344 Transcript: When Things Feel Heavy and Overwhelming

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Jen: [00:00:00] Hey, I'm Jen Riday and this is the Vibrant Happy Women podcast. I'll be talking today about trauma and nervous system regulation, specifically how it's working in my life. Stay tuned.

Intro: [00:00:14] Are you ready to expand your soul's capacity for joy? Then this podcast is for you. I'm Dr. Jen Riday and welcome to Vibrant Happy Women.

Jen: [00:00:26] Hey my friends. I'm back. I know in November I said I was back, but I'll be honest, my family life has felt very heavy lately. I married my husband 24 years ago, and immediately upon being married, we quickly discovered things were not a great match. We fought a lot. I spent so much time in kind of fight or flight, which is the nervous system state when our hearts race, our breath gets shallow, we perceive that we're in danger. Emotional danger shifts us to fight or flight. Fast forward all these years later with six kids. I now know my husband has autism. I now know that he has a trauma history that has made emotions feel unsafe for him. Me, with my anxious attachment, always wanting reassurance of love. Early on in our marriage, I perceived his desire to stay detached as a threat. Why doesn't he show me he loves me? Why doesn't he show me he cares about my feelings? Our kids slowly were born into this and probably experienced more fight or flight from our fighting than they should have. It's just interesting. Patterns are passed on. Well, luckily, I started going to yoga. I started going to therapy. I became a life coach. I learned tons and tons and tons of skills about what is actually happening in the brain and in the body when we're under chronic stress and in continuous or near continuous fight or flight. It's not great, right? I have slowly, over time, learned how to shift between those states from fight or flight back to safe and social and also how to shift from the freeze and shutdown response back through fight or flight to safe and social. And I'm going to talk about all of that today.

Jen: [00:02:25] So life has felt heavy. I believe my history with chronic stress and some trauma from raising my kids, from being in this marriage, from not understanding what was happening, I have probably had some kind of a complex PTSD response. My amygdala has been primed to perceive things as a greater threat than it might need to be. It's a little bit trigger-happy to shift me back to fight or flight to protect me.

Jen: [00:03:00] Now let me talk briefly about those nervous system states, safe and social. You can imagine a prehistoric or a hunter-gatherer family at the back of a cave lying around a fire. They're calm. Their muscles are relaxed. Their breath is nice and deep and slow. Heart rate is slow, primed for connection, closeness, and emotional connection. All the things that we want. Safe and social feels amazing. Now, if those same hunters were out walking or hunting or gathering and a saber toothed tiger jumps out of the woods, their nervous systems rightly shift into fight or flight. Cue the dilated eyes so they can see better, the shallow breath, the rapid heart rate, the tensed and clenched muscles. They are primed to run and flee and fight. This is not a state that feels that great. We are not primed to socially socialize and connect and feel emotionally safe when we're in fight or flight. Now a third state, which we don't often connect: If you've spent chronic amounts of time in fight or flight like I have in our family situation with the mental health challenges, the autism, the bipolar, the ADHD – whew – your body will shift into what is known as a freeze or a shutdown response. If you spend a lot of time there, that can almost begin to feel like your baseline emotional state. As a stay-at-home mom, I spent many years in a freez or shutdown state where it felt completely hopeless, like there was no point in trying. Nothing I did would change. Kids getting trouble at school, my husband not ever understanding or seemingly not being empathetic. It just felt very unsafe. So a freeze and shutdown response is also your body trying to help you.


Jen: [00:05:02] But we can't live with constant cortisol and adrenaline. So in a freeze or shutdown state you might feel hopeless, despondent, have little desire to try. You might numb, often numbing with Netflix or chocolate or alcohol. Many, many options where you just don't face life anymore. You kind of stop trying. Well, I know and I taught at the Vibrant Happy Women Retreat how to shift between these states. But I'm going to share that in a minute. Sometimes you're just tired and sometimes you don't do what you need to do. So my daughter has been struggling at school. Fast forward… After months of response by the school-which is sad and could be a whole other episode- literally zero response, she was lying on the back at the back of the room on the floor. Nothing was being adapted for what I told them was autism and sensory processing issues. She's now doing what she's wanted all along and homeschooling. That has created conflict in my marriage a little bit because my husband thinks it's wrong. He doesn't want to listen to her or my opinion. It's super heavy to carry and hold a nontraditional path for a child, to be their advocate. When this other person that's supposed to be part of the safe space isn't supporting it, it's a tough row to hoe. So that's happening to me. My body feels tired. It feels like in defensive mode, threat mode. And if you can relate, this episode is for you.

