation to the PSNS and SNS it is impacted by the bodies state of stress vs. rest. This means that taking care of our gut involves what we eat, but it also involves the stress that we are surrounded by.

  • Ways to assist the functioning of your ENS:

    • Eat whole, unprocessed foods

    • Learn if you have any food allergies or intolerance and avoid such foods

    • Find ways to build up your digestive enzymes through probiotics

    • Allow yourself to have moments of relaxation:

      • Take a walk in nature and find a peaceful place to sit and just be

      • Take a bath with some essential oils and calming music

      • Participate in a yoga or mindfulness class

    • Talk to a somatically informed mental health counselor if you have felt a state of stress, anxiety, or depression

    • Get exercise in order to assist your bodies boosts of feel-good hormones

Gut issues and sensitivities, just like mood concerns, should not be ignored. The good news there is hope if you have struggled with issues such as constipation, diarrhea, IBS, or other gastrointestinal issues. The body never lies, and if you have struggled with any of these the chance is your body is communicating something to you. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you continue to take the next few moments to listen to your gut. Listen to the rumblings or the stillness. Listen to the movement or congestion. What may your gut be telling you about your mental and physical state of wellbeing? All the best on your journey to healing!

((I am not a medical doctor and the above is based on personal research and opinion. It is not intended for medical advice. You should always consult your doctor when it comes to physical health.))

Resources:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/kc/serotonin-facts-232248

http://candacepert.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXx4WTVU34Y

The Psoas and Chronic Stress/ Trauma

Muscle of Survival

Our Psoas Muscle is known as the “fight-flight” muscle. As you can see in the picture below- the Psoas connects our lumbar spine to our inner thighs by running through our hip joint. The connection between our back and our legs enables us to run and kick. These are the two primary functions that we need in “fight-flight” mode (hence the name!)

When our nervous system senses that we are in danger it alerts our Psoas to fire up. This enables us to be ready to run away from a lion that is chasing us, or to fight off another predator that may be more of our match. The neural connection between our brain and our muscles is a two way street. Just as the brain tells the Psoas to fire up; when the Psoas is in flexion it is sending neural messages to the brain saying “we are in danger and are going to need some support!” When the brain gets this message from our tense muscles our nervous fires out cortisol and adrenalin needed to preserve our life.

Obviously our Psoas is pretty significant when it comes to survival. (it is also a primary muscle involved in our stability and balance) .

The Stressed Psoas

The issue when we are dealing with chronic stress or trauma is that our Psoas is often in a constant state of flexion (activation).

When we have experienced chronic stress or trauma our nervous system is hyper-vigilant. Our brain and our muscles are in a constant state of ready, or even activation, in order to help us survive. Our nervous system does not have a rational way of thinking. It does not know how to differentiate the stress of traffic, cityscapes, or uncomfortable e-mails from a bear that is about to eat us. It only knows how to say “let’s get out of here!!” or “it’s oooookay to chill out….” Both of which occurs at an unconscious level in a fraction of a second.

Trauma research shows us that our physiology is impacted just as much as (if not more than) our psychology through stress and adverse experiences.

How do you know if you have a tight Psoas?

  • Do you sit more hours in a day then you spend moving around?

  • Have you ever experienced stressful events in life (be them extreme events such as the loss of a loved one or a car accident or seemingly less significant like the loss of a friendship or a fight with a spouse?)

  • Do you often have lower back pain?

  • Do you often find yourself feeling anxious, agitated, or frustrated?

If you have answered yes to any of the questions above there is a potential that you have a tight Psoas. This muscle can be impacted by any of these events. It can also impact our mood and emotional wellbeing due to the neural firings that occur when our Psoas is tight.

So what does it matter?

So why am I talking about the Psoas and how it is impacted by trauma?

Well… our Psoas muscle can serve as a litmus test for the rest of our body. When our Psoas is in a state of relaxation and rest- typically so is the rest of our body. And when our Psoas is tight and flexed- so is the rest of our body! This can produce an excess of cortisol and adrenal in our system which can lead to a myriad of stress-related health disorders including adrenal fatigue.

Our Psoas muscle is also correlated with our Diaphragm, which one of our main muscles responsible for breathing (see diagram below). As you can see the Diaphragm and the Psoas connect along the same vertebrae in the lower spine- so when the Psoas is tight we are unable to fully extend our Diaphragm. This means we aren’t able to take a full breath! When we are taking short, shallow breaths as opposed to long, slow breaths our body is in a constant state of Sympathetic Arousal (fight-flight). We cannot have both our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic (rest-digest) systems firing at the same time, and when our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is offline than we are unable to properly digest and absorb our food nutrients, our immune system is not going to be functioning at an optimal level, and we will have impaired ability to produce fresh blood cells…among many other general health functions that occur through our PNS.

A tight Psoas muscle can mean that our overall health and wellbeing is impaired.

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by magicmine/iStock / Getty Images

What to do about it?

This good news is that we don’t have to be in a chronic state of fight-flight mode! The key is learning to listen to and respond to what our body is telling us. If your Psoas is tight (or if you have lower back pain as a potential symptom of a tight Psoas) here are some things you can do:

  • Stretch! Few things are as good on the body as stretching. Stretching should NEVER be about forcing your body into contortions. It is about getting into postures that feel slightly uncomfortable due to muscle tension and teaching your body to surrender and relax INTO the stretch.

  • Talk to a mental health counselor. Remember that the mind and the body is a two way street? Perhaps your Psoas is tight because of unconscious stresses in your life. These stressors may be scary or risky to face on your own. Talking to a professional who can help you listen to the language of your body and find out if there are circumstances or relationships you need to adjust in order for your body to be at rest is an invaluable investment!

  • Shake: Bear with me on this one- I know it may sound crazy. But one of the most amazing things we can do for our body (and one thing we almost never do) is to shake. Literally. Lay on your back and shake your head, arms, legs, and hips (paying special attention to your psoas). This can release extra energy and tension held in your viscera and nervous system so that your body can achieve a new state of relaxation.

  • Rest! After stretching and/or shaking allow yourself to lay on your back with arms by your side (palms up) and legs down with feet hanging open. If that is uncomfortable for your lower back you can bend your knees and put your feet on the floor with your knees together. Close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breath. Don’t have your phone or other distracting devices with you. Maybe play some calming instrumental music, and just be. See if you can slow down and increase your breath by focusing on your belly and chest raising with your inhale. This is giving your body the experience of resting and can help shift you into your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

Thanks for reading!