(This originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Stuck Not Broken: Quarterly free ebook. To get it, just sign up for the email list or become a Patron)
A week of sympathetic activity
The week started off on a high. I was very much ventral-vagally activated after my Thursday afternoon coaching session ended. That lasted for a couple of days, with me being able to meet some new challenges that had been talked about and planned out during the session.
But after those couple of days, the vagal brake began to come off and my sympathetic energy took over… I just didn’t realize it until the day before my next Thursday afternoon coaching session. My wife had noticed it, asking if I was okay and pointing out that I seemed irritated for a few days. I attributed it to being stuck at home and not being able to leave the house to go to work. Which I think definitely contributed to my sympathetic activity.
I was also on a motivation high. Those first couple of days I was sympathetically charged along with the ventral activation. That resulted in a playful, motivated state. But when the vagal brake began to turn off (safety system turning off), I was left with just the sympathetic flight/fight energy. It didn’t result in me actually running or fighting, but it definitely left me with some feelings of pressure, panickyness and irritability. I was still functioning just fine in my life domains, but the defensive feelings were there and were guiding my decisions and interactions.
Instead of acting from a motivated and joyful place, it turned into a frenzy of creation. You see, the JustinLMFT stuff (podcast, Instagram and such) is - in part - my way of expanding my nervous system capacity. The JustinLMFT content is my growth but also my challenge. It’s my Path of Change with obstacles along the way.
So I went into a frenzy of content creation, guided by this intense pressure and frantic energy. And wow, did I create and create and create. At first, it was combined with joy and love for my audience. Then it just sort of morphed into something else. And that lasted for about 4 days of a buzzing, frenetic energy.
The weekly Thursday coaching session rolled around and I was still in a pretty high charge. That day I had attempted to do some journaling but struggled. I was still very much in a sympathetic state. And it turned out to be more of a fight sympathetic state.
I was probably more confrontational and resistant during this coaching session than I ever had been. I argued with her about what she was telling me and why she was wrong. I basically drew a line in the sand, fueled by irritability. The more conscious part of me was watching this from above, knowing she was trustworthy and probably had some wisdom that I could benefit from. But the sympathetic energy had to run its course and wasn’t slowing down.
Luckily, she’s incredible at what she does and was able to not only match my sympathetic energy, but maintain her own vagal brake and smile at me as I was irate. She’s got this smirk she does that I just shake my head at, knowing it’s from compassion, but there’s also an “I told you so” sort of air about it. Or at least, that’s the story I have about it, which could very well simply be a reflection of the state.
Through her patience and her compassion and her ability to contain my state, I eventually started to ease up and become much more humble. By the end of the session, we were smiling together, laughing about the session and about me. In a fun way. Her co-regulation and our solid rapport was keeping me in a safe state. After that… I crashed.
It wasn’t all at once. I left that session and played video games with my kids. We had some time as a family together. We had dinner, did bathtime, brushed their teeth and got my 5 year old son to bed on time. After he was in bed, I laid on my own bed and didn’t move for about ten minutes. I talked a little with my wife, she was asking me if I was okay. I told her I just needed to crash and be still for a while.
I ended up having to get up for a chore (turning off the sprinklers for the next day?). When I came back, I needed to put some lotion on the back of my knee. It had been really itchy that afternoon and I left it pretty pink from all the scratching. I put some lotion on it and felt a sting. We all have fairly sensitive skin in this family, so it didn’t seem odd at first. But the sting didn’t stop. It dawned on me that maybe what I put on my leg wasn’t lotion, but soap from another white pump bottle from the bathroom. And I was right. It was soap and it stung pretty bad.
Climbing my ladder
So instead of the original plan of laying down and checking out, I took a shower to relieve the sting (and also get the damn soap off of my leg). I had some negative thoughts in my head, beating myself up cognitively. One of the negative thoughts is how I should know better than this. That I have a course in being grounded in the present moment. That I should be able to feel better. That I wasn’t doing good enough. My sympathetic thinking might sound similar to yours. Lots of “shoulds” and negative evaluations.
In the shower was when my thinking started to change. I think the warm water helped me to start the process of ladder climbing. Instead of mentally berating myself for not using my course, I began to remind myself that I have a course! My thoughts had some sympathetic energy to it, but also some safety. I began to see a light that I could follow.
So I used the sensory safety anchor from chapter 4. Specifically, the sense of touch. The warm water on my skin and how that felt. Really feeling into and experiencing the reassuring warmth. Then I used another of the sensory safety anchors, my sense of smell. My beard shampoo/conditioner that I have is marajuca oil and shea butter (I don’t know either but they smell good). I inhaled it with my eyes closed and in a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
Soon I felt more ventral activation. I could tell because my breathing was becoming easier/lighter. Along with that ventral activation, I could feel the sympathetic energy return from my crash. But this time, it wasn’t a frantic or irritable sympathetic charge. It was more of a playful energy. I smiled in the shower and shook my head, feeling into the returning energy and feeling kind of silly for my confrontational behavior in the coaching session.
Then I noticed an image pop into my head, something that came from a coaching session. And that’s of me being stuck in a transparent tube. But the follow up image is me using my arms to push up and open a window in the tube. Being stuck in the tube is a good analogy for pent up energy, but also being closed off. Pushing the window open is a good analogy for using my arms to channel some sympathetic fight energy out and then relaxing my muscles. The window represents and feels like openness, opportunity and freedom.
