The Mind-Body Connection for Safety

Building upon yesterday’s post, when we don’t feel safe, that sensation happens in our body first. Our gut instinct sends a message to our brain that something is “off.” It is then the job of our mind to help process what those sensations mean and if they are potentially dangerous to us. There are three things to remember about our bodies:

1. They never lie to us. They can’t, as they do not have a brain (our minds on the other hand lie to us all the time; we can convince ourselves of anything when we want to!)

2. Our bodies never forget. This is an important point as our bodies will never forget trauma or negative experiences that get repeated, even when we have no conscious memory of the event. And so, when faced with a situation that at times will mimic the negative experience, our bodies immediately send a message to our brain that says, “potential danger ahead.” An example involves a client who was involved in a head-on collision with a pick-up truck; she is not able to recall the experience at all and has had to piece together events of that day through witness’s accounts. Now that she is back to driving, she has noticed a marked difference in her tension level when she sees a pick-up truck approaching her in the opposite lane. The implicit memory of the event warns her of the possible threat. This brings us to our last point:

3. Our bodies can sometimes over-react.  It is their job after all to warn us of potential danger and our mind’s job to process what is going on. It is at this point that we need our mind to help reassure our body and say “It is okay, I have this one under control;” leaving our body to return to a more restful state.

Photo credit: http://Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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The Need for Safety

The need to feel safe is an inherent need that is with us from the moment we are born; it is tied to our survival and so remains with us for the entirety of our lives. If we don’t feel safe for any reason, we are driven to move towards feeling secure. This level of safety is both physical and emotional. If we are faced with a physical danger, our instincts immediately kick in and everything is set aside in order to deal with the danger at hand. Essentially our fear response is activated and we are impelled to deal with the threat.

We also, however, have an emotional level of safety; one that is individualized for everyone, and is based on what we have learned about our emotions in our lifetime. For example, if you grew up in a very stoic home where the expression of emotion was not encouraged, you may have grown up believing that emotional self control is the only option.  This will become part of your emotional level of safety and you will be driven to maintain it, healthy or not. This tends to be an important area of growth for many people who come into therapy; to gain a greater understanding of our how emotional level of safety can affect our decisions. Essentially, we may flee from a healthy emotional choice because it doesn’t feel safe. Learning about our own emotional safety can help us to begin to challenge ourselves to move to healthier choices where our emotions are concerned; providing a greater sense of balance to our emotional experience.

Photo credit: http://Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

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The Structure of Society

Structure and routine help us to feel grounded and safe. There was a time when society contributed to that framework for us; but today we see less and less of it in our ever busy and technology filled world. Some examples of how I experienced that structure when I was a kid (in the 70’s and 80’s) include:

  • Sunday was a day of rest. As a family, we went to church and then spent the day in relax mode.
  • Stores were closed on Sunday; on weekdays, you had to do your shopping before 5 pm or you were plum out of luck.
  • There was “phone time.” My sister and I had about a 1/2 hour tops before my Dad would tell us to not tie up the line.
  • We didn’t have TV’s in our rooms (and there were no computers or laptops yet) so when we went to bed, we read to help relax our brain.
  • My Dad worked an 8 to 4 job; supper was at 5.

In today’s society, it is often hard to escape the frenetic pace that consumerism and technology has created. Heck, we can buy things online at 2 am if we don’t feel like going to a 24 hour Walmart. Our society may have changed, but our need for structure and routine remain; it becomes important for us to establish our own limits, our own family’s framework in order to establish our own structure. Society may have dropped the ball on this one, but we need to remain in the game 🙂

Photo credit: http://Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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5 Ways to Reduce Chronic Stress

We know from yesterday’s blog post that chronic stress and cortisol are not a good mix; putting both our physical and mental health at risk. Our mind-body system needs to be able to return to it’s relaxation response in order for cortisol to best do its job; therefore, reducing stress in our daily lives becomes part of our goal towards creating balance for a healthier life. Here are 5 possible ways to help reduce chronic stress:

