Body Hacks for Long Term Recovery: why it is so hard to be in the moment and tools to help you find NOW.
Why do I feel like something is about to happen; all the time? I feel in a state of high alert, not as if something good is going to happen, but the “other shoe is going to drop” and the first shoe wasn’t that great. I scan for danger- not just the regular amount of be aware of your surroundings but an extreme sense of predicting disaster. My hypervigilance is not just about my own safety but for the potential discomfort and lack of safety for others. I want to make everything “all right” for everyone, and that means looking out for them and remaining ever vigilant.
Why is my stomach on the verge of upset so much of the time? Indigestion, even bouts of nausea and queasiness? Why is my system so clogged or incompetent that food is not processed properly? At nineteen I was diagnosed with an ulcer; not a conventional diagnosis for a young adult. This tendency remained well into early recovery.
Why do I fall so easily into isolation, depression and a sense of hopelessness? Things are going along fine, nothing major changes and, like falling into a hole, tripping into the gutter on a small misstep off the sidewalk of life, down I go into the miasma of loneliness and despair.
Why are my joints prone to achiness, do I succumb to every passing cold or flu, am I more susceptible to stress, do I breathe in a shallow manner, am I such an exhausted wreck?
All of these conditions were my regular state of being when I was in my active addiction. I blamed by mental and physical issues on my addiction and was so disappointed when recovery did not relieve them totally. I still experienced a disordered breathing, thinking, and my body was still in constant discomfort. My digestion was impaired and my body sense, my gut sense, was still widely off the mark.
I started practicing yoga and was surprised that the meditative process of moving into, being in, and coming out of the poses seemed to be calming me down. My ability to sit in meditation, in a pose of inactivity, increased and I was more and more able to be endure my active mind without becoming involved in it. There is a scientific WHY to this amazing HOW.
The Vagus Nerve. You may have seen posts or articles recently about this important nerve that runs through the body. Two branches and 3 parts move us from our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system (automatic functions including the known reactions of fight, flight or fawn.) Another part of the parasympathetic system will cause us to freeze or disassociate. (I will be giving a ninety minute webinar on the details in September 2018.)
When you grow up in a chaotic, adverse or addictive household your system pops over to the sympathetic side – constantly evaluating if you need to flee or fight or fawn (make nice, manipulate others so they aren’t so scary, placate etc.) In the life of active addiction; a life of risk, danger, lies, and isolation your system also goes into the sympathetic side to handle the vicissitudes of life. It does not matter if the chaos is of our own creation. The nervous system doesn’t know: it just reacts.
We get stuck. I got stuck. I was ready for action and reaction. I was tense, my breath was short, I wore out my heart, my lungs, my stomach, my sense of sight, sound and smell. I was ON all the time. There was no middle ground: there was seldom release and revive. I recall an experience in early recovery where a therapist had me sit still (a challenge of its own) and listen to a guided meditation. It took me a while to settle in and eventually I did. I could not remember EVER having felt that kind of calm. I had never felt at ease, relaxed, secure and settled. It blew my mind. I spent a few months searching for a chemical equivalent before I became clean and sober, for good and for all. And I have found this place of calm, time and time again. I have been able to find the comfort and security of my parasympathetic nervous system. And so can you.
Five Simple Hacks For Nervous System Health
Breathing: yes, intentional breathing in a slow comfortable rhythm, gradually changing to a longer exhale than the inhale. In yoga we can call this 2:1 breath in which we move toward the exhale lasting twice as long as the inhale. Progress slowly. Remain comfortable. Take your time.
Meditative Walks: simple slow walks preferably where you can see trees, gardens, or the shore. Look around yourself and name the things you see that are of pleasant interest: architecture, types of trees, colors of flowers. Smile. Notice those who smile back. Don’t be concerned with those who don’t. Make a practice of looking toward the colorful, the friendly and nature.
Gentle, somatic yoga: move with the idea of befriending your body, listening to its messages of healthy and healing. Listen to its discomfort with compassion. Avoid overdoing: prevent injury. Do move- to avoid dwindling of your strength your balance and your flexibility. Just like the program: it works if you work it. Try several classes to settle upon those that serve you well.
Cold face or full body plunges: splash your face with cold water, submerge your face /head in ice water or go full polar bear and jump into a cold pool, lake or ocean. Yes there will be a sense of shock- but this will help your vagus nerve get toned. That sudden intake of breath, the change of your heart rhythm could be just what you need to reset the nervous system.
Massage and bodywork: can release tightness and bring vitality to areas of the body that may be cut off from the “mothership” the conscious mind and awareness. Trauma can deaden areas and keep other parts of the body overstimulated causing the body to be out of balance. Being able to literally put yourself in someone else’s hands for awhile allow your controls to pause and reset. Regular bodywork also increases the effectiveness of your immune system.
These are only five of many ways to heal the vagus nerve, allow it to resume regular functioning and help cardiovascular healing. We all will experience tensions and anxiety in life. It is a gift to be able to approach situations from neutral rather than conditioned high alert. Try these simple “hacks’ for a week and see if you can concentrate better, feel more at ease, and begin to more easily face situations that “used to baffle us”, If not, try it for a week more. It didn’t take us only seven days to get all knotted up. Be patient in the unfolding.