Reset Your Limbic System: Compassion Not Compression
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Trigger Warning: This is a very transparent post that describes the physical sensations of my panic and anxiety. If you are experiencing too much of that already, I suggest skipping the blog just check out this link instead!
Compression: (Fight, Flight or Freeze Response)
"I am here. I'm not going anywhere. I see you. I love you."
- Elizabeth Gilbert
I went to bed last night, attempting for a long time to get into a comfortable position that would relieve my low back from the seizing pain I was experiencing. After a couple days of mandatory vacation time--reveling in the abundant free time to work on creative projects that I've had to put in the closet, while I do my "real work,"-- yesterday, the panic caught up to me.
My mind has long been trained as a merciless General in the practice of directing fear and perfectionism to take over my body. I began feeling a generalized burning in my stomach, a warm gripping along my shoulders and back of neck, possible rib out of place...my throat tight, my low back (despite my best attempts to foam roll and tell myself it’s going to be ok) continued to feel as if someone were gripping it with sharp nails (yes, even your massage therapist needs bodywork!). This is often what panic and anxiety feel like in my body. It is nature's fight, flight and (unfortunately at times) freeze response (aka sympathetic nervous system). Unfortunately, it is often my emotions and mind that are gate keepers to this SNS response, which feels even more overwhelming and uncontrollable. I know when my emotions have gone from “soft feelings” to “Intense Mood Emotions,” and have allowed the voices of my head to take over, because my body follows suit.
**Side Note: My low back pain may also be due to sitting on a hard floor for several hours working on art projects...something I would tell my clients, "BE SMART! DO NOT DO!" :-) Prime example of how we don't think clearly when we're stressed.
This morning I woke up. The sky is still grey. I am still out of work. I am still in panic mode. My body is still cradling the endless bundles of "what ifs" in every joint in my body. I imagine this is what it must feel like for those of my clients with autoimmune disorders such as MultipleSclerosis and Fibromyalgia and lupus and many unexplainable neurologicaldisorders. They are brave, and I am so grateful for their daily commitment to ground themselves and do their best. And darn it! If they can do it every day with no end in sight, I can make an attempt to do this for a few weeks/months.
Despite the outlook of the day, I resolved to continue a morning ritual practice that in the last year has become a comfort to me: Insight Timer. InsightTimer is one of many meditation apps that provides thousands of free (and more with upgrade option) guided meditations, music, daily insights, sleep aids and courses (no, I do not get paid to advertise for them...but I should :-).
Reset the Limbic System
“When we’re triggered into states of hyper- or hypoarousal, we are pushed outside our ‘window of tolerance’--the range of optimal functioning. We become reactive and disorganized; our filters stop working--sounds and lights bother us, unwanted images from past intrude on our minds; our thinking becomes sluggish and we have trouble getting out of our chairs...Recovery from trauma [or melt down] involves the restoration of executive functioning and, with it, self-confidence and the capacity for playfulness and creativity.”
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
The Limbic System is a set of structures in the brain that regulate memory and emotions (mainly: hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus and hippocampus). This system is unfortunately very deregulated during traumatic events and emotional stimuli, which also impacts behaviors. This is in large part why people with meditation or breathing or exercise practices reports decreased amounts of stress. While this is not an easy or direct solution to the global distress we find ourselves in currently, it is worth taking a moment to understand the mechanisms of this system.
At the top of the meditative recommendations, this morning was a meditation by Elizabeth Gilbert called "Facing Fear with Compassion." Some of you may recognize the author's name from "Eat, Pray, Love," a memoir of a middle class, white woman traveling around the world for self-discovery and fulfillment, a book that many love to hate. I have never read it, and probably won't (my list is already eons-long), but I decided to listen to her guided insights regardless, and I am very glad I did.
I have been disheartened to see how much healers, energy modalities, and spiritual practices at large, have been discredited in the news of late due to the over-assertion folks are making about their healing abilities, and the effects it will have on you. I get that it is only natural to be opportunistic under such circumstances, but I hope that people can still differentiate between what helps them and what doesn't, by tapping into their discernment. Personally, I appreciate receiving energy work and positive intentions. I find it comforting, whether or not the skies open up, light descends upon me, and my body is transformed into an angelic being. I do not think that is the point. People find comfort in many mindfulness practices and I believe that in-and-of-itself, that can be powerful. For example, the power of giving yourself permission to mess up and be a failure in life can be tremendously empowering and relieving (this is also a daily practice of mine:-)). I do not possess the training or know-how to meaningfully or effectively share this energy work with you, therefore I will not make claims that I can. However, I can speak to the changes I recognize in my own body when I am angry, sad or afraid vs. when I am at peace, joyful or excited (check out my next blog post for more on this). This is why it is so important to implement practices that keep our limbic system healthy or reset it from time to time.
The guided insight I have shared with you (above) is probably one of the most authentic I have encountered in a long time, and at a time when I have low tolerance for “higher self/enlightenment" pep-talks, and just want to be told that it's ok to freak out, this spoke to me. Check it out. Let me know what you think. I will be posting more follow-up to this blurb shortly, which will be more hopeful, I promise. In the meantime, it’s ok to be afraid. It’s ok to not know what to do. I see you. I am here with you.
In Hope and Love, - Meredith H., LMT