  1. Unlearn to worry (yes, it’s possible!). Worrying and anxiety go hand-in-hand; creating increased overall stress in our lives.
  2. Get outside. 30 minutes of walking a day, preferably in nature, is optimal; the research proves it works just as well as anti-depressants to boost mood.
  3. Daily self-care. 10 minutes of “just you time” a day is a great way to remind ourselves that we are important too.
  4. Prioritize. Look at your list each day and ask yourself, “Which tasks do I have to get done today? Can I delegate, delete or defer any of them?” (Try it; it works!)
  5. Laugh. Find ways to bring laughter into your day; at work, at home, with friends. We often underestimate the power of laughter and the uplifting quality it brings to our soul.

These are just 5 ways, of many, that we can move towards finding balance in our lives and working with our cortisol to produce an optimal system of stress regulation. Feel free to leave a comment with additional ways that you reduce stress in your life; we might be able to generate more ideas for each other 🙂

Photo credit: http://Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

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The Value of Looking Up

For the past nine years I have walked my Great Dane in a locally forested area called the Grove. Following the well worn path brings us along a ridge where we walk high above the Ottawa River, winding through the majestic, towering pines, and occasionally glimpse a wandering fox or a foraging raccoon. It is the perfect way for us to not only get our exercise, but to reap in the benefits of fresh air; nature acting as an essential healer. Although I always say that therein lies my best avenue for thinking, it isn’t a meandering stroll; I walk at a good pace, Cricket unleashed, getting my legs moving and my heart rate up.

A friend recently said to me “Isn’t it amazing how many owls you see in the Grove?” What? Owls? Many? How did I miss this? Nine years of walking in the Grove and I have never seen an owl? And then, it dawned on me; I never look up. I am concentrating more on what is straight in front of me, watching the path so as to not trip on a wayward root or half buried rock. The next few times I headed into the Grove, I decided to slow down a little and bring my attention to the upper branches of the trees, and sure enough, as the universe likes to occasionally prove its point, there sat an owl, quietly watching me as I walked under its lofty perch.

It taught me a valuable lesson about how straightforward our lives can sometimes become; how our well worn paths become so familiar we fail to appreciate what is right in front of us. By allowing myself to slow down and look up, I gained a new perspective, and with it, a valued experience.

Photo credit: http://Photo by Tina Rataj-Berard on Unsplash


Self-Esteem Explained

In a recent article entitled “Where Does Self-Esteem Come From and How Can I Develop it? by Caty Harris and featured on GoodTherapy, Caty takes the mystery of self-esteem and explains it through a nature and nurture lens.  “Self-esteem is influenced by evolution, childhood, rejection, social group stability, and, most importantly, beliefs.”

Two points that especially stood out to me: how beliefs and rejection can hinder a child’s ability to form a well developed self-esteem. As a child, we have magical thinking which can often affect how our experiences get cemented into our belief system. She explains how “the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) begins to develop at the age of 2-3 and it serves as a key region in understanding ourselves as well as others; our ability to make positive judgments about ourselves is rooted in our childhood.”  (loosely quoted)

She also talks about why acceptance is so important to us from an evolutionary perspective and how rejection can trigger a physical response which includes a decrease in heart rate and the production of  cortisol, the stress hormone. “Our brains hold tightly to memories connected with negative emotions and experiences, especially those where we feel unsafe, criticized, or rejected.”

Knowing this can help us to understand how our self-esteem developed in childhood and the steps we can take to move towards self-acceptance and creating a more accurate view of who we are based on our qualities and attributes.

To read the full article (you will really appreciate it!):

Photo Credit: http://Photo by Laura Briedis on Unsplash

Before You Say Yes

We tend to over commit. Say yes to things because it feels bad to say no. We just try to squeeze everything in to make people happy, putting our own needs on the back burner. It can be difficult to decide where our responsibilities lie, and everything begins to feels as though it’s a requirement.