I used the image and then used a body movement to further allow some energy to return and discharge. I cover memory anchors in chapter seven. The tube isn’t a memory, it’s an imaginative image. So it serves the same purpose and uses the same basic functioning. As I imagined the tube in my mind, I used my arms to act out the motion of opening the window. I felt the sensation of being more open as my upper body stretched out and a larger breath came in. I smiled as I did so, an indication that more safety was coming online. Body anchors are covered in chapter 3.
I got dressed in clothes that I feel good in - a black t-shirt with tiny white dots on it. And my grey super soft sweats that hug my legs right above the ankles. The ankle hug and the softness are great sensory anchors for me. Again, something from chapter 4.
My next step was to go to my office and do a bit of meditation and journaling. I had about an hour before my online therapy session was going to begin. I wanted to be in my most ventral state as possible. I felt a bit of pressure and time crunch, but ultimately had confidence that I would be where I need to be when I needed to be there.
In chapter 2, I cover environmental safety anchors. Being in my office was a great use of my own. I’ve designed the office to be as ventrally-activating as possible. Dark woods, black iron, blue walls and gold accents. A few spots of green in the fake plants. Most importantly for me - I have two orangish lights that are more on the dim side. I turn off the main ceiling light and turn on the two smaller lights, creating a much calmer environment. The office is minimal clutter, wires are mostly tucked away or clipped under the desks. The desk surface is made of beautiful reclaimed woods from California wildfires.
I sit on my favorite chair which is placed in the corner and faces the large windows of the office. From here, I can see the entire room. It’s a comforting space. A dim light within arm’s reach to my left. The other dim light in the corner to my right. I sit in my chair and breathe. I bring my legs up and put them on the ottoman.
From here, I do a bit of journaling, which would probably fall into the chapter 6 cognitive anchors. At first, I’m in silence. Just taking it in. Then I put on chill hop music, which consistently helps me to ground myself. Music is discussed in chapter five. More breathing and journaling.
I’m working my way up my ladder and use some time before the session to record something for IGTV and the podcast. It’s a ten minute audio/video journal. I thought others could benefit from it, but really it’s primarily a way for me to process the events that just unfolded. The tone of the content is still fairly depleted. I’m ventrally activated enough to feel my feelings and share them. But I don’t post it, deciding to sit on it for now.
I do my 9pm session, which goes well. The 10pm session of the night cancelled last minute, giving me more of an opportunity to do some further anchoring. I felt like the audio/video journal was the right move and I wanted to share it with others, but by this time was feeling more present, so I decide to redo it. Not out of anxiety or worry, but just felt more whole and complete and wanted to come from that energy. It also felt like an opportunity to more clearly process what had happened that day and the week more generally. I find that writing or saying things out loud helps me to get to the next step. Versus the words simply living in my head.
By this time, I’m in a pretty well-anchored ventral state. I feel appreciation for things. I’m prioritizing my self care and go to bed earlier than I typically would. I’m content with what I recorded on both a personal and a content-creation level.
What went right
What went right was I knew what I needed for getting more anchored in the present moment. Now, it took me a week to realize that I had lost it, but I got there eventually. And when I realized it and set the intention to self-regulate, I knew the pieces of what my nervous system responds to. I had things ready to go already, like my office that is a predictable cue of safety through and through.
I had someone that could co-regulate. My coach is phenomenal. She was what I needed to be contained but also brought up to ventral. I also had my wife checking in with me a few times that week, non-judgmentally noticing that I was irritable. It actually did help me to notice it myself a couple of times, but I didn’t act sooner on using my anchors to come more fully into my body and into the present moment.
What went wrong
I got caught in my sympathetic activity, which easily gets disguised as productivity. I started off in a very ventral place that week, but didn’t notice as the vagal brake loosened and left me with a tad too much sympathetic. It wasn’t entirely out of control. I still got enough sleep throughout the week. I still functioned as a husband, a father and an employee. I still provided therapy at night that I was proud of and benefitted my clients. But was I at optimal levels for each of these? No.
I didn’t have any consistent, daily practice during this week. Typically, each day I do what I need to in order to stay in the present moment. Playing with my kids, brief meditations, journaling, chatting with my wife, being creative, slow exhales. But those simple practices more or less stopped. Or were in decline. Or I didn’t do so with mindful conscious participation.
On top of this, my coach and I had been working on some challenging stuff the session before that. Beneficial, but very new and very challenging. She and I had been getting me out of my comfort zone and into some new territory that I didn’t have a map for, nor the window of tolerance for. Combining that with a loss of dedicated practice makes for a sympathetic combination. I quickly reverted to my own behavioral adaptation, which is hyperfocusing on creation from defensive energy.
Plus on top of all of this, I had been creating at the beginning of the week from a very ventral state. And the week before that too. These marked major milestones for me, as it was evidence of more safety being present when it comes to all these new challenges of being an entrepreneur. But there was a rubber band effect on my nervous system. As high as I was on the ventral energy, it snapped right back to my defensive energy. And then I stayed in my behavioral adaptation, unconscious of the response I was stuck in.
I hope this simple story illustrates for you what it might look like to use the information in the Building Safety Anchors course. I think every piece of this is important. Discovering what works for you. Making it a dedicated practice. Being curious and assessing what works and what doesn’t. If you'd like to find out more about the course, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or open the image below.