Your nervous system is here to protect you. Instead of trying to push through stressful situations, try asking yourself how you can work with your nervous system in order to move forward with more ease and a feeling of safety in your body.
By creating a better understanding of your nervous system, you’re able to understand how and why you respond to high levels of stress — and as a result, become better prepared to regulate your emotions.
Why Feeling Unsafe Makes It Impossible To Live Joyfully
How Your Nervous System Works (A Simplified Explanation)
If you only remember one thing from this article, I hope it’s this: “It’s impossible to live joyfully and engage with people when feeling unsafe.”
It’s through your nervous system that you communicate with the outside world: the nervous system takes in information through your senses, processes the information, and triggers reactions.
Your nervous system has two main modes — sympathetic and parasympathetic (AKA Fight or Flight and Rest and Digest) — and at any given time, you are in one mode or the other.
When you are not in a stressful situation, the nervous system is calm. You feel safe to engage with others, you’re more optimistic, your emotions are stable, and you have a natural curiosity about life.
However, when your brain perceives a threat, it activates the sympathetic nervous system (Fight or Flight) and your body goes into defence mode. Things you might experience in this state are: rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, tightening of muscles, and feeling nauseous.
To create some context for you, I wanted to share a personal story about my recent experience with depression and how working with my nervous system helped bring me back to a feeling of safety where I felt like I could move through this stressful time with more ease.
When I was going through a really dark time late last year, I felt like my world was spiraling into a black hole. I had recently moved to South Lake Tahoe where I was thrown into a new environment — right after parting ways with Scott after 14 years of being in a relationship together.
I only knew one other person in Tahoe and a couple of months after I moved there, I started having some health issues in addition to experiencing a couple of big events that triggered an old sexual abuse wound.
There were a couple of weeks that I couldn’t get out of bed and the crying seemed like it would never stop. Right around this time, my lease was coming up for renewal in Tahoe and my niece (the only person I knew in Tahoe) had decided to get her own place with her boyfriend so I was considering getting a one bedroom apartment on my own.
I was on the fence about whether I thought living by myself at a time when I felt like I was drowning was a good idea. Not to mention, winter was about to hit and I imagined myself spending a lot of alone time in my apartment, in the middle of snowstorms, and unable to get my usual nature fix.
I contemplated just traveling around in my 13′ small camper, but the idea of traveling by myself in my trailer — in winter — didn’t feel quite right either.
During all of this, I went on a river cruise in France, and someone on that trip asked me why I didn’t just move back to San Diego.
Honestly, the thought had never crossed my mind, but it must have planted a seed because the second I touched down in Los Angeles — on my return from France — I started looking for temporary studios in San Diego. I figured I wouldn’t find anything ideal because housing has been so extremely hard to find since the pandemic began.
As luck would have it, the first listing I looked at seemed perfect and the host responded to my message right away — letting me know it was still available. Long story short, I found a cute month-to-month studio in a quiet neighborhood in Carlsbad.
As soon as I made that commitment (which all happened really fast) I felt a huge sigh of relief. I told myself I would stay as long as I needed in order to get my health back to a good place and start to feel stronger mentally.
It wasn’t until speaking with a friend yesterday that I realized why after making the decision to move back to San Diego caused me to feel like a huge weight had been lifted. She asked me how I got through that dark time and I didn’t have an immediate answer. The only thing I could trace it back to was when I made the decision to come back to San Diego, things started to really shift for me.
Moving to a new environment with little no support during a very stressful time in my life put my body in survival mode. It’s no wonder I began experiencing health issues!
Not only are we still in a pandemic, but my world had been turned completely upside down — leaving a 14-year relationship, trying to revive a struggling business, experiencing back-to-back sexual trauma triggers, and diving back into travel with a whole new set of fears and bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
On the other hand, San Diego feels familiar to me. I have a support system here, I have familiar doctors, and the location itself feels familiar. Living in a resort town after a place like San Diego is a bit of culture shock even without all of these other life stressors.
I’m not saying moving back to San Diego cured everything, but it did help to regulate my nervous system enough to safely move through these emotions that were coming up and, as a result, make decisions from a more grounded place.
After doing some deep work for about 2 months in San Diego — with a lot of quiet time by myself and a ton of therapy — out of the blue one morning, I felt the shift. I was ready for the next chapter in my life and my body finally felt safe enough to take the leap. I gave my notice that morning and now I’m embarking on a solo journey traveling around the Western United States. (More on that soon!)
How To Regulate Your Nervous System Out Of Survival Mode
While not everyone can make such a drastic change as moving, there are plenty of small things you can do if you feel your nervous system moving into survival mode.
First, I want to point out that this does take some practice and a lot of awareness. When you’re in survival mode, it’s not always easy to notice it yourself. I didn’t even fully realize what was happening while I was in that state, but thankfully my intuition guided me to the best decision at that point in my life.
First, and most importantly, acknowledging that you are in survival mode and not over-identifying with your emotions makes things feel so much more manageable. Just recognizing when your behaviors are being influenced by your survival brain is a HUGE win.
Our breath literally gives us life, yet we rarely pay attention to how we are breathing during our normal day-to-day activities. Sometimes the simple act of paying attention to our breath can move us from a survival state into a more regulated state.
Slow, deep breaths activates the hypothalamus to send neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body.
The next time you’re feeling stressed, try breathing in for 4 counts and breathing out for 8 counts. In addition to triggering a relaxation response in the body, it gives your brain something to focus on besides the anxiety you’re feeling about the future.
Scott and I are both trained breathwork guides, so if you’re looking for a little more support in this area of your life, you can book a guided breathwork session here. If you’ve never tried breathwork, it’s a wild experience and is one of the best ways I know to work through difficult emotions.
Connect To The Present Moment
I encountered another angel along my path during my time in France. After unintentionally bursting into tears at a work dinner, the woman next to me hugged me, whispered some very loving and encouraging words, took off her bracelet that said “Be Present” and put it on my wrist.
I will never forget this moment for as long as I live. Things really do feel much more manageable when we’re not throwing “what ifs” into the mix of what already feels unmanageable in the present moment.
I include a few ways to connect to the present moment in this post: 10 Ways To Stay Calm During Difficult Times.
Some simple self care suggestions include: taking a bath, making a cup of tea (chamomile is a wonderful calming tea), getting outside, going for a walk, nourishing your body with healthy foods, wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket, watching a funny movie, and laughing with friends.
Use the above suggestions or find ones that work best for your body. Trust that you know what’s best for you. If you can, try to stay away from stimulants. For many people, stimulants increase anxiety.
Ask For Help
In survival state, it’s easy to isolate yourself and think you’re all alone. Call a friend, find a therapist, search for others’ stories — do whatever you need to do to in order to feel more supported.
Where To Learn More About The Nervous System
If you’re interested in learning more about the nervous system, I highly recommend these books: