Resilience Through The Power of Presence
With the constant stress and pressure around us, it is easy to get stuck in survival mode. The good news is you can come out of it. This upcoming blog series will show you how to bring yourself back to the present and not be overwhelmed by stress.
The Primitive Brain Hijack
We have 3 brain systems that function as a whole unit when you are in balance.
- Rational brain (neocortex): Responsible for complex thinking skills such as problem solving and social functioning
- Limbic system (midbrain): Emotional brain that processes memories and feelings
- Primitive brain: The reptilian brain responsible for survival and switches on your fight-flight-freeze mode
Your daily activities involve constant communication between the 3 brain centers, with the primitive brain mostly in “sleep” mode. When your brain picks up a moment of “danger” (eg. a car zooms right in front of you as you step off the curb), your primitive brain wakes up and quickly responds (fight, flight, or freeze).
When the primitive brain is active, the rational brain slows or completely shuts down (“sleep” mode) because you are in a “life or death” situation.
Your primitive brain is either on or off, there is no middle ground. It does not think, “Oh, it is just a little danger”. The response is the same whether you sleep past your alarm, cope through a pandemic or sprint away from a saber tooth tiger.
Primitive Brain Changes
Some of the physiological responses when your primitive brain is activated into fight, flight or freeze mode include:
- Faster heart beat
- Faster breathing
- Pupils dilate allowing you to see more
- Ears “perk up” and hearing sharpens
- Digestion slows because digestion is not a priority anymore
- Skin circulation decreases so you look pale and feel cold
- Sleep mode is turned off because you can not sleep while trying to save your life
- Rational brain communication slows or completely shuts off because you do not need to plan for the next day as you may only have 10 minutes to live
If you have ever slept through your alarm or been late for your meeting, you may have felt as if you have been in this “zone” the entire morning until you had a chance to sit for a break and bring yourself back. This is how it feels when your primitive brain takes over.
The good news is you can redirect your primitive brain, if you use the right communication method. Each part of your brain has specialized functions and speaks its own language:
- Words: Your rational brain uses words
- Feelings: Your emotional brain speaks through feelings
- Sensations: Your primitive brain uses the language of sensations
The language of sensations is foreign to many of us. The reality is there is a world of sensation inside us and it is the road to recovery from our primitive brain hijack from overwhelm and stress.
All you need is time, attention and intent. With quiet, focused time, this specialized language of sensation can be mastered. In the next blog post will be the first exercise to show you how.
For more information on this topic, read, Waking The Tiger by Peter Levine
Exercise: Communicating With Your Primitive Brain
As you recall, the primitive brain speaks the language of sensations. The human 5 senses are: sight, touch, taste, smell, sound. Building a new vocabulary
- Quiet: Find a quiet and comfortable place, sit or lie down with no distraction
- Feel: Take 1 minute to notice how your body feels, with no judgement
- Focus: Choose a part of your body to focus on this step. Perhaps somewhere comfortable, not painful. Describe 3 sensations you feel
For example, “as I sit in my favorite chair with the sun shining through the window and onto my forearm, it feels warm, the knit sleeves on the forearm feels bumpy, the armrest my forearm resting on feels soft”.
In the above example, the descriptive sensation used was warm, bumpy and soft. As you feel the sensation in your body, tune into the body experience. Sensation must be experienced to get to the primitive brain. With practice, this could take a minute or less.
What you have just done is to communicate with the your primitive brain that present moment is SAFE. Your primitive brain will then receive the signals and think, “Oh, is that all? You are just feeling warm, bumpy and soft? Okay then, I (primitive brain) will go back to sleep”.
Now that you have hit the snooze button on the primitive brain, your rational brain wakes up automatically and allows for rational thinking and your ability to problem solving is activated. Your ability to come up with creative solutions in challenging times will become easier and sleep will be “allowed”
Practice this exercise as many times as you can over the next 2 days. Remember, it is a new language, the more often you practice, the easier it gets. In the next exercise, you will be shown something called pendulation to help you when you are in the middle of distress.
