I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) who deals with a lot of anxiety. Sometimes my anxiety shows up in full force, while other times I’m only slightly triggered. Because there are so many things that can set me off, sometimes I feel like I have no power or control. My well-being is in the hands of everyone but me.
People and certain environments—like loud, busy places—can trigger me. Even when I’m alone, sometimes my nervous system will fire for no reason. Even though I’m safe, my racing mind tells me I’m not. Feeling like I have no control over my own body and mind then makes me feel even more overwhelmed.
It’s then a matter of moving from a helpless place into a place of hope—a place where knowledge of the actual situation and belief in myself is crucial for pushing me out of my nervous state and into a calmer one.
How Are You Triggered?
When our nervous system is triggered, a part of our brain called the amygdala is working to detect any possible threats. To the highly sensitive person, the “possible threat” is not a giant tiger lunging towards us like it was for our ancestors of long ago. In a highly sensitive person’s brain, it may be a startling noise, a weird bodily sensation, or the energy of a room that sets us off. It could be anything, but to the brain, all threats are the same.
After the amygdala detects a threat, a cascade of hormones is released in our bodies. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline may cause the following sensations:
- shallow and rapid breathing
- increased heart rate
- pupil dilation
- sweaty palms
- throat constriction
- tunnel vision thinking
- heat flushes
- shaking or tightness in certain parts of the body
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some things we can teach ourselves to do so we’re not at the mercy of stress. In Calming Your Brain During Conflict, Diane Musho Hamilton writes that we can take back our power by doing four things to calm the nervous system and control its effects on our mind and body:
1. Stay in the moment.
When we are triggered, it’s important to remember just that — we are triggered. An aroused nervous system makes our mind race with undesirable thoughts. We may think, “Not this again.” Or our thoughts spin from potential problems that don’t yet exist to limiting beliefs about our ability to effectively handle the situation. Whatever the mind is telling you—and even though you feel like withdrawing from the situation—try to stay in the present moment. Being able to do this makes the following step easier.
2. Practice being a witness.
This can be a difficult step. But practicing a “witness” mentality is essentially just being a witness to what the body and mind are doing. You observe everything with a neutral, non-judgmental attitude. Be aware of whatever your mind is trying to tell you. However you notice your bodily sensations changing, just observe them. When we are a witness to ourselves, we let the story go. The “story” is what we tell ourselves about what we are experiencing and how it will negatively affect us. For example, when my nervous system is triggered, I notice my breath gets shallow and I start to think about what would happen if I were to pass out. My breathing then becomes more restricted and I panic even more.
When we practice being a witness, we acknowledge our primary emotions, but we don’t add secondary emotions into the mix. Secondary emotions add fuel to the fire by compounding the original effects. They include feeling angry or ashamed of being “triggered” in the first place, or they add more fear by creating problems that aren’t there. Being a witness eliminates secondary emotions.
3. Tune in to the body.
When we turn our focus inward to the body, we can notice and accept all that we are feeling. The sensations, however uncomfortable they are, are being acknowledged and left alone. We do not try to change them. Notice the different places in your body that constrict, hurt, feel funny, or weird. Notice the shifts or changes in energy. When we do not try to change these sensations, we are consciously building our tolerance for undesirable feelings and emotions. Increasing this tolerance is a highly effective coping mechanism for fear, anxiety, and emotional overwhelm. Accepting the body’s sensations and emotions is the most effective way to quickly release them.
4. Focus on the breath.
You may have heard this before and thought, how can just changing my breathing help? But it really is true. Proper breathing can change everything. There is a reason why yogis use breath work for enlightenment. Breathing changes our state of consciousness. In other words, breathing can quickly restore the body back to a pre-triggered state. It can also help prevent nervous system triggers in the future. When we focus on the breath, we are making sure our inhalation matches our exhalation. The amount of air we inhale is the same amount we exhale. We are also making sure the breath reaches the bottom of the belly. This may be difficult at first, but keep breathing and the breath will slowly make its way down. As you focus on your breath, thoughts will probably arise in your mind. Notice them, but then focus back on your breath. This breathing will help calm the emergency response coursing through your body.
Congratulations—you’re on the path to effectively taking your power back! Knowing these steps to take after your nervous system has been triggered can be a game changer for you. It won’t be easy at first, and like anything else, practice goes a long way. But once you get this down, you will no longer feel out of control. Your confidence will increase, your fear and anxiety will decrease, and your new sense of safety will help ensure the inner peace you have longed for.
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