Episode 55: Feeling Safe in a Fearful World.
After recently delivering my Ukraine Fundraising workshop; 5 Wellbeing Tools to help you to reduce anxiety, so that you can feel calmer, sleep better and feel brighter a couple of weeks ago and then having an experience of feeling unsafe on holiday last week I felt called to create this episode and reflect more on what was actually going on! In this weeks episode, I want to share some of my knowledge of the nervous system and bodies physiological responses to my feelings of un-ease, how taking a step back and re-centering helped me gain some perspective and my 5 tips to help you to feel calmer and safer if you find yourself feeling uneasy.
Last week I returned home from a holiday to Marrakesh in Morocco. I’d heard mixed stories before I went of some people loving it and some people hating it. I went feeling optimistic that I would love it, but on our first visit into the centre I started to feel on edge. On the 20 minute shuttle bus journey my husband kept pointing out that he couldn’t see many tourists about, I’d heard of people forcing monkeys upon them and expecting money and of henna tattoos being forcefully applied and charged for, and that the markets were busy and overwhelming. On the other hand I had also heard that the markets were amazing and colourful, full of magic and local culture.
When it came to getting off the bus I was slightly apprehensive but not too bad. As we entered the main square, henna tattooists were in sight and the noise and business felt overwhelming. When I tuned into my body I realised my muscles were tense, my breath was shallow and in fact I was very on-edge. I was in a hyper-aroused state - the fight or flight response of the nervous system. Part of me did want to ‘flight’ and run away and get out of there! But I knew I could have some control over this response and tried to move slowly and breath slowly.
This fight or flight response (a branch of the sympathetic nervous system) is similar to a cave man out in the wild, hunting for food, on high alert for any dangers that may occur. If he were to see a tiger he may fight it or run away! Frequently, these dangers are created by thoughts in our minds, fears, worst case scenarios, that often never come true but can quite literally worry us sick!
I’ve experienced this sense of un-ease many times before in foreign countries such as Malaysia and Bali, where things are different and in the past I have led my experience from a place of fear. A fear that something terrible is going to happen, that I am going to get mugged, that I shall get attacked in the dark or get kidnapped. I have learnt in the past that I need to move my spot light from looking out for every possible bad thing that could happen and instead shine my mental spotlight on all the kind and wonderful delights, places and people that are there in that moment.
In Marrakesh I had to remind myself that most people are just going about their day, and that generally I am safe. There were families and small group of friends smiling and talking as they enjoyed their Saturday evening in the city. It was my own thoughts and reactions that were making me feel on edge. My husband was there in exactly the same environment and he was feeling pretty fine, he doesn’t usually get as triggered or overwhelmed in the hustle and bustle as I do.
We continued our afternoon and I gradually found myself calming through the day. However, this then changed as we started to walk back through the bustling square and it was dark at this point. There were musical instruments being played, people cheering - my senses were on overdrive. And then I saw a man walking towards me with a monkey, I didn’t like the thought of this monkey being placed on me without my permission, let alone the poor animal welfare I didn’t want to be supporting!
My fight or flight response kicked in again and I ran away in a panic, my husband laughing at me. I was back on high alert - tense, breathing quickly and feeling unsafe. Looking back, in reality if the monkey had landed on me yes my boundaries would have been broken, not ideal but it wasn’t a life or death situation, but in my mind and body in that moment felt unsafe!
So what was going on here on a physiological level? I could feel my muscles tensing, my heart rate quicken, I felt threatened (whether the threat was real or not) and I had a boost of adrenaline to be alert and sharply exit the situation. These are all part of the fight or flight response. This happens when we experience dis-ease, stress and anxiety. The mind always wants to keep us safe, so I can’t blame it for focusing on what might go wrong, but it wasn’t really in proportion to the reality around me.
Like a cave man out hunting, we need to be alert some of the time if our safety might be compromised, such as crossing a busy road but then we need to learn to switch off and rest, like the caveman would rest for quite some time after a hunt. I’ve spoken about this before, that in today's world we often feel unsafe due to our thoughts, those imaginary tigers in our minds. We live in a fast paced environment, often feeling we have a lack of time so finding real rest and relaxation can be challenging. Many of us spend more time than we realise in the fight or flight response and many GP visits and ailments are ultimately rooted in stress! Stress is when we experience dis-ease and if we put the words dis-ease together they form disease, I’m sure by no coincidence.
There is also a third physiological response in addition to the fight or flight and rest and digest, it is known as the freeze response. And this is where we shut down, become numb and heavy - it is a hypo-aroused state. I knew my speech problem in the past were stress and trauma related and perhaps I shut down and stopped speaking as I was in the freeze response. Whichever response we are in I believe that ultimately we need to feel safe. And past stories, events, ways of living and coping mechanisms can lead to the nervous system responding in different ways.
