How many times have you heard the phrase, waiting for the other shoe to drop?
I know I have said it many times.
That phrase has its origins in the tenements of New York City. The story goes that at the turn of the century, apartments were built with bedrooms on top of one another. It was common to hear your upstairs neighbor take off a shoe, drop it, and then repeat the action. In other words, waiting for the sound of the other shoe to hit the floor. It became known as an anticipation for something you knew was coming.
This has now become synonymous with anxiety, specifically anticipatory anxiety. According to psychology today, about 85 percent of things that people worry about never happen. Think about that 85 percent of us are lost in thought, which creates an emotional experience of worry, anxiety or fear about something that will never happen. That uses a lot of emotional and physical energy. It can leave you feeling exhausted, sad, confused, unable to take action steps to move forward in your life and feeling disconnected from the things that can bring you joy. It may even create the need to turn away from feelings because they are so painful, which can lead to all types of addiction and distractions.
What I have come to understand through working with my clients, is that this type of anticipatory fear is actually held in our cellular memory. That means that the painful memory from a past event is so strong that the energy and the physical feeling you experienced from that event, actually gets lodged in your body. When a memory is lodged in the body the result may be that every time you feel, experience, go through, or anticipate an event that is similar to the original painful memory your body reacts with the same response. The fear you hold onto rises to the top and you get stuck in the cycle of fear and anxiety.
You respond from a place of fear, a fear that was trapped in your body.
As a clinician and as a hypnotherapist I understand this with a unique perspective. First, through the lens of Polyvagal Theory and second through the lens of the subconscious mind. Polyvagal theory takes us through the experience of the autonomic nervous system and its three predictable pathways of response. These are: Ventral Vagal, Sympathetic and Dorsal Vagal.
Each pathway has unique adaptive responses to help us survive. We interpret these responses through neuroception. Neuroception is our ability to detect what is going on in our environment, this happens without conscious awareness, just like we are not consciously aware of how often we blink, it just happens. When we are detecting what is happening in our environment we are always assessing for cues of safety and cues of danger. Based on our interpretation of the cue, either safety or danger, we respond from one of the three pathways of the autonomic nervous system. When we are in Ventral Vagal, we are experiencing safety and connection. When we are in Sympathetic, we are in a mobilized fight-flight state. When we are in Dorsal Vagal, we are in a state of immobilization, conserving our energy and resources.
Keeping Polyvagal theory in mind lets move onto understanding why we are waiting for the other shoe to drop from the perspective of the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind has no sense of time, it does not know the difference between real and imagination, and it reacts from old “programming” until those old programmed messages are healed. When it comes to the emotional experience of anxiety, this is something that is experienced when our Sympathetic system is activated.
Anxiety is an emotion.
We interpret a physical sensation we feel in the body and label it anxiety or maybe fear. We are activated in some way. If the sensation feels like a tightness in the chest we immediately interpret that as a cue of danger. This happens because we learned a long time ago, maybe as a child, that every time my parents fight, I get scared, my chest gets tight and I am anticipating something really bad may happen next. Now, it does not matter if something really bad happened or not, the body now has a cellular memory of a tight chest and this is connected to strong emotions. The Sympathetic system is activated, and you are in fight or flight. You learned to experience anticipatory anxiety every time you get this feeling of a tightness in the chest. Since the subconscious mind has no sense of time you respond to the event in front of you with the same or very similar coping skills you developed when you were young.
Now, as an adult, every time the Sympathetic system is active you experience this anticipatory anxiety. It is interpreted as a cue of danger. The shoe is about to drop. What if you were able to change this perception? What if you still felt that feeling in your chest but did not have to automatically jump into your imagination and go into all of the stories of a bad outcome. What if the feeling in your chest was just a message to you to pay attention to yourself for a moment or two? It is an invitation to tune into what you are internally experiencing, slow down, to carefully assess the situation. Imagine that the tight feeling did not mean something bad was going to happen but instead means you can have a positive outcome in this situation.
You can be in charge of how you respond.
It is possible what you are anticipating is a good thing and when you get that feeling in your chest it means to be excited about the next event and not scared. You have the power to change your response, you have the power to change your thoughts.
Here are a some steps to take on how to do this.
- When you feel that physical feeling in your body stop and pause.
- Take a breath in, let the exhale be longer than the inhale.
- Take a few of these breaths, being sure when you inhale you are taking deep abdominal breaths so you can feel your belly rise up each time you inhale.
- Notice how the physical feeling in the body begins to shift or become alleviated as you breathe this way.
- Become aware of your physical body. Feel your feet on the floor, your body in your chair, take note of the time, day, what clothes you are wearing. Reorient yourself to the present moment.
- Talk to yourself by asking questions like; what is the truth of the situation right now? What are the real possible outcomes? What is the best outcome? What is the worst?
- You are empowered to choose how you will approach the situation. Will you approach in from the perspective of the worst outcome or the best?
- You get to choose the way you respond. What emotional and physical energy do you want to bring to the situation?
- Take another breath and notice the shift within you.
- Now you can move forward and choose to interpret that feeling in your chest differently. Now it gets to mean to stop, pause, pay attention and choose you.
When you step into the empowered self by choosing you, you are letting yourself know you are safe. You are in charge of how you respond. You are here in this present moment, not five, ten or thirty years ago in the past. You no longer need to imagine bad outcomes with anticipatory anxiety of a shoe dropping. In fact, you get to move into a new space where you do not have to hear the shoe drop at all.
What is a nervous system to do?
Our children feel it, we feel it. When under stress our thoughts tend to take us into the future with worry. Right now, during the pandemic children all over the world are in a variety of new learning situations for school. Parents are worried. Parents of young children are worried about the impact of online school due to the lack of socialization and learning through play and sharing. Parents of older children are worried about how this will affect their child’s ability to get into college or be successful in life after graduation. We are all worried and wondering if our child is really learning what they need to learn and questioning if they are missing out. We are living in the year 2020, yet we are bringing the worry about some future event into the now.
The stressors you are under cause you to become emotionally dysregulated, and if you are dysregulated then your children may also be feeling dysregulated.
My clients often ask, “What am I supposed to do when I am feeling so dysregulated and I still have to parent my children?”
Essentially, they are asking, when I am dysregulated, how can I show up for my children?
This question applies to all life stressors not just the pandemic, online school and the current ways we have had to significantly alter our day to day lives.
It is up to you, the parent, to first regulate your own nervous system. Once your nervous system is regulated then you can show up for your children and help them by becoming their co-regulating partner. You do this for and with them, no matter how old your child is. Let’s explore how to do this through the lens of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory gives a framework to understand your autonomic nervous system.
What is the autonomic nervous system?
The autonomic nervous system is always behind the scenes working and taking in the environment. Assessing what we see, feel, hear, and sense for cues of safety and cues of danger. This is called neuroception. The autonomic nervous system is always perceiving what is going on in our lives, in each and every moment. We react or respond based on whatever is coming into our autonomic nervous system through neuroception.
Based on our experiences, we respond through a hierarchy of one of three autonomic states when outside information comes into our awareness.
The 3 autonomic states are:
- The Ventral state. We feel safe and connected here. When we are in this place we respond, we do not react. We feel good, balanced, calm and connected. We also feel safe in our environment. When we are in this feeling of safety and connection we can pause, look at the situation with some objectivity and then thoughtfully respond.
- The Sympathetic state. Mobilization, fight or flight. Mobilization gets us moving and taking action which can be a good thing. However, many times mobilization is fueled by anxiety and/or fear. Not enough to cause collapse but enough to cause us not to function at the highest level we can function at, usually we react. Many of the times these reactions are not in our best interests or the best interest of our child. These reactions can look like yelling, punishing or other reactions that make no sense and much of it comes from a place of fear.
