Updated: Mar 24
Gift yourself these three things, and watch your life change.
In the midst of the holiday season, it can be wise to forgo the material gifts, and finally give yourself something that your mind and body will truly thank you for. Be it a holiday gift, a new years resolution, or finally recognizing that you really do have the ability to feel better, by adding these 3 things into your life, there is no doubt that you will feel a shift into more health, well-being, and happiness.
1) First, get to know the health (or lack thereof) of your nervous system. The latest science tells us that our mental health is directly impacted by our physical (nervous system) health. We are now learning just how significant this mind/body connection really is!
A person's nervous system might be dis-regulated if they've experienced trauma, either small t trauma or BIG T trauma (which is pretty much all of us), or some other adverse childhood (or adult) experience where we were either acutely (short-term) or chronically (long-term) unsafe. Other experiences that impact the health of a nervous system are: not getting emotional/physical needs met, mis-attunement with parents/caregivers, not being allowed to be who we really are. This might mean suppressing certain emotions, either because you weren't taught how to feel them, or taught that it's OK to feel them. It could also mean stifling a certain part of yourself because they part was not tolerated in your family All of these things (and others) impact what we call our stress physiology. This means that our shit gets stored in our body, literally, and what is also meant when you hear 'our issues are in our tissues.' We now know how true this really is.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is responsible for the automatic (without our awareness or control) functioning of our kidneys, liver, stomach, heart, lungs, etc. When there is too much stored up survival response energy (flight/fight/freeze) responses that haven't returned to a healthy baseline, the ANS stops flowing and regulating as a healthy unit. This dis-regulation may include too much cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) being released. Chronic pain, gut/digestion problems, anxiety, depression, and a host of other problems are the result.
The Vagus nerve, an information highway that connects the brain to all the vital organs, and sends 10 times more information from bottom-up (body to brain), than it does top-down (brain to body). It is a HUGE key to nervous system health. Understanding the role of the Vagus nerve, and intentionally learning to manage the nervous system and build it's capacity, creates flow and regulation in the body, which allows us to better manage stressors, move toward healing trauma, and overall mental and physical well being. If you're not sold yet, check out some of Dr. Gabor Mate's work or YouTube videos.
One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself is to get to know the HUGE impact the nervous system has on your mental and physical health, and begin the process of reconditioning and healing.
For more ways to do this, you can check out Irene Lyon's great work, either on her website, or her YouTube channel. You can follow Justin on Instagram, or get familiar with the work of Dr. Steven Porges. You can also schedule a session with a trauma informed mental health professional, and be sure to ask them if they include a nervous system/somatic approach.
2) Ok, number two! Make meditation part of your routine. Don't even think of it as meditation if you've had enough of the mindfulness, meditation buzzwords, trends, fads, etc. If you're not sitting quietly each day to be aware of your thoughts from an observational perspective, than your mind is your master, instead of you mastering your mind. That's not a good thing. Remember, we don't meditate to become good meditators, or to even feel calm/relaxed. We do it so that we can learn how to take out thoughts less seriously, and to sit with what it's like to be human. That means being with our shit that comes up when we sit down to just be/breathe. Shit = boredom, fear, sadness, loneliness, etc., etc., etc. If you don't know how to be with your shit, instead of reacting to your shit, or acting it out, your mental health (and physical health) suffers.
You don't need to sit in a special cross-legged pose, create a special mediation shrine, or have any intention to become enlightened. Just sit on a chair in a dignified posture, relaxed, and pay attention to your breath. Notice thoughts as mental events that you don't need to pay attention to, and sit compassionately with any difficult feelings or sensations that come up. That's it. You've just meditated.
For some guidance on meditation, you can reach out to your local vipassana sangha (community), for some meditation instructions, get the Insight Timer App for free guided meditations (Insight, Vipassana, or Mindfulness are the types of meditations I suggest). Or contact a mental health professional with some experience in vipassana meditation.
3) The 3rd and final gift to yourself is learning to use the brains neuroplasticity to your advantage. Just like the nervous system, our brain is can be molded to behave in ways that are healthier, and leads to feeling much better. This means you can train your mind, and literally create new neural pathways in the brain, to start thinking in ways that are more useful to you.
One example I always use is gratitude. Simply by having a consistent gratitude practice, you are molding new paths in your brain, gratitude pathways, that will become your new way of thinking. Meaning, you will actually start feeling grateful more. Why wouldn't you do this for yourself?! You don't even need to feel grateful when you practice gratitude each day. Just think of 1,3, or 5 things that you're grateful for, no matter how big or small, and you get those gratitude neurons firing. As we know, neurons that fire together, wire together! Gratitude is just one example. You can practice replacing any unhelpful thought pattern/habit with a more useful one, and neuroplasticity will take care of the rest.
Hope this has been helpful. I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in Vietnam. I would be happy to be of assistance on your journey, if you need it. Happy holidays and let's be kind to each other.
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