This Holiday, Give the Gift of Your Calm Nervous SystemDec 09, 2021
Between the ongoing pandemic and the extreme polarization of US society these days, it seems like we all suffer from a feeling of being under threat by some “bad other” whom we just don’t understand. Seeds of fear are often watered by media outlets of various kinds, movies, and social media—which leads to dysregulation of our nervous systems.
When our bodies stay in a fight, flight, or freeze state, our nervous systems become dysregulated. In these moments, you may feel your heart racing, stomach clenching, muscles tightening – or, not feel much at all and go numb. Over extended periods of time, this can create stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, and so many more. On a collective level, fear and dysregulation drives poor decision-making, reactivity, and tribalism, including scapegoating whomever we think of as “other.”
Humans are actually innately empathic; our feelings are contagious. “Mirror neurons” in our brains pick up on the emotional states of those around us, like tuning forks, without our conscious awareness. Our nervous systems’ tendency to pick up on fear around us is an evolutionary adaptation we can observe among herd animals. When one individual sees a predator, the rest of the herd flees almost instantaneously, rather than requiring the message to be conveyed from one individual to the next. Fear, anger, and other heightened emotional states can spread rapidly among human communities as well – we certainly have been witnessing this phenomenon in the last few years!
But here’s the silver lining: people with calm nervous systems can help soothe the nervous systems of those around them as well. More people with calm, well-regulated nervous systems can help to calm our nation down from fear-driven action more than anything else.
While it’s true we face real problems that legitimately inspire fear, at the same time the level of threat many Americans are feeling in their bodies and minds is not in line with their lived daily experience. When we are in touch with the aspects of our day-to-day lives we can sensorily touch and feel, when we are aware of the real people around us rather than imagining an “unreal other” - we can drop into safety and connection around us. We can wake up to the miracles that are supporting us in each moment such as food, shelter, clothing, friends and loved ones. We actually have to work much harder to make our brains notice the things that are good and well even if those are the things right in front of us!
Most of the time, the things we are fearful and anxious about are not actually our lived experience right in this moment. These anxieties make our nervous system feel like we are being attacked right now, and we experience fight, or flight, or freeze. Those dysregulated reactions over time deteriorate our physical and mental health and our ability to be present, lucid, and responsive when needed.
In Love in Action, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about practicing during the war in Vietnam, while members of his order were frequently under threat and being killed. Breathing, walking meditation, gardening and putting his hands in the soil were not luxuries: they were the only way to bring wise action into dire circumstances. Practice - staying calm and grounded - is the life and sanity saving strategy we need in difficult times. It is the difference between evolution and devolution, acting from our highest selves – from our higher brain centers which we access when our nervous system is calm, and which give us the capacity for wisdom and compassion, instead of from our survival brain which comes online during fight/flight/freeze and causes the reactions we come to regret later.
Know that whatever you do to come back to the present moment and calm your nervous system helps not just you but those around you as well. This may include meditation, yoga, qi gong, time in nature or time with animals you love. The holidays are coming up, which are a stressful time for many. Whether it's around the family table or at the mall or in an airport, you'll probably have opportunities to share your calm nervous system with others. Start when your nervous system is not in an aroused state, and remind yourself, “in this moment, I am safe.” Then when you notice some activation from a non-threatening stimulus, breathe for a few moments, and once again remind yourself, “in this moment, I am safe.”
“Without doing anything, things can sometimes go more smoothly just because of our peaceful presence. In a small boat when a storm comes, if one person remains solid and calm, others will not panic and the boat is more likely to stay afloat” (Thich Nhat Hanh). Your calm nervous system, and all that you do to spread calm, is truly a gift to the world.
See My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
by Resmaa Menakem, and Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma by Elizabeth Stanley