Hello Everyone and Happy Monday,
I have spent the better part of the last 2 decades studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness in various forms.
But this last weekend reinforced something I knew and have seen so many times in my clients with anxiety, ptsd and chronic pain. It is this: nothing overrides the survival instinct of our nervous systems, including mindfulness. Nor should it!
I spent last Friday night in hospital with my youngest son with a severe allergic reaction to cashews This is something we knew about and keep an epipen handy even though he has never really reacted more than a skin rash.
This time was different.
This was a rapid turn from a bite of a cookie into life-threatening inflammation, closing of his airway and wildly fluctuating skin responses.
A quick jab with the epipen had no real effect. Then a high-risk ride to the hospital, straight through emergency to another dose of adrenalin.. then another… and another. With the trauma team anxiously perched around his bed watching him on an oxygen mask scratch mercilessly at his itchy legs and arms.. we waited. Knowing 4 doses is the maximum, I kept my hand in constant contact with his body and stared helplessly until I saw signs of the reaction subsiding. To say I was on high alert is an understatement.
How does this relate to mindfulness? It got me thinking.
His body has learned TOO well how to respond to something it perceives as a threat. It is a faulty response, but his body doesn’t know that. ALL alarms go off and over-react which actually threatens his life, paradoxically more than the cookie.
This is how strong our survival instinct is. It reacts in a way that can kill us, which makes no sense at all.
We all have nervous systems, and they are all primed for survival all the time with our automatically wired fight-flight-freeze response.
We are the result of our ancestors who survived.
Simply put, our nervous systems send us important messages every single day on what we need to survive and be safe.
Obviously this message was loud and extreme and faulty, and most messages are softer and quieter, but can be equally important.
But we often override them. We go instead of stop. We ignore uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger. We ignore impulses to cry, laugh, growl or dance. We say ‘yes’ when our bodies say ‘no’. We put unreasonable expectations on ourselves because we think we ‘should’.
I see the results of un-listened-to nervous systems every day in the form of anxiety, burnout, chronic pain, depression and symptoms of untreated trauma.
We need to feel safety in our nervous systems for any healing to occur.
How does this relate to mindfulness and a life-threatening allergic reaction?
When we use mindfulness to ignore, override or judge our primal nervous system impulses.
Where mindfulness helps:
Freak out because your son is having an allergic reaction. NO: stay calm and focussed and feel the emotions later.
Noticing all the thoughts that arise in your mind and knowing they are just that: thoughts.
Noticing when you hold your breath and are in a fight-flight-freeze response and consciously breathe.
Discerning the difference between what is true and what isn’t. For example with chronic pain, knowing that this is a learned response of the nervous system and moving mindfully in spite of being in pain.
Noticing what your body TRULY needs and responding: sleep, food, company, creativity, movement, to go to the bathroom, to say no, to burp, fart or cry, to laugh, to let go…
This is where mindfulness can also go wrong: when we believe we need to:
Do it right (as if there is a ‘right’ way)
Be calm (to hell with that if you are NOT feeling calm)
Sit still (tell that to someone’s body in trauma or chronic pain)
Be a good person, a spiritual person, a kind person, and anything other than that is bad.
Do you see the judgement that can arise from the mindfulness movement?
We cannot override the impulses of the central nervous system.
Well, we can but they get stored for later. This is called ‘stored survival stress’ and will need to be released or it comes out in other ways like anxiety or illness.
I knew when I eventually came home that I needed to rest, restore, feel the life-threatening moments, cry and release. Or it would stay stuck and block my system.
A nervous system that has trauma lodged in it cannot function in flow. And seeing how it is related to all of our organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, gut and many other systems, that is a problem.
My son’s allergic reaction is just an example of the power of our survival system. Your nervous system will never relax when it feels threatened. You can’t ‘mindfulness away’ your emotions, your grief, trauma, or pain. They get stuck.
These things need to be acknowledged, felt, and heard in order to be healed.
Don’t cover them up with mindfulness or the whispers in your body will become roars.
The key to all of this, and why my focus has shifted from a mindfulness approach (which I still love) to a healthy nervous system approach is that without a regulated nervous system, everything else is hooped:
- Parenting (you need a regulated parent to learn to self-soothe, but this can be learned later)
- Workplace (the one key to success is emotional intelligence ie. self-regulation)
- Physical health
- Diet: no point in eating healthy if it’s done with high stress, anxiety, self-criticism or hatred
Everything rests on a safe, regulated nervous system.
The key to start now: Pause and listen. Feel the ground under you. Feel your feet or where you are sitting on a chair.
Now notice anything your body is telling you. Are you cold, hot, tired, sad, hungry, angry… just notice.
Now… follow the impulse of your body. Breathe, move, adjust, wring your hands, write your anger out.. do what needs to be done.
Oh yes, and one final step. Make sure you have ways of self-soothing a frazzled or tired system. Know them well. Do them regularly.
And that, is my new definition of mindfulness for healing.
I hope you enjoyed this first step of true transformation,
ps. It all turned out well. My son stayed overnight, stabilized and was discharged with a truck load of epipens.
pps. If you are feeling anxious, burned out or otherwise dysregulated, send me a message to jump on a free guidance call to see if I can help.