Our autonomic nervous systems (ANS) are constantly, second-by-second monitoring our internal environments, external environments, and the space between us and other beings for cues of safety/welcome or threat/danger. This process is called neuroception.
At any time, we're residing within a specific state based on what the nervous system detects (i.e., safe and social, mobilized/fight or flight, or disconnected). We shift between these states throughout the day.
Importantly, your state will dictate your story, or the types of thoughts you will notice coming from your mind because 80% of the information moving through your body is bottom-up.
If your ANS detects threat, and so much so that it overrides any safe and social energy that's present, reflection and intellectual understanding are not possible. If you've ever been in the midst of a panic attack and someone tells you to "calm down... just breathe..." it didn't likely work. There is so much overwhelming energy in the system, we can't think "calm down" to shift into a calm state. In fact, when we're in panic, we can't think at all!
This makes sense. The ANS just wants to prevent you from harm, which means it prompts what's necessary for immediate survival.
Often we hear phrases like "change your mind, change your life!" that are designed to have us believe that we're top-down animals and that we can override the information our bodies send us. This is short-sighted. Sometimes, and to a degree, this is the case, however, it's possible when we understand our nervous systems, and when we have developed a window of tolerance that can withstand the energy of a defensive state whilst also experiencing a sense of safety.
True Change Requires More than a Mindset Shift!
I have not worked as a therapist or coach with a single client who has made transformational long-term, sustainable changes by just changing their thoughts. Please read that sentence again. Can changes be made by modifying our thoughts? Yes, absolutely. What we focus on over time, will become reinforced, positive, negative, or neutral. However, I would not have recovered from an eating disorder decades ago by just changing the way I think, and I couldn't become more aware of how I was thinking without first recovering nutritionally so my body was not in a perpetual state of threat. I cannot learn well if I'm not eating adequately, sleeping adequately, or skipping rest/recovery days when I'm on my bike a lot. I am not friendly, nor do I feel capable when I'm overworking and when I am not balancing my days with play and relaxation. Winters in Montana are more difficult for me because cold temperatures are experienced as threatening to my nervous system. I feel a lot of disconnected, shut-down energy. Sun has the opposite effect. When I'm warm, to a point, I'm a warmer person. I feel at ease.
How about you? Do you have an idea of who, what, where, and when influences a shift into different states? Who, either when you're with them or think of them, shifts you into ventral (safe, sound, social, capable) energy or out of it? What (i.e., a certain photo or memory; soft vs fluorescent lighting; the sound of a mountain stream or birdsong; the feel of the grass beneath your feet; traffic; music; specific movements) shifts you into or out of ventral energy?
Rather than overriding the information your body sends you, you can develop a relationship with it and use it to care for yourself. When you do, you'll find it a lot easier to change your patterns of thinking in a way that will serve you. More crucially, the way your body and mind respond to life's circumstances won't scare you, cause you to feel out of control or in the dark, and you'll feel more free and flexible within your life!
Curious about what this could look like for you? Reach out! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a complimentary call!