Jen: [00:06:50] I'm going to talk about shifting between those states. Okay. Safe and social we love, right? Fight or flight? Your heart rate gets rapid, your breath shallow muscles clench, you prepare to fight. Now imagine Bambi and his mother in a field. They hear the gunshot of the hunter. They immediately go into fight or flight. The body's awesome defense system to get them to run really fast, to be really strong. Okay. Imagine hunters also pulling a fence in the front and in the back of Bambi and his mother. The fence. -Bambi and his mother perceive there's nowhere to go. Their bodies, our bodies as humans, as animals, their bodies have a system built in kind of the dorsal vagal response. If you follow Polyvagal theory, that puts them into a freeze or shutdown response. There's a beautiful video out there of an animal in Africa who had been captured by a cheetah. The cheetah drops it. The cheetah runs off, gets distracted. The animal's in a total freeze response where the body has essentially shut down to prevent the animal from being in agonizing pain while it's eaten. Well, that cheetah doesn't come back. And somehow, miraculously, a photographer, a videographer captures this after a minute. The animal, something in its system, kicks back on and it begins to breathe. It takes one big breath, then more breaths start to come faster. Then you see it start to twitch. Then the animal stands up and totally begins to shake, shaking all the trauma, the fight or flight response, out of its nervous system. Then eventually the animal is fine and it runs off.

Jen: [00:08:49] Well, we as humans live in a society of chronic stress. For you, it might not be kids with mental health struggles. It might not be marital struggles. It might be a job or a boss that feels threatening. It might be single parenting where you worry about finances all the time. It might be a health challenge, someone in your family's facing or you. There's no shortage of threatening situations, world events, world health challenges like we went through a few years ago that we can face. What we need to know is how to shift back to the safe and social state. Many of you listening might be prone to spend the most of your time in a fight or flight state. Feeling anxious, worried, kind of activated, worrying about the future. Is this going to be safe? Is that going to be safe? Just trying to perceive in advance and protect against and control against things that could go wrong. I personally am not prone to anxiety because my nervous system has taken me to the next level, which is the freeze and shutdown response when a human is in the freeze or shutdown response of nervous system regulation. You might feel low motivation, have a tendency toward depression, feel hopeless, not feel like trying and we can get stuck in that state. Within the mental health field we know that you need to breathe deeply to get out of a stress response, right? And that is true if you are in fight or flight, the easiest way to get back to safe and social is to be mindful of what's around you. I see a microphone in front of me. I see my fingers. You can orient by just being fully present in the space you're in. You can also practice 3×6 or 4×8 breathing where you double the length of your exhale like this (breathing). Or humming, which I hear my daughter doing often to regulate her nervous system. And she has no idea she's using, humming to regulate. Humming or singing require us to have that longer exhalation. Think about it (singing La la la la la la la la). You're exhaling a long time to sing. That was my best singing, by the way. La la la la. There are so many ways to get back to safe and social from that anxious state, like meditation or exercise. What isn't talked about a lot is how to get back to safe and social from the shutdown or more depressed response. Deep breathing doesn't work because our nervous systems have to move through fight or flight or a state of activation to get back to safe and social.

Jen: [00:11:57] You can think of them like layers. Green is safe and social. Right above that is yellow. Fight or flight. Right above that is the shutdown response, which is red. We must move back through fight or flight or activation to get back to safe and social. So what would that look like? Well, you all get to be investigators if you're prone to a shutdown response by noticing what activates you. It might be the shaking response similar to the antelope that was hunted by the cheetah but allowed to escape. I've seen dogs after a stressful situation. Two dogs. One of the dogs had a seizure. The other dog was on alert. As soon as it was all over, they both shook it out. That phrase in sports “shake it off.” It comes from an actual response we probably need to have built into our society. I think of tribal areas of Africa where they will dance around a fire. I think that's an amazing mental health response that's built into their societies that help them. Just let loose of all of the traumatic events, the stressful events, the things that happen in life so they don't get stuck in that shutdown and freeze response. So dancing, shaking, moving, exercise, high-intensity exercise. Instead of breathing deeply and having the long exhale, you can breathe rapidly to shift yourself into fight or flight. Kind of like this (breathing rapidly). 30 of those and then regulate. Do it three times. There are a number of ways you could research online to find even more. So the goal would be for me and others like me who are prone to that shutdown response due to things happening in our environments. The goal would be to practice those activities like the dancing or the shaking or the rapid breathing, breath of fire, it's called, to regulate. Once you activate, of course, then you can do the long exhale and shift back to safe and social. Some of us need to activate more into that fight or flight to get back to safe and social. Some of us just need to kind of deactivate more and go straight into safe and social.

Jen: [00:14:23] My point is this: You like me might have a very activating lifestyle that shifts you into fight or flight. I'm sure you do. Some of you, like me, might be prone to go into a shutdown or freeze hopelessness and despair response. That's what was modeled for me as a child. That's where I tend to go if I'm not careful. Some of you might have the baseline of just being activated and worried and have the rapid heart rate and the big eyes all the time. Nothing is wrong with any response. It's what your body has done to adapt. Don't add shame to the mix. I'm not. I'm not ashamed of my response. I'm here telling you about it. It just is. But what we can do, the best thing we can do is build in routines and habits that help our nervous systems regulate. What could those be for you? For me, it's my morning ritual. If I do it, which is not always the case, but if I do it, one of the things I do every morning is jump on a rebounder. I know that activates me. I do the breath of fire. I learned a way to do it- alternate nostril breathing-You can google ‘pranayama.' There are so many ways to breathe that will activate your nervous system. I also like to do some yoga, some dancing, some Qigong that activate my nervous system. And later in the day, if a stressful event occurs, which it does often. My daughter (not naming names, but the one who's having the problems at school) when she's at home, she would kind of let her emotions vomit out everywhere which she had held in at school. Takes off her mask and it all comes out, very much sending all of us into fight or flight. And it's a chronic, stressful situation which, you know, as a mom, it's not a situation I can remove myself from at this time. 

Jen: [00:16:25] So, if you felt low mood, It's okay. Add a few elements to your life, like the shaking, the dancing, the loud music, the movement, the high intensity workouts to shift yourself back into fight or flight. Then regulate back to safe and social with your 3×6 breathing, three counts in, six counts out. So that's where I've been, dealing with my family, experiencing a lot of chronic stress, and definitely keeping myself regulated, but also not willing and able to add more deadlines to the mix.

Jen: [00:17:06] So we talked a lot about this topic at the retreat, which was awesome. I want to let you know that the 2024 retreat is live and ready for you if you want to experience being in a crowd of women who get you, who see you, who empathize with you, who help each other shift into that state of safe and social for many, many days, that feels so good to train yourself, to train your nervous system. This is what it feels like to feel completely emotionally safe, regulated, not responsible for any crisis. This is what that feels like. Then join us. You can learn more at jenriday.com/retreat. I would love to have you there.

Jen: [00:17:54] All right, my friends, that's where I've been. I will be back more consistently. Now I'm building in systems to give myself the space, the emotional, safe space where I'm not being activated continuously by things happening at home. I have my beautiful office and I'm going to show up for you because being here feels good for me, and I need this emotionally safe time to contribute in different ways other than parenting and being a wife and all the things that go with that.

Jen: [00:18:26] All right. I love you. I want to give you encouragement that if you're experiencing chronic stress, whether your nervous system stays activated and has an anxiety response or you go into more of a freeze or shutdown response, there's hope. I'm here. You can do exactly what I've done. You can learn how to shift between these states. Remember, dance, shake, run-just a little every day, and then allow a deep breath to bring you back to safe and social. Also, create environments and spaces where you can be 100% regulated. That means sometimes taking yourself out of that stressful situation, leaving that space, creating friendships where you have more of that emotional safety and nervous system regulation. I'm so grateful to be able to do that with you here.

Jen: [00:19:21] All right, my friends, I love you. I'm cheering for you. I'm rooting you on. I get you and I've got your back. I'll see you again next time. Until then, make it a vibrant and happy week. Take care.

Outro: [00:19:34] If you enjoy this podcast, you'd love Vibrant Soul The Place to heal, transform and Expand your Soul with like-minded friends, join us at jenriday.com/vibrantsoul.