nervous system

The importance of feeling safe

Feeling safe isn't just an emotional nicety. 

When we feel threatened, our biology steps in. Hormones are released that increase the heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow, small airways in the lungs expand, our vision narrows as our other senses sharpen. We can't control any of this. This response is millions of years old and happens without thought.

Now, why we don't feel safe is another story. The threat might be real (being stalked by a cougar) or imagined (worrying about being stalked by a cougar while camping).

The thing is, to a certain degree, the effect in the body is the same whether the threat is real or not. This response is also activated when the threat is not life-threatening, which is why the medical world has labeled "chronic stress" as a major factor in illness and dis-ease.

We're designed to move fluidly in and out of the stress response -- there's a threat, the nervous system activates the appropriate response to flee or fight, we escape, we recover and the nervous system resets back to a regulated state.

The "threats" of our times are more constant, as well as intangible -- deadlines, mortgages, traffic jams, societal pressure. We don't get the chance to cycle completely through the response and reset, re-regulate. The overabundance of stress hormones in the body causes a big mess.

 

It's easy to understand that not feeling safe makes it really hard to sleep.

And you know how I feel about sleep.

Recently I was in Berkeley for another training. I stayed at a hotel this time. It was an intense training and I was feeling out of sorts, out of myself. What I really needed was good sleep and I didn't want to mess around with the possibility of not getting it.

When I'm disregulated like this, otherwise known as vata-deranged, one of the things that plagues me is fear. Just a general umbrella of anxiety. I manage well through the daytime hours, but it shows up with a siren and spotlight at night. Sometimes I experience it as a non-specific worry about life; other times it can be a specific obsession, for example, a fear of someone breaking in and attacking me.

This seems crazy in the light of day, but at night, my heart races, I hear every single sound and I can't sleep.

You can't talk or rationalize yourself back into regulation.
That's not the way the nervous system works.

Knowing that I needed good sleep to help keep me grounded, I did what would make me feel safe: I leaned the ironing board against the bathroom door, which opened to the entrance door. My rationale being, if the door moved, I'd have a lot of warning!

 

safety barricade

Did I feel a little crazy setting this up every night? A LOT crazy! Did it help me sleep? YES.

I'm not saying we should always indulge our neuroses. Gradually increasing my window of tolerance for fear and anxiety is a good practice. And using all my tools and resources for regulation is hugely important.

And... there are times to self soothe in the way that works (as long as it is safe for everyone), even if it doesn't make sense in a "rational" mindset.

What my fear told me is not that I'm unstable and need help being more reasonable and sane.

It showed me just how stressed my system was, how I hadn't been caring for my basic needs.

Once I recognized that, I could address the core issue.

 

"Safety precedes curiosity."

This is one of my favorite teachings: safety precedes curiosity.

And to be curious is to engage with the wonder and awe and beauty of life.

And isn't that what we all want?

It starts with feeling safe.

 

What does it take for you to feel safe?
How easy is it for you to give that to yourself?
What does feeling unsafe teach you?

 

why i started doing fitness classes

A couple of years ago I decided to add a fitness class to the schedule of the yoga studio. Because It's All Yoga is known for the highest caliber of yoga teaching around, people were curious, to say the least, about why I would add a gym-type cardio class to the line up.

Sometimes life surprises us, right?

Losing a mid-term baby affected every layer of my being. It took time to physically heal, I had lost faith in life and I was a good way down the tunnel of depression. 

Given my vocation and familiar practices, one might think I would get on my yoga mat. Not so. Asana practice was a landmine for a long time — too slow, too much “feeling,” too many associations. So I had to find something else.

Additionally, my therapist prescribed endorphins as antidepressants, which meant making myself do aerobic workouts for at least 30 minutes, 4-5 times a week. 

In desperation, off I went to the gym. Group fitness classes, no less. It was not love at first sight, and it didn’t work immediately. But after about four months, it became one of my most important self-care practices.

And something else started to happen — the chemical rush was good for my brain, but feeling strong in my body (well, not at first) was also a key piece. It reminded me of the importance of basic cardiovascular fitness.

Lastly, these classes and this type of exercise forced me to look at my scripts around “exercise:”

  • “I’m not fit in that way.”
  • “I could never do that kind of class.”
  • “I’m not that type of person.”
  • “I’m not strong enough.”

And looking at our scripts is always a good thing.

Because here’s an important fact — we need both cardiovascular work and rest.

We all have our preferred end of the spectrum. I like stretching and lying about. Type A’ers like Crossfit and power flow in 90 degree heat.

But we all need movement and a variety of ranges of motion, as well as stillness and rest. 

Heart rate variability, nervous system restoration, regulating hormones, healthy circulation, effective digestion and much more happen when you have both — not just one or the other.

So where can you get this range?

  • Well, yoga asana can be aerobic. Sun Salutations (commonly referred to as Vinyasa or flow) are active and dynamic. Be aware and purposeful through the transitions, go at a pace that is realistic for you and rest when your alignment starts to crumble.
  • Go for a brisk walk, a jog or a bike ride...then go home and put your legs up the wall.
  • If you belong to a fitness gym, try a group class! Yes, it might smell weird, the music will be loud, you might look or feel silly...just go with it.
  • You can pretend jump rope, do squats, push ups or lunge dips at home -- anything that appropriately challenges you and gets the heart rate up for at least 10 minutes at a time. Then sit or lie down and do a few stretches. Don't make it complicated.

Always great to rally a friend to do it with you -- more fun and accountability. 

Challenge the things you tell yourself -- I'm too this, I'm not enough this, I can't, I always. Yoga practice is in part about purification, refinement and self-knowledge. Use discomfort zone experiments as a way to deepen on all levels.

Let me know how it goes!