- The Dorsal Ventral State- Feeling immobilized or collapsing. We shut down because outside influences are way too much for us.
These are the three states of our Autonomic Nervous System. Our children have these 3 states as well. We are born with them and they develop over time. When we learn how to regulate our nervous system, we can be a co-regulating partner for our child’s nervous system. That is the key.
Become a co-regulator.
Tips and tricks, you can use to regulate yours and your child’s autonomic nervous system.
- Begin to be aware of your own nervous system by asking questions like: What is happening within you when you become overwhelmed or triggered by your child or an outside event? What happens within your body when you think about how you feel in relation to the trigger? You may feel or experience fear, confusion, anxiety. You may feel like a victim and may wind up shutting down or becoming very anxious. These reactions bring us into either a dorsal or sympathetic state. We do not function optimally when in those states. The goal is to move up the hierarchy into a ventral state.
- When you feel these big feelings of anxiety ask yourself these questions:
“In this moment that I am in, what is the response I need in order to begin to feel better? “
“Where am I feeling it in my body?”
“What does my body need to do right now to feel more calm and balanced?”
– Maybe you need to take a few breaths, grab a glass of water, take a walk, sit in quiet, stretch or anything else that helps you move into a place of balance inside.
-You are now tuning into and taking care of your nervous system. When you take care of your needs you can move from anxiety into the calm place of safety, the ventral state.
- Once you are back in safety then you can ask: What does my child need, in this moment, right now from me?
If you respond to your child from a place of anxiety, fear or uncertainty without taking care of you first, your child will respond to your anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Your child will mirror back to you the state you are in.
Your child’s nervous system reads your nervous system.
Autonomic nervous systems communicate with one another. This is why we need to take care of our autonomic nervous system first, before interacting with our child. Once we become aware of this, we can regulate ourselves, this sends our child cues of safety. In other words:
Your calm nervous system calms their nervous system.
Ways to create autonomic safety for your child’s nervous system:
- The tone of your voice– Prosody- when we speak in a calm, soft tone of voice your child’s nervous system will calm down. The research has shown that the tone of your voice actually matters more than what you are actually saying.
- Non-language sounds like hmms, ahhs and ah-ah allows your child to know they are being heard. This non-language sound is called a vocal burst and it lets your child know I hear you and you are safe telling this to me.
- Tilt your head– when you are listening to someone, tilt your head to the right or left. This creates safety. This goes back to our primitive brains and our basic needs for safety. If the neck is exposed, you are at risk. If you show your neck to another you let their nervous system know there is no risk here.
- A soft stare or soft eye contact. A soft gaze
- A welcoming facial expression. Smile with your eyes.
Three essential elements to help your child’s nervous system feel safe:
-Our nervous systems need these three elements to feel safe during uncertain times.
- Context: Information- We need answers to the questions of who, what, where, when and why. Giving this kind of explicit context and information gives our nervous system enough information that lets us know we are safe.
- Choice: Choice helps our nervous system feel safe. We need to find creative ways to create choices. This will be different for each child based on their needs and learning abilities. If your child is old enough, include them in coming up with creative choice.
- Connection: This is key, and it goes hand in hand with conscious parenting. Connection over correction. Keep coming back and ask yourself how I can be most connected with my child right now. We want to have connections to help them feel safe to decrease anxiety and strengthen the relationship.
Examples for creating safety:
-Have a dance party on a break.
– Give a hug.
– Give a cue of safety: sing a song softly into their ear that you used to sing when they were a baby while you rock and hug them. This works to calm their nervous system because the subconscious mind will remember. This will help them feel safe and help their nervous system regulate. What are the things you can bring forward from the past that used to be a cue of safety for your child and use it in the present?
-You are only limited by your imagination.
Have compassion for yourself and your child. This is a learning process. The more you learn about your own nervous system and how to regulate yourself, the better you will be to help them regulate theirs. You are your child’s co-regulating partner.