Environmental triggers stimulate our nervous system. These triggers, known as stressors, initiate the fight, flight, or freeze response in our body which is mainly controlled by our Vagus nerve as part of our autonomic system. Suppose our nervous system receives a message from environmental triggers through our Neuroception system. In that case, we can partially lose the ability to use our analytical skills and rationality typically supported by our prefrontal cortex.
In many instances, the process of receiving these environmental messages is below our awareness. If we don’t have the training to recognize these triggers in real time, we only feel the symptoms they cause. These symptoms are emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, or a mix of many emotions.
Our Neuroception system decodes the message from the triggers based on our previous experiences shaping our perception. For example, if a dog bit a person as a child, they might be reluctant to be near dogs as an adult.
Our body navigates through different stages to transition from a state of safety to fight or flight mode. We might feel a range of emotions, such as anxiety and fear, in a particular situation. Or suppose our brain doesn’t have the capacity to deal with this stage. In that case, our body can immediately transition to the state of Freeze or appeasement. Freeze or appeasement can form deep sadness, depression, people pleasing, or desperation to fit in. This is when we may feel emotions such as self-doubts, sadness, helplessness, and depression.
Through mindfulness practices, you can begin recognizing when you are in a state of fight, flight, or Freeze. Follow these steps to help objectify the experience:
First, acknowledge the existence of the experience. Accept that this is your current state of being by naming the emotions and checking your bodily sensations
Naming emotions can feel confusing at first. You can find great help on Karla McLaren’s website and Brené Brown’s recent book, Atlas of the heart. Make sure you don’t get hung up with someone’s definition of emotion, and use these resources as inspiration to define the emotion for yourself. Researchers explain universal patterns, but your emotional subtlety is unique to you based on your collective life experiences.
Then, ask yourself, from 0 to 10, how powerful my current state of mind is. Observe to learn whether this is a healthy amount of emotional response to a trigger or excess amount of emotional reaction that could take control of our behavior.
The next step is inquiring about the best tool to ground and self-soothe ourselves. Grounding or self-soothing re-establishes the connection between our nervous system and our prefrontal cortex’s access to rationality and analytical thinking.
When we’re back in the state of harmony, we will be able to contemplate a mature response to the trigger that comes from our wisdom instead of our perceived triggers.
Here is a list of grounding and self-soothing tools. I use a few of them and have shared my personal experience here. Practice a few of these suggestions to see what works for you, and add any of your existing methods to create a running list. Make sure the tools you’re currently using are healthy soothing mechanisms (hint: for example, binge eating or doom scrolling are not healthy soothing mechanisms). Keep this as a living document, update it regularly and use it as needed. Lastly, planning a daily grounding practice is critical to prepare us for more powerful events. These practices help us decrease the power of an unpleasant mood and help guide us slowly back to the state of connection, inner peace, and safety. Don’t we all want to have wise and mature responds to what life brings to us?
Deep and slow breathing: I practice this twice daily and when I feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, and sadness. I also close my eyes and take a few deep and slow breaths when I have a moment of awe, happiness, or fulfillment. I inhale the presence of the moment and allow my body to absorb it.
Meditation: This is my daily practice; however, there are days that I am powerfully distracted by the events of the day. These days I practice alternatives such as anchoring to allow myself to emerge in a pleasant memory for a few minutes and feel safe in my body. Depending on my mood, I use guided meditations by teachers like Tara Brach, Kristine Neff, or Jack Cornfield.
Body scan: I close my eyes, relax my body, and check every piece of my body to see if any parts are triggered. I try to comfort those parts by touching, stroking, or resting the muscles. It can take less than 5 minutes. This practice usually lessens the power of my sad mood.
Singing: I have never had a chance to develop my singing voice. I sing along when I am in the car alone. 🙂 To begin this practice, I need to be in a lesser-powered fight, flight mode. If that state is powerful, I can’t even begin to sing.
Relaxing: I love laying down and aiming to relax my muscles by letting them drop towards gravity as much as possible. I can review all my muscles and relax them through a body scan. This practice helps me when I feel numb or tense due to excess fear, anxiety, shame, or sadness.
Moving/Walking: Even a short walk with my dogs changes my mood and calms me down. This activity helps when I feel frustrated or angry.
Being in nature: I have experienced that being in nature for at least half an hour brings me a couple of happy days. Walking in the woods, kayaking, and skiing are my go-to adventures. Being in nature is a grounding practice that calms me and makes me more resilient overall.
Talking to someone safe: I’d like to speak to a safe person to self-reflect when I am unsettled, frustrated, or angry. I feel lucky I have people in my life who listen to me attentively, don’t give me advice if I don’t ask for it, understand me, and love me or accept me for who I am.
Crafting: I lean into diamond stitches or color mandalas to focus. Whether I am listening to something or need to focus on a thought, these practices help me stay grounded, and the regularity of these activities allows me to concentrate.
Dancing: Dancing With closed eyes to West African Drumming; this practice a few times per week keeps me going. The movements release the tension from my body and allow more space in my lungs for deeper inhales. If I am in fight or flight mode, I need to push myself; in the Freeze, I usually need no movement practices.
Here are a few more suggestions that work for others:
Listening to music
Taking a bath
Playing with a pet
Sitting in silence
Watching soothing imageries
Splash cold water on your face
painting/playing with colors
Watch something that makes you laugh
Do a puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle
No doom scrolling – DO NOT get drawn into your social media
Your choice of tool
Let’s practice emotional regulation together!
Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com
Editing credit: Parnian Emami