Instead of jumping in with both barrels, is it possible to move to a position of balancing our priorities with our demands? Three questions that we can ask ourselves before we say yes:

  1. What is my current energy level? Do I have the time and strength to dedicate to this task?
  2. What amount of help or support will I have if I say yes to this request?
  3. What is my emotional state? Do I feel up to committing to this invitation?

Working through this checklist can give us insight as to what we are capable of agreeing to, at that moment and time in our week; furthering our goal to make ourselves important too 🙂

Photo credit: http://Photo by Aron on Unsplash

Make it Okay: Resource

I recently came across an organization named “Make it OK;” it’s aim: to educate the public about mental illness and to help put an end to the stigma that tends to be a concurrent issue for people who are brave enough to speak their truth. On the interactive website, you will find information about mental illness; did you know for example, that one in four people will develop a mental illness in their life time? They have quizzes to see if you recognize mental illness stigma and describe the tangibles of it such as “Exclusion. Telling someone to toughen up or snap out of it. Calling someone crazy. Treating mental illness as a fallacy for the lazy or attention starved.”

One part that I especially appreciate is the section that share people’s stories; you can watch videos or read about someone’s own experience with mental illness. Like Jess who spiraled into a depression and PTSD after the sudden death of her sister. When asked her advice as to how to help others, she stated, “Asking for help is hard but the stigma is reduced every time you speak out. You’re loved, you’re not alone, and it’s ok to show your emotions and be honest about how you’re doing. In fact, it’s imperative for you to be honest about that (for everyone who is struggling).”

Make it Ok gives out tips for generating conversation about mental illness; it even has a toolkit that can be downloaded that can help promote the message of their campaign.  To check out this great organization:

Photo credit: http://Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash


“The Three M’s”

I am borrowing this one from my friend and colleague, Darlene Denis-Friske. It is a strategy she likes to call the “three m’s” and it is related to our call to action when we are in a highly emotional state. If you recall from previous posts, emotion will trump reason every time and the more heightened you feel while caught up in that whirlwind of emotion, the more likely you are to succumb to saying or doing something you will regret after your emotional state returns to a calmer place.

If we can catch ourselves before we move to action (yes, it is possible; take a deep breath to start), we give ourselves permission to slow down, to give some space to it so as to allow our rational brain to have a say in how we want to handle ourselves. This is where the “three m’s” come into play, as we can ask ourselves “is my response mature, measured and matter-of-fact?” 

The beauty of these three words is that they carry a lot of weight. Your response is now developed, practical and sound; and with less emotion, you increase the probability of results. Further to this and regardless of the outcome, what is of even greater consideration is that by choosing the “three m’s” you have moved into the position of “I am important and so are you;” allowing yourself to have a voice while respecting the other. 🙂

Photo credit: http://Photo by Christian Kaindl on Unsplash

Balance for Well-Being

Building on yesterday’s topic about well-being, there are five areas of our life that help contribute to our overall level of satisfaction; our work, our intimate/family relationships, our spiritual life, our sense of self and our social life. If we are able to achieve a good sense of balance, and feel as though these areas are for the most part in our control, we feel more secure in our sense of well-being.

There are times however, when we feel out of balance and perhaps one or two of the areas are not in our control as much as we’d like them to be which will require some inquiry and some re-shifting of priorities. A good exercise in exploration is to write down each of these areas and jot down the things you are doing to nourish them; focusing as well on the goals you would like to have in each one. Questions that can also help are ones such as: “Am I putting more into my work than I am into my partner or family? Am I connecting with friends as often as I should? How am I feeding my soul? Am I getting enough exercise? Time outside? Am I finding time to have fun? To laugh?”

Understanding and making conscious decisions in these areas of our lives creates a greater sense of agency and a feeling of simplicity; for it is in our appreciation of stability and equilibrium that our well-being rests and is most content.

Photo credit: http://Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash