Calm Your Worries: Part 3
Do you ever wonder, “Why do I worry?”
If you’re reading this blog, then I’m certain the answer is: Sure, all the time! Worriers can become very anxious just trying to figure out who or what is responsible for this terrible feeling and thought pattern, especially if life has been pretty good as far as you can tell. You might find yourself looking for bad things that have happened in your past. You may explain to yourself that as a child you were pushed too much or not enough, indulged too much or not enough, frightened too much or didn’t have enough challenge.
Oh, if you could only find the secret, then you’d stop all of this worry and stress! Worry is obviously not productive. You and others tell you that all the time! So why is it still there, churning away?
My dear reader, you worry not because you are foolish but because your nervous system is wise. It is an ancient body system based upon keeping you and yours alive. Without it, you wouldn’t have made it this far. But, how can you live with it now in this modern-day world full of information and ever-increasing amounts of stress? And, how can you effectively influence these worries that have become a pervasive part of your daily living?
The answer is two-fold:
1. By toning your Ventral Vagal Nervous state to access an engaged sense of calm.
2. By providing wise, loving internal leadership for your worrier parts.
These two “secret codes” solve your body’s tendency to continuously react to worry and respond with worry. And, believe it or not, when you know how, you can do this with ease!
What if the body is made to worry?
It makes sense. Worry is a feeling like all others and humans are supposed to have feelings. The trouble arises when you interpret the worry incorrectly. And even the brightest people can inaccurately interpret feelings of worry.
Why? Because until very recently, children were raised to believe that “negative” feelings were to be thought about, talked over if necessary, and eliminated if possible. The science of emotion was not widely available when most of you were children. Of course, parents did not parent from a Polyvagal perspective. The good news is that it is not too late for you! Going forward, I’ll help you unlock an important mystery right inside of you:
Why does chronic worry persist despite your logic, your knowledge, and using your mind to end it?
Consider this foundational idea:
Your body is designed to respond to cues of danger and feel some form of activation (like worry).
Not only is this feeling essential to human survival, it is normal and important.
This will be your first step to unlocking the code to your worry. Using your very own code, you will begin to calm your worries safely and wisely.
Here’s a super simple way to understand Polyvagal Theory.
According to Neuroscientist Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, the body has a layered nervous system that contains the old, most primitive nervous states as well as newer adaptations we have acquired as a species through the years. These nervous system states are stacked right on top of each other in a hierarchy in the body. The old and the new exist within each person. We have them all!
We didn’t hit a new era of evolution and just have Nervous System Model 2.3 replace the previous model.
You probably learned about the brain, the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (involuntary processes) back in middle school. And maybe you’re like me, when you were a little kid studying science you thought: My brain tells my body what to do. It says “Move,” “Talk,” “Eat,” “Run” and I do that. And then there are things I don’t need my brain to think about like breathing, digesting, swallowing, etc. I have it all figured out, right? Nope.
The Vagus Nerve and the body brain connection matter!
I learned nothing at all about the role of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve communicates between the body and the brain. But it does not just convey information from the brain down. Only 20% of the vagus nerve’s fibers send information from the brain to the body. Think about that! That leaves 80% of the information coming from your body back up to your brain.
Your body generally senses and feels first. Your body is more often aware that something is going on before your mind. Your hard-working brain is then busy trying to interpret – What was that feeling all about? But if you don’t go to the body and get more information, your brain is having to do a lot of guesswork. And, if an immediate answer is not forthcoming, it will sometimes just make up an educated guess. Brains like to think!
Getting comfortable with the body/brain connection is an important secret code to calming your worries.
Let me offer a story to illustrate. Imagine I show you a film with absolutely no sound and no background information. I’ve told you that your job is to add the soundtrack – the actor’s lines, narration, and music. You are to fill in the story. But what I didn’t tell you is that when I created the movie, I simply cued the actors to move their bodies — Look to the left or right, make your mouth drop, get as red in the face as you can, stomp your feet, shake your hands. There is no story, no meaning, just random movements and expressions in the actors’ bodies based upon my cues as a director.
But you don’t know that. So, you look at the film and, based on what you see, you invent a story to make sense of the film. Maybe in your film the couple was in terrible danger and then began to fight. Maybe they ran and were doomed to be caught by whatever was chasing them! Or maybe you noticed their bodies and decided that they were too stupid (too in love, too slow) to get out of some terrible situation. Notice that you probably create a story that already has meaning for you based upon your life experiences or other movies you have see
Using this example, think of the director as the cues to which your body responds.
All day long your nervous system responds to cues of past or present danger (or safety).
The disapproving look of a coworker. The sight of your child on the jungle gym. The scowl of a friend. You are fortunate, because your body can respond to actual danger such as an oncoming car. But, your senses can pick up a cue of a danger even if there is no imminent, concrete threat. And your body will create the same physical sensation without your awareness. The body sensation itself, rather than your cognitive awareness, influences your thoughts and behaviors. Eventually, when your brain notices the cues in the body, it tries to fill in the meaning behind your body sensations. It makes a story.
This story will often (particularly for the chronic worrier) be naturally congruent with worry.
Why? Because the body is feeling the results of the innervation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This part of your nervous system activates a sense of alarm in your body when it notices cues of danger, and then you worry because your mind has learned to do just that when no other action makes sense.
In other words, because you have practiced so much worry, your body has come to associate many, many cues with the sensation of worry. You have created a worry feedback loop.
A nervous state response sometimes means no more than that. It can be just a physical reaction to any little cue.
For example, the smell of clove in any office building will always trigger my fearful body (from old, unpleasant dentist memories). Very cold temperatures that tighten my muscles feel dangerously uncomfortable to me, and instantly trigger my worried mind. The smell of leaves in the fall brings on a feeling of fear. (It’s fear of the resurgence of homework in the fall, not of leaves or autumn). “Dust in the Wind,” a song I heard nearly every day driving home from high school, triggers gnawing worry just as I felt back then.
Notice how you feel when a news flash pops up on your phone (before you even know what it says). What smells, sounds or sights activate instant worry in your body? There are a myriad of these non-imminent danger cues for every human being.
As you go through your day, take some time to notice when you worry. Make no judgements. Just notice that perhaps your body picked up some discreet cue of danger. See if you can notice a few of your typical danger cues right now. This is your first step! Much more to come…
Want to free your mind of worry? Click here to start today!