Currently in Australia and in Bendigo, where I live, we are experiencing some real challenges as we are another lockdown.
We’re facing restrictions on our way of life and although for many of us we can see why these things need to happen, our nervous systems are feeling frayed by the endless news and statistics, reports on cases and vaccines.
If you team this with having to manage working from home and homeschooling children and, not to mention, those of you with partners, maybe having them at home all day with you.
Just the thought of it all can really frazzle your nervous system.
Are you feeling frazzled right now?
These last few days, it's felt like walking through mud. Slow and sluggish, numb, difficulty even naming how I’m feeling.
Have you started wondering if you are slipping into depression?
Even with all the training it took a while to realise what was going on for me, and most likely for you. This is my nervous system doing what nervous systems do.
This blog is dedicated to our nervous systems and how they relate to what's been going on in the world
I'm going to explain about what Dan Siegal calls our, ‘Window of Tolerance’. By the end of this blog you will have an awareness of your own window of tolerance, how your nervous system is doing and some ideas to try to soothe your nervous system and bring it back to feelings of safety.
Let's get started!
Have you been feeling like you’re really low on energy, kind of running on autopilot, disconnected, numb?
Are you having trouble putting your coping strategies into action? No matter how many people tell you to do ‘self-care’?
You keep telling yourself that you ‘should’ be doing better, that other people seem to be managing, other people have it worse than me, why aren’t I able to move off this couch?
If only I could think straight, is a common and recurring thought right now.
These are symptoms of a nervous system that is overloaded and shutting down. It is not surprising that this is happening. Our nervous system is set up to protect us, to keep us safe.
Our nervous system continually scans our environment for cues of safety or cues of danger. Instantaneously, when a threat is perceived, a series of physiological events take place that mobilise us to engage in fight or flight.
This is the sympathetic nervous system in action which has evolved over time. It is what has kept humans alive since the caveman days. The caveman (or woman) that did not have a very well developed fight/flight response probably didn’t live long enough to procreate.
Here we are in a complex, 21st Century world, with a well developed nervous system that was designed to make sure we were safe from sabre tooth tigers.
But, every time we turn on the news or scroll through social media we are bombarded with cues of danger. Gee, even going to the supermarket feels fraught with danger these days. One of the ways our nervous systems read for safety or danger in another person is through reading the body language and facial cues.
Now that we are wearing masks when we’re out and about there is a whole aspect of body language that is not so easy to read. Conflicting information about our safety increases our sense of being unsafe.
For some of us even our homes don’t feel that safe anymore. Home used to be a place to come back to after a day at work, now we might be working from home.
We might be trying to teach children from home at the same time as working from home.
We might not be getting the same amount of time we used to have to restore our nervous systems.
If connection with friends, or time alone was something that was soothing to you, that might no longer be available.
All this is triggering to our nervous system and puts us outside of our window of tolerance into fight and flight or hyperarousal.
The nitty gritty of it all
Dan Siegel came up with this model called the window of tolerance. If you can imagine that it’s one of those old fashioned windows that can slide up and down. The middle section of the window is our safe and social zone. I sometimes call this the GREEN zone.
Now, when we're in our zone of safety we are emotionally regulated, we feel calm, we feel safe and secure. We feel connected to others and our decision making skills are at their best. We are also in the optimal zone for learning and taking on new information.
When our nervous system is triggered and we go outside of our window of tolerance we either go into hyperarousal, our fight and flight response, or what I call the RED zone
We can also become hypo aroused, which I call the BLUE zone.
The fight/flight response is where we might experience anger, anxiety, stress, worry, racing thoughts, shaking. We might feel out of control, chaotic and have emotional outbursts.
We might have reactions to situations that are not our usual reactions we might find ourself more emotionally sensitive. We may find ourselves with a lot more tension in our bodies and have difficulty relaxing. Or we might find ourselves more defensive, as though we're trying to protect ourselves from a threat. This is all part of the nervous system trying to protect us.
When we are hypo aroused, or in the BLUE zone, we are in the freeze state or shutdown. This is the low energy, numbness, emotional disconnection.
This is what I call a ‘doona’ day. Do you love these?
Those days where you have just had enough and you want to pull the doona over your head and disappear for a while. This is where we go when our nervous system can no longer fight or flight.
My feeling is that many people have been experiencing this lately and I’ll explain why.
You see, fight and flight response are a short term solution to a problem. Remember that sabre tooth tiger that I was talking about. The adrenaline and other physiological responses that were required to solve a threat like a sabre tooth tiger were only required for a short amount of time.
Eventually the nervous system shuts down. It is signalling that it needs to recover and recuperate. I remember seeing a meme that described being depressed as needing ‘deep rest’ so for me that is where I think many of us are at right now.
We need to rest, we need to nurture our nervous systems. We need to be allowing ourselves , giving ourselves permission to restore, and bring ourselves back into that green zone.
How do we nurture our nervous systems?
How can we self compassionately allow ourselves to rest and come back to safety, in a world that still might not feel that safe?
What if how you’re feeling isn’t some individual failing on your part but just your nervous system’s way of coping with a situation?
I find this is really important to share with clients in session. Sometimes I just see the relief in a person’s eyes as they stop thinking that the low energy, or the feeling numb, or the irritation that they feel with everybody that they are stuck in a house with is all their fault.
‘You mean to say this is normal?’ they ask me.
YES, totally normal!!
This is the way the nervous system works and all of us, the whole world in fact, is dealing with a global situation right now that, to differing degrees, triggers our nervous system.
Understanding this can bring a lot of relief because, rather than judging yourself, we can start moving towards self compassion.
You might have noticed that I haven’t talked about the freeze response yet.
Easy tips too assist you
I want you to think now about what is it for you that helps you feel safe what brings you back into that window of tolerance that green zone what can you do to nurture your nervous system at this time or where do you feel the most safe.
For me, my pets bring a lot of calm to my nervous system.
Patting a pet can be a very mindful and nurturing experience, for both yourself and your pet.
You might find a warm bath, or shower to be of comfort, or a hot water bottle.
Some gentle stretching, or some walking can be helpful.
Sometimes music can be soothing to your nervous system, or activity that requires rocking or swaying, even some dancing.
We cannot change the whole world situation right now and the world will continue to present us with challenges that are threatening to our nervous system.
But If we can incorporate more of these moments into our day we can attempt to counteract that feeling of fraying and frazzled nerves and bring ourselves back into our safe zone. Over time we can expand our window of tolerance.
The other day I lay down on the floor with the cat, by the window. The sun was shining through, it felt warm and comforting. I gave myself permission to just do nothing, just for a while. I knew it wouldn’t be forever, I would move and get going eventually and I did.
It can be really reassuring to understand our nervous system.
It can be so helpful to know that our nervous systems are wired to keep us safe, and when we are outside our window of tolerance, that there is a reason for this. If we can remember to notice and name what state we are in and remind ourselves that there are ways to bring ourselves back to our safe zone, this can be very soothing. It helps to reduce the self judgement and we can begin to treat ourselves with more compassion.
I’ll be offering some ways to connect online in the coming months. To connect with me, you can join my email list and keep up to date with a monthly newsletter or jump on to our waitlist to be the first to know.
Until next time, keep your nervous system safe :)