When the body senses instability

If there was ever a time synonymous with instability, now would be it.  The world is on lockdown.   We are all impacted in one way or another.  Those with privileges are less affected by most without. No one is exempt.  The virus has united us even as it is exposing issues that divide us

We are in between houses as my partner’ contract with one country ended and our destination country has not yet opened its border fully.   How we will work, where we will work, how, and where we will live are all parts of the uncertainties we are living with.  The unpredictability of our own micro world intertwined that of the macro environment.

It is an emotional time for everyone.   We are really very lucky indeed.  We are amongst those more privileged. While transitional living out of suitcases is never fun, our livelihood is not impacted and most housing expenses paid for.  My work has been busier than ever.  Even as we are all forced to move to an online format(which most of them were even before the pandemic), the demand has only grown.  As a healer, the waitlist for my service is directly proportional to the amount of suffering people are experiencing.  It is fulfilling for me to help relieve some of the pain during this difficult time, or at any other time, since there is never a shortage of suffering in the world.  Yet every truly caring person I have met in my line of work, which is most of them, would agree our aim was always to work ourselves out of work.  It is impossible ideal, but one we must hold on to if we want to do good work.  We empower our clients to be their best advocate and healer.  Therefore the pandemic isn’t exactly the kind of business growth opportunity we were looking for.   Besides, we can only help so many people at a time. We are not an assembly line that can turn up production capacity.  Beyond the fixed amount of hours a week that I e-meet client one on one, more demand only means more people are waiting to be seen.  The awareness of the sheer amount of need is not easy to live with.

Like my clients, I am human.  In order to help them, I must take care good care of myself.  Modeling self-care is also one of the imperative as a coach and therapist.  “Do as I say but not as I do” is hypocrisy I can afford.  So it is in this spirit of therapeutic release that I am sharing my body’s sense of danger, even I live with the full awareness of my own relative safety comparing to many others in the world.

The body senses danger

When the body senses danger, it loses the capacity for optimal functioning(the brain slows down).  I have noticed more hypervigilance(inability to fall asleep at night or lack of desire to do so), falling behind on various self-care routines,  inability to concentrate well thus reducing productivity.    Cognitively, I never had trouble adjusting to transitory shelter.   Having immigrated from one country to another with drastically different cultures and languages provided training at a young age. Having been fortunate enough to travel and live in various countries further honed my adaptive skills.  I can feel settled down in a new place within 24-48 hours in my mind. However, the body cannot be fooled.  It knows this is a new environment, new bed, new halls, and a different base for my whole organism.   The reptilian brain takes longer to trust.  It is the most defensive.  In fact, it is the leader of the defense system.  My limbic or cognitive brain cannot counteract the body’s urgency for safety.  So my brain goes into overdrive to “solve” the body’s problem.

The irony is that while the body is the command center for how safe I feel, the mind has a control on the problem-solving mechanism.  The prefrontal cortex has been overriding my body’s needs for decades. It has its go-to box for maintaining safety.   It will make sure I have tighter control over things that traditionally have given me safety, regardless if it is still true or not. It wants me to do my work perfectly, as I have done year after year as a child in order to feel safe in a critical education environment.  It will make sure I have a tight rein on our family spending because it has been imprinted with the message “we do not have enough” from family members, traumatized by poverty.   I have worked hard to calibrate my mind, heart, and body to edit some of those internalized messages on perfectionism and scarcity.  While the body feels safe, my mind can recognize that being perfect or living below my means is no longer strictly necessary.  Now in times of instability in my physical world, the mind is resorting to familiar coping strategies.

The prefrontal cortex is not alone. My emotional world has also retreated to the familiar.  When I used to feel sad about my work-driven and fun-scarce childhood, I always listened to sad music as a refuge from the stress.  As much writing on meditation has shown, being in touch with that sadness at the moment was a relief from the pain.  It is counterintuitive that being focused on the sadness would make me feel better, yet it did.  The melancholic music took me away in reverie where I can escape my loneliness and worthlessness. So it is no surprise that the sad music has once again become a prominent presence in the past few weeks since I transitioned to temporary housing.   It is not the most terrible coping mechanisms. It does not carry with it the harm of drugs or alcohol, yet it can still be quite distracting and further compromises the actual sense of safety of the body.

