Your reality has shattered into pieces. Your hopes and dreams have suddenly vanished. The world in which you believed is nowhere in sight. The colorful slate that once defined your life has faded away, and you are left with a barren terrain to call your home. At times, you feel confident and sure of yourself, yet minutes later you feel oblivious and detached. Do not be alarmed by your oscillating feelings and behaviors. The reality of which you were certain was pulled out from under you, and your body is instinctively protecting you from your fall.
When your reality fades away, you have only your inherent abilities upon which to rely. You cannot depend on your overwhelmed mind to rescue you from this upheaval. Your mind has temporarily shut down. It cannot sort through nor can it analyze your situation in any coherent manner. Your body, with its primal instincts will come to your rescue. Your body will be the first to acknowledge and experience your shattered reality. Therefore, you need to pay attention to your body and learn how to interpret the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages that it is sending you.
When the reality to which you are accustomed dissolves away – when your sense of self is challenged – your body innately responds. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, thereby causing physical changes to occur inside of you. You enter into a heightened state of alert, a stress reaction mode, called “fight or flight” readiness. You take on the characteristics of the warrior within you. You become anxious, demanding, and confrontational. You are ready for battle. (The SNS is one part of the autonomic nervous system. The other part is the parasympathetic nervous system, PNS.)
Your muscles become the top priority when you are in “fight or flight” readiness. You must supply your muscles with as much blood as possible since they may be called upon to defend you. Therefore, your heart beats faster and stronger to ensure an abundant flow of blood to the muscles – you experience a pounding heart. Your digestive system shuts down because its blood supply needs to be diverted away and sent to the muscles – you experience nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. Your breathing becomes rapid because your lungs need to increase their supply of oxygen to the blood – you experience shortness of breath. Your liver releases large quantities of sugar into the bloodstream so that your muscles have a plentiful supply of energy – you experience spikes in blood sugar levels. All of these responses occur automatically as your body prepares itself for the stress that appears before you.
The activation of your SNS (“fight or flight” readiness) disrupts the equilibrium on which your body depends. You lose the balance and harmony that is vital to your well-being. This loss of balance and harmony causes you to physically hurt. Once again, your body responds instinctively. To alleviate your pain, your body releases endogenous opioids, or endorphins. Endorphins are similar to the drug morphine, and their function is to block your pain. They are the body’s natural painkillers. They numb you. They stop the physical pain that you are experiencing. Feeling no pain, you wander around aimlessly, unable to focus or concentrate on anything. You are indifferent, emotionless, and just plain empty. You are on auto-pilot, just going through the motions, oblivious of what you are doing.
You enter into a cycle of SNS activation and endorphin release whenever you come face to face with your stressors. Work, raising children, and divorce bring stressful situations into your life. Unknowingly, you activate your “fight or flight” response (which causes you to physically hurt), and then your body releases endorphins (which numb you from your pain). It is vital that you learn how to break the cycle of SNS activation and endorphin release. If you allow stress to be ongoing in your life, then you will wreak havoc on your body. Continual stress causes headaches, insomnia, a rise in blood pressure, intestinal disorders, infertility, Type 2 diabetes, an increase in inflammation, an increase risk for heart attack and stroke. The list goes on and on.
It is your responsibility to stop the activation of your SNS and create a state of calmness for your body. You need to put your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) in command. The PNS counteracts the SNS. It slows down your heart rate, decreases your respiration, relaxes your blood vessels, and provides many other benefits. It places you into a mode of rest and relaxation.
Your body is either in a state of calmness or chaos. Either your PNS or your SNS is in command of your body. Your heart cannot beat calmly and rapidly at the same time. Nor can your digestive system be functioning and shut down at the same time. You cannot feel peace and contentment while the warrior within you is ready for battle. Your physical and emotional well-being – the balance and harmony of your life – depend on which of these two systems (the PNS or the SNS) is in command.
One way to de-activate your SNS and put your PNS in command is through breathing: belly breathing. Focus your attention on the rise and fall of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Your belly rises on the inhale and falls on the exhale. For many, belly breathing may seem unnatural. Unfortunately, you have conditioned yourself to breath in a shallow stressful manner. Observe how newborns breathe. They have not yet been affected by the stresses of life.
By placing your attention on your breathing, you will be training your mind to focus on one thing at a time. This is the basis of mindful meditation. For those of you who have difficulty falling asleep because of those ongoing inner dialogues in which your mind loves to engage – you worry about everything – I suggest that when you get into bed at night, you focus your attention on your breathing. With practice, you will learn to calm your chattering mind and get a good night’s sleep.
If you truly want to free yourself from your pain and despair, then your first step is to connect with your body. Learn to recognize the sensations that your body displays. Learn to recognize when your SNS becomes activated, and then stop it. By learning the language of the body, you will bring balance and harmony back into your life. While your mind will trick you and vie for all of your attention (through its constant chattering), your body will guide you. Your body is well aware of what is truly happening in your life. The body knows what the mind cannot or refuses to acknowledge. The body does not lie.