For the Tired and Wired of 2020
This is an empowerment note for those stuck in low-to-medium chronic distress.
A nervous system-based boop in a new direction… for the fridge-riding, doom-scrolling, cannabis-smoking, drinking a bit extra-ing, tv-binging, over-exercising, drama-seeking, workaholic, stressing lot of us.
In the OI model, we think of the nervous system as adversely impacted by three mechanisms/tendencies/patterns, that happen autonomically and in the moment:
- Too much inhibition
- Too little inhibition
- Incomplete rest period
These refer to physical patterns that maintain a nervous system’s state. They keep us stable, and they help us avoid further traumatization. However, they also maintain the status quo, which can keep us stuck and suffering. So “too much”, “too little” and “incomplete” are not judgements, but ways of describing unconscious physiological processes that take place during sympathetic arousal (more on that another time.) I hope to normalize how the nervous system tends to choose stability even when the conditions offer potential for growth, and one aspect of what we can do about it. Growth can be hard, but we know from experience what is also hard: things staying the same. So if you are feeling fed up or ready for a change, this piece is for you.
One, two, or more likely all three of the issues above come into play in a given situation and body.
Quinn was raised in a context in which money was tight and caused tension in their family. As an adult, their basic needs are met, but they would like to grow a business, and it brings up a lot. When it is time to learn and strategize the financial side, they feel fear and stress in their body. Because of the physiological conditions in place due to past experience, Quinn’s body doesn’t know different, and doesn’t anticipate potential new supports for their emotions, sensations and thoughts. So as they rise, these feelings are physically, unconsciously repressed in order to avoid overwhelm (“too much inhibition”), which means they don’t express their feelings or attempt to get help with the situation until it comes to a head and the fear becomes acute distress, causing it to spill out while meeting with their partner about joint finances (“too little inhibition.”) Afterward, they feel somewhat relieved for having emoted and sharing their experience, but before things really settle, and before Quinn gets a chance to rest and strategize from a strong place, they are stressed again, worrying about the future (“incomplete rest period.”)
Quick note- the “basic needs are met” part is important. This piece should be understood as inspiration, and in no way a defense of “bootstrapping.” When our basic needs are unmet we should not expect ourselves or others to be able to “transcend,” and be ashamed when we cannot. In the time of COVID, this distinction becomes even more complex, so I hope to proceed with nuance and care.
Clinically, we have ways of disrupting this cycle with support for each of the three moments in the Quinn example, but based on my sense of the “somatics of the moment”, I would like to offer strategy and inspiration for tackling part II: “too little inhibition.” We’ll do this by working with awareness and healthy inhibition.
You may have noticed that Quinn’s circumstances are totally reasonable.
“You’re telling me that their body felt the way it felt, unconsciously, because of conditions set up in the past, so they clamped down on sensations and emotions and that is called ‘too much inhibition’?” Yes. Again, we’re talking about a physical process and these terms are not moral in nature (as if one should know or do differently.) And, the sympathetic energy and emotion therein was stuck- it rose up, and instead of hitting a natural peak/threshold/transition point, it stayed where it was and bubbled under the surface. …Sound familiar?
Too much and too little refer to our window of tolerance.
“Window of tolerance” is the range of life-intensity at which I can have my experience — in a sense, witness my own experience — without becoming distressed or dissociating. If I am outside of my window of tolerance, I may have anxiety, looping thoughts, be distracted, and experience a generalized internal intensity that has a really hard time coming down.
Here’s another version of the story:
Quinn was raised in a context in which money was tight and caused tension in their family. As an adult, their basic needs are met, but they would like to grow their business, and dealing with the financial side brings up a lot of fear. When it is time to learn and strategize financially, they feel fear and stress in their body. They realize that this stress is recurring, impacts their health, finances and relationship, and prevents them from taking action steps. They have been developing a close relationship to their body in the last X number of months/years, and notice that the feelings they are having are “too much” or are out of their window of tolerance. Quinn can sense a collapse/spillover coming on as they think about facing their partner during their upcoming meeting about joint finances. Realizing they can’t do this alone, they remember a friend who is doing well in her business and text her to talk about it. The friend responds and they set a date to talk. Quinn asks their partner if they can postpone the meeting together until next week, after they get some support. They go inside and make a meal for themselves.
In this example, Quinn was already experiencing distress, but it was initially “under the surface” and would be hard to recognize without a clear and compassionate relationship to their own body.
There is so much to be said about developing this relationship. Getting support from someone who understands trauma, trauma-safe mindfulness and the body is helpful, as is reading about these topics (I am working on a reading list and will have that available on my website soon.) The Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) framework is another beautiful, research-backed practice designed to help with this, and they offer a lot of free resources online (including a “How self-compassionate are you?” test!) Having a baseline of awareness and compassion toward yourself is crucial. If you tend not to regard yourself and your body’s experiences with a sense of normalcy and care, you will miss those moments when other choices are possible. I might recommend reading my article on the freeze response.
