If you grew up in a high strung environment, around chaos or didn’t get much attention you probably need to give your nervous system some tenderness. I really recommend folks get a nervous system routine. Daily check ins with one’s inner child and daily nervous system routines can help people in between sessions and can be tremendously helpful for overall nervous system recovery. Now there’s truly no linear direction to recovery, I can testify to that, but I believe we can get more in tuned with ourselves if we give our nervous system a chance.
I didn’t make up this nervous system stuff. Dr. Stephen Porges began his career studying the autonomic response in 1969 and first published on the polyvagal theory in 1995. In Explaining Well shortcast, Dr. Porges stated that the polyvagal theory “shifts our own personal documentary from events to feelings.” Events include adverse experiences as perceived by the person experiencing the traumatic incident(s). We use “cues of safety” as Dr. Porges stated in the shortcast to help people not go into or even come out of fight/flight/freeze. Everything from music to taking some breaths together or a repaired relationship with a corrective, “I’m sorry” can help both folks regulate together or “co-regulate.” You can also check out more about Dr. Porges’ work, timeline and resources here.
If you’re in therapy or trying to give your nervous system a chance, then you may know about the the helpfulness of the vagus nerve and nervous system states. Here’s more info to help you notice and come to safety.
In fight or flight your sympathetic nervous system is handling things, whether you’d like to be fighting or fleeing or not. This is when we’re reactive and maybe even intense, even if the trigger isn’t logically scary or calling for this big fight or flight reaction. Honestly, it could be so far from what is actually scary or concerning to us, but if a part of you is triggered then the nervous system comes in to save the day by kicking into fight or flight. You may feel angry, annoyed or on edge, like you need to leave or fight and you may have racing thoughts.
Freeze is the dorsal vagal state. When you’re in freeze mode or numb you may not notice. You may beat yourself up afterward for not saying or doing what you meant to do. First of all. It wasn’t your fault. We literally adapted to have a freeze response to save our lives so if we don’t say/do much or fawn in niceties when we’re triggered then that’s a survival reaction to stress and trauma. People freeze because there is perceived danger and their nervous system comes in to save the day or rescue the person from a trigger. We freeze up in an attempt to protect and stay alive.
This is the ventral vagal state where we feel at ease. You can interact with people and are there (not like zoning out or somewhere else). You’re not frozen or intense. You’re just chilling in your safe space.
When you can notice whether you’re frozen/numb/fawning or in fight/flight you can then implement your nervous system routine and come back to the ventral vagal state. There is so much hope to return to safety through the nervous system and I believe it gives us a chance to be more in tune with our inner child.
I like to stick with a daily routine of meditation, cold, and movement and sometimes even some shaking if I had lots of freeze or lethargy that day. After you explore more below on implementing your nervous system routine, I’d love to hear what you hope to implement. There are daily activities that you can do to help get you out of freeze or fight/flight to eventually a place of safety within. A good friend of mine recently described it as a home within.
One last thing before we get to the routine; remember one baby step at a time and don’t do it with perfection! We know that overloading a routine can be tempting, but unhelpful. That means starting with 1-5 minutes daily BEFORE building in more to your nervous system routine. Some people might even say just trying a minute or two a few times a week before moving to more frequently. I typically have about 30 minutes to start my day with nervous system activities and that didn’t happen over night. It took a while to build up from 5 minutes to 30 minutes where I can implement all things I want to for my nervous system in the mornings. If you miss a day, there’s no dogmatism or righteousness here. Pick back up on your routine the next day or in a couple of days and please don’t attach your worth to how many days you did your nervous system routine. You’re just further stressing yourself and your nervous system out so try a routine here without shame. Come from a place of love and curiosity and I think your nervous system will really appreciate it in the long run ❤
Notice: First, notice what your body and mind are like when you’re in each of the states: fight/flight, numb/frozen and ventral vagal/safety. An example is that when I’m in fight/flight my mind is going a 1,000 miles per minute and I’m calculating all of the possible worries on different tracks at once and I’m irritable and my body is warm, especially my ears.
In freeze, I’m quiet and nodding along or saying nice stuff to things I may or may not even understand in the moment. I may even notice I’ve blanked out.
In ventral vagal, I feel ease in my chest, I feel love and comfortable and my listening and body are open and relaxed.
What does each state look like for you? The more detailed you can get, the more you can notice when you’re in fight/flight or freeze and bring yourself a place of calm. You can even keep ways that help you come out of dissociation or calm down in the “notes” part of your phone to help when your mind goes offline a bit.
Activated: Now let’s get a routine going for your nervous system. One of the best things people can do when they start therapy with me is starting with a daily cold compress on their chest for five minutes. The deep breathing, calming play lists for your inner child, connecting with an understanding loved one, or relaxing meditation that I later recommend can be hard for some people to access and that’s totally understandable. Things like a cold compress on the chest can be more accessible and set someone up for success with their nervous system routine. I ask patients to add on the time they keep the cold compress on their chest until they’re doing it for about ten minutes. I specifically recommend it at night before they go to bed since it can help them with nervousness in the moment, but also to tone the vagus nerve for later too.
Checked out: If someone is feeling like they’ve been zoning out or numb I like to introduce shaking. This is my favorite meditation for dissociation. I highly recommend trying this daily or not just when you’re frozen. If you think about it, it can help to shake out of a frozen state much like we see when a dog gets up. We see dogs shake it off and then they just move onto the next thing. Additionally, if you can pull up a dance video or some movement that feels okay in your body then I highly recommend it to help you move from dissociation into presence too. I love to do a three minute Zumba dance to Cuff It by Beyoncé! It really doesn’t have to be a lot or super long, but it can be helpful to move when you’re numb or when you know you tend to space out/dissociate. I think just noticing when I’m zoning out/dissociated is a win and then I can notice the feeling under what the dissociation was protecting. I’d be curious to see how movement and noticing help your nervous system too.
Soft hearts, whether you dare to put an ice pack gently on your chest tonight, dance it out or try the shaking meditation, please know I see you and I’m grateful you’re joining me here. Annnnd you can get started in therapy with me here!