The cortex and the limbic system have ingrained habits.   Instead of being more focused on the body’s sense of safety, it focused on “deadlines” for work or “daydreaming with sad music” for my emotional regulation.  Consequently, the body engages in a battle with the other two forms of the brain for energy.  Often the mind seems to win because it has had much more experience in handling situations. It overruled my young body’s desire to play and have fun, so I would do my homework or any other hard and boring obligations.  Therefore, its authority remained as it did for many of us.  I used the phrase “seems to win” because I know in reality it doesn’t.  The body’s sense of danger compromises its ability to be productive in the things the mind is pushing me to do.  As a result, I finish work less quickly and often stayed up very late(egged on by the body’s tendency to be hypervigilant and heart’s need to daydream with sad music) to make up for what was not done in the regular work time.  Then I sleep less and wake up more tired.  The fatigue then continues to compromise my productivity and delays my sleep schedule.  It becomes a vicious cycle.

Connect with the body’s wisdom

Only the body knows what it really needs.  It wants more energy devoted to letting her settle in the new environment.  To do so, it requires more time to re-establish my internal homeostasis. This can be accomplished by giving my mind, body, and emotions some time to “converse” in the new environment.  Meditating, exercising, sleeping more, or simply sitting quietly are all ways of reestablishing the internal reconnection.  In fact, the other day my body fought back powerfully during a nap when my mind wants to wake but my body wants to stay asleep. I remember the mind has opened “its eyes”.  I am not sure if my eyes were actually open, but the mind has constructed my room’s environment from memory and saw my surroundings before my body woke up.   My body was still firmly asleep. It would not move.  I tried to scream to wake myself up.  It did not let me.  The mind then created dreams out of my fear.  In one dream, my daughter was around and she had been playing by herself for a long time, leaving piles of water all throughout the house.  The mind was afraid of sleeping too long I was being a bad parent.  Another was feeling a man laying on top of me against my will. I was terrified he might do something to hurt me.  Even when those imageries have disappeared, my body refused to wake up.  During that time, my mind was feeling the sheer terror of being stuck there in eternity–having consciousness but no body to command.  It reminded me of the latest Charlize Theron movie where the iron maiden was condemned to live in an iron casket dumped into the ocean. Because her body could not die, she was doomed to revive again and again, only to go through the pain of drowning repeatedly. I felt trapped like that.

Finally, I woke up.  My body reconnected with my mind.  It had slept for about 2 hours solidly.  It was letting my mind take over again.  This reminded me of how important to respect the body’s needs.  The body’s demands are not complicated. It is always in the here and now.  It needs rest, nourishment, and attention(tactile or emotional).  The mind can divert energy temporarily to seek safety based on prior experiences or future expectations, yet the body’s needs are ultimately rooted in the present moment.  Cutting ourselves from our body might have been necessary when things are out of our control(such as dissociation during times of emotional abuse or extreme pain), yet to do so as a default has been the root of so many human hate and suffering.  It is the culprit in creating unnecessary stress in the pursuit of external rewards.  It is also responsible for discrimination and devaluation of all human beings who exhibit anything other than mainstream characteristics, such as in a race, sexual identity, religious beliefs, cultural practices.

Therefore when the body feels unsafe,  the only thing to do is to listen to its needs, pay attention, and respond by being with it in the here and now.  Taking the time to self-care is not only necessary but productivity-enhancing. The mind might feel that is taking attention away from “more important” deadline-driven tasks, self-care saves time by getting the body back to its optimal functional state for completing the mind’s to-do list.  As Dalai Lama said about meditation, which is a crucial part of his self-care, if on any given morning he feels he is too rushed to meditate, he will double his meditation time.  He wisely recognizes that when the body feels rushed, its level of security is low. That will only lower his productivity. The only thing left to do is to delay the mind’s instinct to rush and meditate more.

In order to model the connection with my body that I advocate for clients, I must now rest.  The body needs to feel safe.

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