The uncertainty and instability over the past year has created a lot of fear, anxiety and worry around the world.
These emotions are all part of the Sympathetic Nervous System: the flight or fight response. Sympathetic is from the Greek words sym & pathos meaning “with emotion.” (Sympathy, 2021)
Emotions are geared towards mobilizing us into action. This part of the nervous system is all about doing, acting and thinking.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System, on the other hand, is about bringing us back to homeostasis. It is the rest, digest and healing functions of the body and is about sensing our body from the inside out. This inner sense of our body is called interoception (Interoception, 2021). Better interoception equates to better self-regulation. This is the part of the nervous system that is more about being and presence.
The amygdala, an almond sized structure in our limbic brain, is responsible for our fear response. It, along with the hippocampus, stores our emotions, and fears. It is constantly taking in and storing information from what we see on TV, hear from our friends and witness on social media. So we can become more fearful based on what we are witnessing not just from what we experience first-hand.
The more time spent in the Sympathetic Nervous System response, the more the amygdala grows in size. This can result in us becoming more fearful and anxious. The prefrontal cortex which helps us contextualize and rationalize the situation is no longer able to maintain control. We panic, overreact and catastrophize. Dan Siegal describes it as flipping our lid (Siegel, n.d.).
To master our fear and anxiety, we need to become more in touch with the sensations in our body which then allows us to self-regulate. The insula is the structure in the brain responsible for sensing our body from the inside. It sits beside the amygdala. Practices that help us develop our interoception increase the size of the insula and decrease the amygdala and our fear response.
There are over 100 million receptors within the fascial network sending more information to the brain than our other 5 senses. (Lesondak, 2017). We need to become better at listening to these messages to master fear and anxiety.
Here are three simple techniques that help to bring more sensory awareness to your body, and assist with self-regulation.
1. Face Massage
Use your fingertips to massage up your forehead to the hairline. Move nice and slowly with firm pressure. Next, trace the contours of your eye sockets with your fingertips. Then trace around your cheekbones and the contours of your jawline. Repeat each of these 5 times slowly and then finish with tracing lightly around your lips with your fingertip.
Spend a few moments observing the sensations in your face.
This simple face massage helps to stimulate ruffini receptors in your fascia that help to calm you down as well as bringing more sensory awareness to your face enhancing interoception.
2. Bounce and shake
Animals and children are very good at self-regulation. You will often see them bouncing and shaking especially after they experience a fright or something that stimulates their sympathetic nervous system response.
You can start by simply pulsing at the knees creating a sense of bounce almost as if you are on a trampoline. If you feel like adding more bounce you can allow the heels to lift or even the whole foot to lift. Let your arms swing naturally or if you like you can shake them above your head as you bounce to shake off more energy.
Do it for a few minutes or until it feels like enough.
Then pause to check in. You might feel a tingling sensation, vibration, the beating of your heart and your breath. Spend a few moments noticing sensation throughout the entire body until you feel your heartbeat and breath return to normal.
3. Feeling Line Meditation with the Breath
Sit comfortably with your spine tall. Notice the sensation of your breath as it moves in through the nostrils all the way down into the chest and back out again. Notice the rise and the fall of the chest and the belly with the breath. Spend a few moments just noticing the breath in this way.
Bring your awareness to the feeling line of the body. This is where we often sense emotions first. It runs from the back of the throat all the way down to the pit of the belly (Gawler & Bedson, 2010).
As you watch your breath notice any sensations along that line. Notice what your breath is like.
Then mentally ask yourself, “how am I feeling today?” and notice if anything changes along that line. Do you feel a restriction, or butterflies, tightening, compression or expansion? Whatever is present, stay with it whilst you stay connected to your breath. Observing sensation without judgement. Observing your breath.
The key to mastering fear and anxiety is being able to be present with the sensation and with our breath. This gives us the opportunity and tools to self-regulate and come back into balance.
Gawler, I., & Bedson, P. (2010). Meditation, An In Depth Guide (1st ed.). Penguin.
Interoception. (2021, Jan 29). Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb 15, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interoception
Lesondak, D. (2017). Fascia. What it is and Why It Matters. (1st ed.). Handspring Publishing.
Siegel, D. (n.d.). Minding the Brain. PsycheAlive. Retrieved Feb 15, 2021, from https://www.psychalive.org/minding-the-brain-by-daniel-siegel-m-d-2/
Sympathy. (2021, Feb 12). Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb 15, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathy#:~:text=The%20word%20sympathy%20is%20made,refers%20to%20feeling%20or%20emotion.