Updated: May 17, 2020
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” -Aristotle
*If you are not already familiar with how your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) impacts your experience of being able to access well-being, you will want to read, “Freak Outs, and the Role of the Autonomic Nervous System,” before continuing with this article.
Many of us have developed patterns of checking-out rather than checking-in with ourselves.
We may have developed a variety checking-out patterns for a number of reasons. I imagine you may become clearer about the specific reasons tied to your personal patterns of checking-out as we move ahead in our upcoming conversations.
For now, I’d like to focus on the importance of our work in returning to checking-in with ourselves. If we desire to move toward greater calm and well-being, we first need to strengthen our awareness of our current mind-body experiences.
We need to start by getting to know the patterns of our nervous system, our neuroceptive programming.
A Quick Review
Our ANS has been working behind the scenes to keep us safe our entire lives. It has built its own ‘muscle memory’ that kicks in to fend off potential threats, or to help us settle into spaces where we feel safe and sound, and able to engage with activities that optimize our experience of living the good life.
Each of us has our own ANS patterns that were laid down in our early environments and/or were shaped by significant events or time periods in our lives. Our ANS ‘learned’ to activate in protective patterns according to environmental cues that signaled us to brace our self for familiar problems. The more repetitive or threatening the problem, the more likely our nervous system created an automated pathway to secure our safety in similar future situations. Our ANS was not going to 'forget’ and leave things up to chance.
Our nervous systems made associations to specific cues of danger according to our experiences. As a result, it may activate strongly in relation to cues such as: loud noises, specific scents, particular tones of voice, limited availability of others or too much attention from others, an empty fridge, a fast driver, an assertive/bossy friend, or a passive partner. It may ‘freak out’ in relation to specific words, phrases, or conversation topics (‘relax;’ ‘We need to talk;’ money matters; household management; a request from another; an observed need of another; a need within our self). It may react to specific sensations or feeling states such as: loneliness, sadness, hunger, guilt, embarrassment, shame, fatigue, confusion, uncertainty, anger, excitement, or happiness.
What one person’s nervous system receives as a cue of danger may not impact another person’s system the same way. For example, in a home where children are to be seen but not heard, glee, excitement, or playfulness may be punished. For that reason, such internal desires or experiences may be shutdown. We do not want to allow ourselves to express internal states that may cause trouble. Our nervous system may then experience the internal state of excitement as a cue of danger, and respond with sympathetic activation and a shift into a fear response, or it may bring our system quickly into a collapsed (dorsal vagal) state, assuring the excitement is not expressed.
In another person’s childhood family quite the opposite may have been true. It may not have been okay to be introspective, quiet, or observant. These states may have been judged as aloof, sulky, sullen or lazy. Children in these homes may be told to ‘cheer up; be social; find something to do.’ These children may have experienced an ANS response of becoming revved up, or anxious (sympathetic response) due to feeling criticized. They may have learned to channel the sympathetic energy into some form of busying themselves, trying to present emotional expressions and behaviors that pleased their loved ones and reduced the risk of criticism or rejection. Over time, they may have lost sight of their more authentic preferences for quieter spaces that allow for introspection, creative and intellectual pursuits.
We can see from these examples, how an adaptive coping response in the context of one family is a problem in the other.
There are as many possibilities for programming nuances as there are people. We are each unique.
Even if I wanted to, I cannot tell you what is true about your experience. It is self-discovery that will lead you to knowing your personal nervous system patterns, and what you need to optimize your well-being.
Checking In with Yourself
I encourage each of you to spend several weeks observing, noticing, and accepting what is true about your ANS patterns. The goal is not to change anything, but only to familiarize yourself with how your system currently operates.
Even if you do not like the patterns your system currently holds, it is often helpful to observe and accept the pattern before trying to change it.
The shift toward change often happens quite naturally once we bring self-compassion and acceptance to our existing experience. If self-compassion is a difficult source to access, you might start with considering how the pattern was originally shaped, and how it was a part of taking care of you at that time, in that environment. Our ANS is our friend. 😊
Ideas to Support Checking-in with Yourself:
-Each day, you may want to identify a few specific times where you will intentionally check-in with your mind-body experience (perhaps morning, noon and night).
-Alternatively, you may want to reflect on your experiences in real time as you notice them coming up.
-Regardless of how you check-in, it may be helpful to keep a journal of your observations. *Keep in mind that a journal does not need to be a 'Dear diary' narrative, it may simply be bullet points of a few key traits you noticed about your experience.
When you check-in:
*Observe your body sensations/ states of your ANS (relaxed, energized, tense, racing heart, restless, heavy, weighted. Note where in your body (hand, stomach, heart, head) you are holding these experiences. (You may also want to note the intensity of the experience by scaling it 0-10).
*Observe and name your feeling states (happy, excited, eager, frustrated, irritated, angry, lonely, confused, depressed).
*Observe the thoughts or the story running through your mind that may connect to these experiences. (What might have happened in your day, or what concerns might be moving through your mind that are impacting your neuroception?)
After several days or weeks of check-ins:
*Do you notice any specific patterns?
*Do you notice a place that your ANS tends to spend a lot of time? (Ventral Vagal (CALM), Sympathetic (ON GUARD), or Dorsal Vagal (GIVING UP))
*When you reflect back over your life, does it make sense to you that your system would tend to default into this pattern to care for you?
*Although the pattern may not feel obviously helpful anymore, perhaps, consider how the ANS ‘part’ may be trying to help you? *It may sound strange, but go inside to the state and ask it.
Remember, for now, we are only concerned with observing. This is about getting to know yourself better. When or if this observation gets to be too much, your system will likely default to its preferred coping. Many of you will return to patterns of checking-out. That is okay. It is important to honor your system's need for a break. Simply return to the work of observing and accepting as you have space to do so.
*If any of this work becomes overwhelming, please consider finding a therapist to support you as you continue getting to know yourself, your nervous system, and your needs.