Questions you can ask yourself:
- How does the surface you are sitting or laying on feel?
- How do your clothes feel on your skin?
- How does the pillow feel with your head resting on it?
- How does the floor / grass / soil feel when you feet are in contact with it?
Here is a list of sensory words to get you started in building your own list:
- hot / warm / cold / cool / icy
- smooth / soft / fuzzy
- rough / bumpy / prickly
- sharp / dull / pokey
- hard / soft / squishy
- light / heavy / strong
- scratchy / silky / slippery
- calm / relax / tight / tense
- empty / full
- flowing / stuck
Now that you are familiar with feeling the different sensations in your body, hopefully you have also experienced the softening and relaxation of your body as you experience the sensations.
Pendulation is an exercise where you gently “touch in” the part of your body that is less comfortable and then back to the comfortable sensations again. The goal of this exercise is to be able to consciously swing from pleasant to unpleasant and back again.
Your sense of well-being is based on your ability to self regulate. Overwhelm and stress are part of life and cannot be eliminated but they can help you build strengths and character if you avoid getting stuck in that state.
- Comfort: Sit or lie down comfortably, notice where you body feels the most comfortable
- Experience: As with the first exercise, describe and experience 3 different sensations. Notice how your body feels. Do this until your body feels calm and relaxed
- Shift: Now take a moment to notice another part of your body that is less comfortable (do not choose the part that has the most excruciating pain / discomfort). Again, describe and experience 3 different sensations, without any judgement. Notice how your body feels
- Return: Now go back to the area in step 2 and experience the same 3 comfortable sensations again. Notice how long it takes for your body to return to the same calm and relaxed state
- Balance: Repeat steps 3 and 2. This is the pendulation between good and not so good sensations.
Regain Balance and Control
With daily practice, you will notice that it takes less time to swing back to the comfortable state. As you get more comfortable with this, you may also challenge yourself by “touching” into the more sensitive or painful parts of your body.
Do not stay in there too long at first and make sure that you can always swing back into the comfortable state. Progress as you feel more confident with your ability to regain balance and control of your feelings.
In the final blog of this series, you will learn to apply this sensory skill in any traumatic experience and integrate your other senses
Tracking Your Own Internal Sensations, Putting It All Together
The purpose of this exercise is to guide you through the sequence and flow of your internal sensations. These include all 5 of your senses: touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.
- Reflect: Take a moment to reflect on something that happened in the past few days that made you feel good or mildly upset
- Note: Make note of each sensation that comes up while images, thoughts and emotion come and go. Notice how it impacts your body
- Connect: Use the following open-ended questions to “connect” to your primitive brain. Choose a few that fit your scenario
- What do you notice in your body now?
- Where in your body do you feel that?
- Where is your pain, tension, discomfort?
- Does it have a size? shape? color? weight?
- Does it spread?
- Is there a sound? What do you hear?
- What other qualities of the sensation do you notice?
- What happens to the rest of your body when you feel this or that?
- Does it move and where does it move to?
- What happens next?
- As you follow the sensation, where does it go or how does it change?
- Calm: Spend 10-15 minutes tracking and exploring the sensations. Find a comfortable place to end the session. Make sure you have brought calmness to your primitive brain
As you get more used to allowing your body to experience the sensations safely, you will be ready look for similar events that overwhelm and cause discomfort. The goal of this is not to push the unpleasant sensation away. Rather, it is to be felt. This allows the unpleasant sensation to go through its natural course into resolution instead of getting stuck.
If it is not ready to resolved at that moment, simply acknowledge this. Bring in some pleasant sensations from other memories or body regions that feel comfortable before you end the session. You can always go back to it another time.
As you build your fluency in your internal sensation exploration, you will gain confidence in navigating through challenging times. We cannot change someone else’s behaviors, our external environment or completely avoid overwhelm.
However, with time, intention, safety and awareness, you can redirect unpleasant sensations, calm your primitive brain and grow your natural creative ability to solve problems. It is a journey worth taking
In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunities
– Albert Einstein