So here are my 5 tips to help you feel calmer and safer, which I also shared and we practiced in my Ukraine Fundraising Workshop…
1. Utilise the breath - when we are stressed we tend to breathe shallowly up in the chest, when we are calm we breathe more deeply. If we live in a stressed state most of the time, we can form a habit of breathing shallowly. It's like a vicious circle, when we are breathing shallowly in the chest we are sending signals to the body and mind that we are stressed. Therefore by consciously adjusting our breath to breathing deeply down into the stomach it sends signals to the body and mind that all is well and we can relax, allowing us to enable the rest and digest function. If you want to take this a step further you could extend the relaxing exhale. You might also do some moon breathing by inhaling trough the left nostril and exhaling out of the right, whether that’s physically or thought setting the intention and focus in your mind. It’s amazing the difference even 3 deep breaths can have on how you feel in any given moment. The breath as a tool is always with you. There’s a lot of research about the vagus nerve, which can be activated through the breath to support the rest and digest response too! You can find out more about the breath in Episode 10 The Beautiful Breath.
2. Create Space Between You and Your Thoughts - when we can create space between us and our thoughts and observe them we realize that our thoughts are just thoughts, they are not fact or necessarily reality. We realise that we can gain some control over our thoughts. For example, if you pause for a moment and focus on your breathing and perhaps the sensation of the air flowing in and out of the nose, thoughts will naturally come to mind. But when you notice thoughts arise this is awareness, there is a space before you can either get lost in your thoughts or you can return to focusing on your breathing. Becoming aware of when the mind wanders off and some self enquiry about where it wanders too can be insightful. We can also create some space and perspective between us and our thoughts when we write them down on paper, sometimes I call this a mind dump. In my Ukraine workshop, people commented how it helped to give them more clarity, that it was good to get these thoughts down on paper rather than swirling in their heads, that any concerns didn’t feel as big and it also unearthed for some things that had been bothering them but they were ignoring. By seeing the thoughts on paper we can make more rational choices about whether we need to try some action or if we need to let it go. If you’d like to dive a bit deeper into a pen and paper practice check out Episode 11 Out of Mind, On to Paper.
3. Body Scan - something physical we can do is a body scan. Take your body areas one by one, tensing them and then releasing and relaxing the muscles. This powerful practice helps us to notice the difference between these 2 states so that we can consciously relax any tight areas of our body. We know from the nervous system that when the muscles are tensed, we are primed to fight or flight whereas when they are relaxed the body and mind knows it's ok to rest and heal and feels safe.
4. Yoga - yoga is a great way to practice regulating the nervous system as some of the poses will create some activation, sun salutations will be very nourishing, or others such as Childs pose more relaxing. In a class we may feel slightly out of our comfort zones in one pose and then more comfortable in another. By gaining this experience in a calm and supported manner, the body and mind learns to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, building our resilience to change and new experience, along with moving the nervous system between states. This teaches our nervous systems that if we experience stress we can adapt into a relaxed state, rather than staying activated. Certain poses also activate the parasympathetic nervous system and other the sympathetic, as you move though a well rounded class you can practice switching between the two, exactly what is needed in day to day living to spend more time feeling calmer and safe.
5. Yoga Nidra - I believe we need to value rest a lot more highly in todays western societies. Just 20 minutes of yoga nidra can offer you the opportunity for some deep relaxation. If you haven’t caught my full episode titled The Best Kept Secret to Deep relaxation, yoga nidra involves lying down comfortably and gently listening along to a a spoken script, a script that is carefully crafted to take you through a range of layers and brain wave states to elicit a response that is the same as when we are in deep sleep. Whilst the mind is gently awake the body is deeply resting. A regular practice of yoga nidra is great to reduce stress, improve sleep, reduce muscle tension and pain, lower heart rate and boost healing. You can find many examples online or I regularly offer it in my wellbeing workshops.
When we feel safe and the nervous system is in rest and digest mode, our body and mind have the chance to function fully, after all the body is an incredible machine that does it’s best to keep us healthy. When we are in this calm state instead of being on alert for dangers we can switch off and our sleep quality can improve. We can move about our day with more ease and joy. We will see and notice new opportunities, we can make choices that are more aligned with who we truly are and what we love rather than out of fear or people pleasing. All of these 5 suggestion help the nervous system to regulate and support us to spend more time in a relaxed state, one of more vitality - doesn't that sound good?
Have you tried any of the 5 methods before? Which one appeals to you the most? Which one are you most uncomfortable or fearful of?
Notice, create awareness and perhaps pop some of that fear aside and give it a try. If you would like to listen to the full podcast of this episode, click here.
Love and light,