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Expanding Your Capacity


“In essence, coaches coach the nervous system. …it’s only by re-educating the nervous system that behaviors, responses, and reactions — as they occur in real-time, not in reflection — change.” James Flaherty, pg. 52




Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash


Embracing Our Inner Wisdom

Coaching is a supportive structure that encourages us (pushes us, even) to take action outside of our comfort zone. Outside of what we are reliable to do. Outside of the predictable patterns and behaviors that have gotten us here but aren’t likely to get us to where we yearn to go.

This is powerful stuff. And for many of us, especially those of us who experience anxiety or are highly-sensitive people, taking action outside of our comfort zone can feel like a real threat to our safety. Rejection, loss, pain, and failure, whether real or imagined, can get our nervous systems activated and have us running for cover. And for good reason. Our stress responses exist to protect us. When we experience something new and unknown, our body anticipates the possibility of danger and prepares to fight, run away, or freeze (aka, play dead). Signs of stress may include increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, ruminating thoughts, reacting disproportionately to current circumstances, tension or tightness in our shoulders, neck, or belly, or a desire to numb or distract ourselves (often with food, alcohol, or social media).

Shoving away or swallowing the feelings and sensations that arise with these fears might work in the short term, but I speak from personal experience when I say that it’s not sustainable long term. Our nervous system’s role is to respond to external stressors. Stress is only a problem if it’s ignored or if the natural cycle is interrupted.

The key to embracing possibility and allowing discomfort (I swear it can happen!) lies in befriending our nervous system. Our nervous system is doing a badass job, so let’s acknowledge it. Let’s celebrate it. Let’s learn how to work with it. When we know how to skillfully regulate our inner processes, we have more space to take risks, be bold, and get uncomfortable. We get to explore the challenges ahead of us without shutting down. We get to feel the fear and do the damn thing anyway.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know this is very much a personal journey as well as a professional one for me. I’ve spent years tamping down my anxiety, swallowing my stress, and distracting myself from discomfort. It was my attempt to stay safe. Instead, it prevented connections, experiences, and opportunities. It also wreaked havoc on my health.

My intention here is to offer possibility. To share with you a few of my go-to practices and tools for regulating the nervous system and reducing anxiety. These are tools I use both personally and with my clients at those times when our commitments to what we yearn for are halted by a more deeply grooved commitment to safety. They’re powerful in moments of crisis when you’re feeling flooded and overwhelmed. They also serve as potent daily rituals — to ground, to get present, to reset.

(Please note: these practices are not meant to replace professional advice or treatment if you're struggling with ongoing anxiety or other mental health concerns. If your nervous system challenges are persistent or severe, consider seeking support from a mental health professional.)


Daily Body Scan

Suggested Time: 5-10 minutes (or longer)

A body scan is a foundational practice for befriending our nervous system. It gives us the space to notice what is happening within. For many of us, simply being able to locate a felt sensation in the body without trying to resist it or fix it is a profound act of self-love.

While seated, or lying down, rest one hand over your heart and the other hand at your navel (or atop your other hand if that’s more comfortable). Take a few slow, long breaths in and out through the nose.

Start at the crown of your head and move your awareness down, slowly scanning your body. Move your awareness from the top of your head to your eyes, the area around your mouth and jaw, your neck and throat, and shoulders. Do you notice tension? Discomfort? Tightness? If so, where? Spend a few breaths here. Get curious about the quality of the sensation. Is it sharp? Dull? Throbbing? How intense is it? Is it warm?

At each area of sensation, continue to take slow, long breaths through the nose.

Is it possible to relax and soften the tension? Is it possible to find comfort and ease in the sensation?

Continue to move your awareness down the entire body, scanning and noticing sensations as you go.

Embodied Reminders:

  • Notice these sensations without judgment. You are not broken, which means there is nothing for you to fix.

  • Reframe and allow. Notice if your default is to assign a negative or disempowering label to the sensations you discover as you scan your body. Do you automatically attach an emotion to physical sensations? Practice being neutral with what you discover. Tightness in the chest or throat might historically feel scary, but what if it was simply big? or profound? Or simply stretched or pulled.

  • Have compassion for what you discover. When you notice tension or an uncomfortable sensation, practice getting curious. What purpose might that tension or sensation serve? What wisdom does your body hold? What does your body want you to know?


Anchored Breathing

Deep and intentional breathing is a powerful tool for calming the nervous system, especially when we’re operating outside of our comfort zone and feeling challenged, fearful, or amped up.

Taking full diaphragmatic breaths can help regulate the nervous system when you’re at capacity. I find that this breath practice is beneficial in any and all situations. Sometimes taking just 3 anchored breaths will re-center and re-focus you.

  • Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down. If sitting in a chair, place both feet on the ground.

  • Close your eyes and bring your attention to your body and your breath.

  • Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand as you fill your lungs. If it’s not intuitive for you to take these belly breaths, it may be helpful to rest one or both of your hands on your abdomen for some bio-feedback.

  • Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting go of any tension or stress with each breath out.

  • As you breathe in, extend and grow tall through your crown. Let sensation move through your belly, heart, and upward. As you breathe out, draw your energy down into your pelvis and your feet. Feel yourself connected to the earth, as if there were roots extending from your body into the ground. Feel grounded and supported.

  • Continue this deep breathing and grounding visualization for several minutes (or at least for 10 full cycles), focusing on the sensation of your breath and the connection to the earth.


And lastly, a few nuggets of calm

Sometimes all we need is to shake it off, quite literally, when we get stressed out.

For those times when our heart is racing, thoughts are looping, or we’re snapping at everyone around us, take 60 seconds to reset.

Here are my favorite quickie practices for getting anchored and regulated:

  1. Vagal ‘Voo’ Breath: Start by taking slow deep breaths. On the out-breath, make a low sound similar to a deep fog horn with the word “VOO” for at least three counts. Allow the sound to vibrate and resonate in your chest and arms. Repeat several times as needed.

  2. Shake It Out: Caught in a thought loop, feeling unfocused or amped up? Shake it off. Shimmy your shoulders, shake out your wrists, waggle your fingers. Jump up and down if that moves you.

  3. Self-Love Hug: Nestle your right hand into your left armpit, hugging your right ribcage. Keeping that hand there, Wrap your left hand around your right arm. Give yourself a firm hug and as you do, take a deep inhale. Exhale as you soften your grip (keeping your hands in place). Repeat 3-5 times.


When we are able to support our nervous system and meet stress with compassion, we expand our capacity for what we can be with.

xo,

Beth

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