I have come to think of healthy inhibition as a tool of redirection that can be made conscious through practice. “Inhibition” here refers both to conscious and unconscious processes, all of which take place in the body. The definition of inhibition I am working with is “a voluntary or involuntary restraint on the direct expression of an instinct.”
These are all just examples:
- I can consciously inhibit myself from doing or saying this or that.
- I can unconsciously be inhibited by a contraction in my body, that holds my muscles tight so that I don’t cry
- If I am aware, have some practice and feel safe, I can consciously relax/disinhibit my body so that my crying flows freely
- I can be unconsciously disinhibited if I am in safe conditions with my people and we feel the flow together. Likewise if I feel ungrounded, am under the influence, etc.
Skill-building inhibition can be helpful for switching gears when feeling our feelings isn’t helping.
“Feel it to heal it” is a great motto for those times when you are within your window of tolerance, and can hold, and be held, in life experiences with self-witnessing, self-compassion and groundedness. When intensity is a bit too high (hello, 2020!) a redirect may be just the ticket.
Here are some steps to practice redirection, in the spirit of healthy inhibition:
- Slow down and become aware of your experience. Maybe you are aware already, but maybe you are lost in the throes- zombie-marching through the house, zombie-scrolling, zombie-whatevering… or trying to fix your experience by just keeping going with what you’re already doing. A lot of us never learned to slow down. Slowing down and doing what we are doing consciously, in an engaged way, and SLOWLY, can help us become aware of what is helpful and what is harmful.
- Notice whether or not the activity you are doing (and the intensity of the activity) is helping to shift your state. If you are in anxiety and your strategy of lying down and scrolling Insta seems to maintains your state, notice. If you are habitually overextending yourself, go ahead and notice. This is an empowerment activity, not a “should”, so try to check it out with neutrality rather than shame. Also, the activity you’re doing may be something that feels somewhat good in the moment, but is part of a loop that is less than wholesome, due to other harmful impacts it causes, and being habit forming. This is a whole other topic- I believe that noticing and engaging with the pleasure of those experiences is also positive, but the emphasis here is on times when those activities don’t actually feel so good anymore.
- If the activity you’re doing isn’t helping, acknowledge yourself for acknowledging this! That is YUGE! Awareness is a MUST so GOOD ON YA CHAMP for noticing your experience.
- Ask yourself what the radical redirection could be. I use the term radical because THIS IS RADICAL! Exercising creativity and choice is something to be celebrated, and it’s radical to simply notice what else could be possible. Things to consider here are wholesomeness-factor and intensity. Wholesomeness refers to behaviors that feel… well, wholesome. They will feel connected to your values. Some values that show up for me are things like simplicity, integrity, presence, and authenticity. So what is the wholesome alternative? Intensity describes the “just right” level of energy involved in doing this or that. There are only two directions to go in that regard, which makes it simple: up or down. My system may be asking for less intensity- I am thinking about those times of go-go-go that keep me spinning. It might feel natural to turn on the most intense music that is your heavy rotation while driving, but the redirection-type question here is a version of, “Could it also feel good to put on some Joni Mitchell or something…?” We don’t tend to think of it this way, but it’s not just “getting going” that requires support sometimes- slowing down and settling does too. That means that I may need to redirect myself toward a settled state. I may think about s-l-o-w-l-y walking toward the kitchen and s-l-o-w-l-y preparing a meal for myself. Or going on a luxurious stroll, or doing some self-holding exercises. Maybe I take my energy and make something, like a craft or a drawing. On the other hand, my system may be asking for more intensity. I think about the times when I am wired but physically immobile, like during social media scrolling or tv-binging. I feel anxious but also stuck and distracted, and this state is unconsciously maintained by settling in and meeting my anxiety with stressful input from the screen. To be clear, I am not suggesting going from couch potato to interval training. For me, that would be a massive overshoot! What is the middle ground, from the body’s perspective? Perhaps it’s a kind of movement that is as slow as dawdling around the neighborhood and looking at plants, or doing a chore that feels easy. Be aware of your body’s desired level of movement. We try to take out our notions of what should be happening and tap into the felt sense of what is happening- specifically what feels good (or better.) The body is asking for a level of physical intensity that is not getting met by staying in one place. We can tap into this energy by experimenting in a neutral and curious manner. It might not feel natural at first, but that is the power of the redirect. A redirect isn’t what your system is already doing. The question is, “What could I do.”
There will be days when it is not possible to switch gears, when a big wave comes and we just hang on. We need support. We are not designed to do this alone. On the other hand, you may find yourself redirecting so hard you are suddenly walking, resting under a weighted blanket, dancing around, cooking, sleeping, actually using your essential oil diffuser, playing an instrument, connecting with friends and family, spending time in nature, or whatever settles you (decreases intensity) or helps you flow (increases intensity.)
May you find the wholesome next thing that has you feeling that life can be truly beautiful, positive and pleasurable again.
And any and every time you achieve a “redirect,” please celebrate yourself. You did a big thing and should be proud!
Lots of love,