In a letter that went out earlier this month, we said a lot of things. I’m going to focus on one of those things, a single sentence near the end – “Discomfort is not unsafe.”
It’s a line I’ve been actively sitting with because it’s a statement I can experience as true and untrue. Discomfort can come in many forms. Physically it can present as an injury or illness. Emotionally it might show up as sadness, fear, anger, remorse, etc. Spiritually it may express as disconnectedness or lack of purpose. My mindfulness and yoga training help me understand that while discomfort can feel exceptionally unpleasant, it generally doesn’t present any real danger. From the vantage point of my sympathetic nervous system, though–the system that when triggered leads to fight, flight and freeze states) – I distinctly feel unsafe when discomfort hits a certain pitch.
For many of us our sympathetic nervous systems not only fail to consistently discern between danger and discomfort, they’ve been conditioned to conflate the two. Why is this? Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. It’s a part of our survival mechanism. Had our ancestors not paid particular attention to threats and dangers we would not be here. Our brains are also designed to be efficient – we naturally respond to perceived threats more and more quickly. Together this can lend to rapid auto-piloting into feeling unsafe.
It is though possible to retrain our brains and, in turn, reduce both the frequency and extent to which our sympathetic nervous systems engage. Below are five ways to do this. Here is a 12-minute guided meditation to support safely being with discomfort.
Offer warm touch in the midst of discomfort. Place a hand, or hands, over your heart region, hold one hand in the other, put a hand to cheek, or give yourself a hug. Compassionate touch interrupts the sympathetic nervous system and engages the parasympathetic nervous system (our natural caregiving system).
Use kind words and tone. If your internal dialogue runs harsh, you’re not alone – we have an epidemic of harsh inner critics in our country. Experiment with talking to yourself as you would a child, your younger self or a loved one. Imagine how someone who loves you dearly one might talk to you. Kind speech also helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Take one step at a time. Much like we might encourage a young child to get their cry out before trying to fix something, give yourself space to simply feel a feeling on its own. Heightened emotional states are generally not the best time to multi-task.
Check out Hardwiring Happiness by neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson. This accessible read unpacks the inner workings of our brains and concepts like negativity bias. Understanding what’s happening internally can make it easier to not personalize one’s humanness.
Try gentle titration. Briefly hold a mildly difficult situation in awareness, exploring any physical sensations that arise with curiosity rather than judgement. Then shift awareness to something soothing (i.e., breath, warm touch or grounding through feet). Repeat this cycle one or two times. Titration can help establish yourself, to your nervous system, as a safe person. (Click the above audio link a 12-minute guided meditation using titration.)
What helps you to calm your nervous system and feel safe inside? I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by: Ashley Dahl, MSW, 8 Limbs Leadership Coach