I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) who happens to deal with a lot of anxiety. This anxiety can range from full force to slightly triggered. When so many things affect me as an HSP, at times it feels like I have no power or control. I feel helpless. I feel like my well being is in the hands of anyone and everyone but me. When I am around other people, how I feel is in their hands. When I enter certain environments, it is controlled by that. Even when I am alone and my nervous system is firing off for no reason, my well being is in the hands of my racing mind telling me I am not safe. When I feel like I have no control over my physical body or my state of mind, it can be very overwhelming and anxiety producing. It is then a matter of moving from a helpless place…into a place of hope. A place where knowledge of the situation and belief in myself is crucial for propelling me out of my nervous state, and into a calm and peaceful one.
How Are You Triggered?
When our nervous system is triggered, a part of our brain called the amygdala, is working to detect any possible threats. To the highly sensitive person, the “possible threat” is not a giant tiger lunging towards us, or an unexpected interview with the boss. In a highly sensitive person’s brain, it may be a startling noise, a weird bodily sensation, or the energy of a room that can set us off. It could be anything, but to the brain…the threats are all the same. After the amygdala detects a threat, a cascade of hormones are released in our bodies. These stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, may cause the following sensations;
- shallow and rapid breathing
- increased heart rate
- pupil dilation
- sweaty palms
- throat constriction
- tunnel vision thinking
- heat flushes
- shaking or tightness in certain parts of the body
Diane Musho Hamilton says in ‘Calming Your Brain During Conflict’ (Harvard Business Review) that this is the point when we can learn how to take back our power. She states there are 4 steps we can take to calm the nervous system and control it’s effects on our mind and body.
Stay In The Moment.
When we are triggered, it is important to remember just that — we are triggered. An aroused nervous system can have our minds racing with undesirable thoughts. We may think, “not this again.” Or our thoughts can spin from potential problems that don’t yet exist, to limiting beliefs about our ability to effectively handle the situation. Whatever the mind is telling you, however strong the feeling for withdraw is, try to stay in the present moment. Being able to do this makes the following step easier.
Practice Being A Witness.
Though a difficult step, practicing a “witness” mentality is essentially just being a witness to what the body and mind are doing. You are observing everything with a neutral, non-judging attitude. Whatever your mind is trying to convince you, just be aware of it. However you notice your bodily sensations changing, just observe it. When we are a witness to ourselves, we are letting the story go. We are acknowledging our primary emotions, but not adding secondary emotions to the mix. Secondary emotions add fuel to the fire by snowballing original effects. They include feeling angry or ashamed of being “triggered” in the first place, or they add more fear by creating problems that aren’t there. Being a witness eliminates secondary emotions, as well as the “story” that we tell ourselves about what we are experiencing and how it will affect us.
Tune In To The Body.
As we turn our focus inward to the body, we can notice and accept all that we are feeling. The sensations, however uncomfortable they are, are being acknowledged and left alone. We do not try to change them. Notice the different places in your body that constrict, hurt, feel funny or weird. Notice the shifts or changes in energy. When we do not try to change these sensations, we are consciously building our tolerance for undesirable feelings and emotions. Increasing this tolerance is a highly effective coping mechanism for fear, anxiety, and emotional overwhelm. Accepting the body’s sensations and emotions is the most effective way to quickly release them, watching them disappear.
Focus On The Breath.
We have all heard this before, but it’s true. Proper breathing can change everything. There is a reason why yogis use breath work for enlightenment. Breathing changes our state of consciousness. In other words, breathing can quickly restore the body back to a pre-triggered state. It can also help prevent further nervous system triggers in the future. When we focus on the breath, we are making sure our inhalation matches our exhalation. The amount of air that we inhale is the same amount that we exhale. We are also making sure the breath reaches the bottom of the belly. This may be difficult at first, but keep breathing and the breath will slowly make it’s way down. Thoughts will probably arise in the mind, notice them, and then focus back on the breath. This breathing will most likely be the end of the emergency response coursing through your body.
Congratulations! You have effectively taken your power back! Knowing these steps to take after your nervous system has been triggered can be a game changer for you. It won’t be easy at first, like anything, practice goes a long way. But once you get this down, you will no longer feel out of control. Your confidence will increase, your fear and anxiety will decrease, and your new found sense of safety will help ensure that inner peace you have always longed for.
References: ‘Calming Your Brain During Conflict’ by Diane Musho Hamilton
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