“If you’ve experienced a house fire, you’ll jump at the smell of burning toast” I tell my client. It’s what we call hyper-vigilance. Once we have a big fight or flight response, we typically don’t come all the way back down to baseline, then we have another one, and we don’t come all the way back down to baseline, then we have another fight or flight response and don’t come all the way down, then another……and before we know it we are buzzing up somewhere between our baseline resting state and our trauma / alert state in a place called “hyper-vigilance” on a regular basis. Our nerves feel fried out and we start to notice we often feel edgy, irritable, tired, agitated, short tempered and have a high startle response.
When we’re buzzing at this level, we don’t have the bandwidth or distress tolerance to censor or filter our reactivity. And that becomes a problem not only to us, but to those we have important relationships with.
How do we solve this problem? There are a few solutions that work. First – we need to pay close attention to our self-care routine. By that I mean our sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise and socialization / recreation or leisure practices. If those are radically out of whack – you’ll be working up hill to resolve and restore yourself here.
Second, we need to implement the pause button. I tell people you can feel flooded and you can blow up inside with a reaction. You can have an intense emotional response to a trigger, but you don’t have to have a reaction to it. When you feel flooded, remember to put up the stop sign. Bite your lip, turn around for a moment, exit the room, splash water on your face, breathe – do whatever it takes to pause for a moment to control your reactivity and response. This is where the rubber meets the road and the hard work begins.
You do have the power to change your response, but you have to catch it at the right time and practice! There are other important steps to evaluating the thought that you’re having, identifying the feeling, figuring out what’s underneath the trigger, reframing the thought and changing your behavior, but to start – we must learn to pause. Put a photo of stop sign on your phone as your screensaver for a week so every time you touch your phone you’ll be reminded of your practice. That way you’re also starting to get into the habit of pausing and stopping for a moment (increasing your mindfulness practices) when you’re NOT flooded and on fire.
Third we need to quiet and still our mind in order to repair our nervous system. Think of how much stimulation we are engaged in from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep at night. I’ve heard we touch our phones on average 2,600 times a day and spend up to 11 hours a day engaged in online activity. Even when you’re “relaxing” on the couch at home, your senses are still working to collect and process information and your body and mind don’t get the restorative break that is needed to really repair. Think of the savasana – the last 10-15 minutes of a really good yoga practice. You’ve stretched and twisted and wrung yourself out and now you get to imprint the work with your eyes closed to prevent stimulation and lying flat on your back to allow yourself to melt into the floor. That’s what restoration looks and feels like and we can achieve it in that exact form, or we can practice 15 minutes of meditation (with our eyes closed) each day to give our brains a break, quiet the mind and still the senses.
Fifteen minutes isn’t that long compared to the hours and hours a day where we are filtering and processing and engaging and ON. Let yourself be intentionally OFF.
Practicing these 3 things on a regular basis; attention to self-care, pausing to reduce our reactivity and 15 minutes of daily meditation to quiet and still the mind, will help move us from a chronic state of hyper-vigilance closer to our normal resting baseline again.