37. Reactions and the Nervous System
In freeing ourselves from a dysregulated nervous system, an important step is learning how to reframe our experiences and manage our triggers, reactions, and baggage. We need to do this so that we are no longer subject to learned ways of behaviour that negatively impact our lives and the relationships we have with others.
The goal is to go from the diagram on the left below to the one on the right.
In the diagram on the left, in which our baggage is represented by the red squiggle, triggers are the green arrow, and our reaction is the red arrow, you can see a dysregulated nervous system - one that overreacts to the trigger. The diagram on the right represents a nervous system that is well regulated as a result of using boundaries and containment. To reframe our experiences, we must bring attention to our triggers, our baggage, and our reactions. It’s easy to consider ourselves the victim in situations that trigger us and make us feel unsafe, but there is very little we can do to control what life throws at us. What we can do, however, is use boundaries and containment to lessen the impact that our triggers have on our baggage. When we do this, we create something like a shield around that vulnerable, wounded part of ourselves. For the purposes of this blog, let’s consider how we can best articulate our reactions in the face of a trigger. This can actually be very simple. One way is to take a menu of basic emotions and to check the ones which you are aware of as you talk about the trigger. There is also a great resource called a feeling wheel, which breaks down the simpler emotions into more complex ones as you get towards the rim of the wheel. Search online for examples. Or you can come up with your own list to help you. Here is an example of a list of some which I was taught in treatment. These are common emotions you might experience in your reaction: ● Joy ● Passion ● Love ● Fear ● Sadness ● Anger ● Shame ● Guilt Another way to approach exploring this reaction is to start to notice what sensations you have in your body when you are talking about the trigger. Pay close attention to this experience. You might start to notice that you feel shaky, or shut down, or hot, or numb. Or that you want to run away, or not be talking right now. It’s just as important to be aware of these sensations as we are of what we traditionally think of as our feelings, or emotions. Let’s take the example of John and Mary, which goes as follows: John has agreed to pick up Mary from a work drinks event and take her to a dinner with his friends. He’s supposed to collect her at 7pm. At 6.55pm, she tells everyone she has to go, gets ready and is expecting him. He doesn’t show up. There’s no call, no message, nothing. As she’s waiting by the lobby of the bar, some of her colleagues leave together and comment that they thought she’d left. They ask her if she’s ok. Mary smiles bravely and tells them that everything’s fine. But inside she’s dying. She has no idea what’s going on and having played it all cool, like she had to leave because she had another event to go to, now she’s the one standing on her own looking foolish. It doesn’t help that one of the people passing her in the lobby is her work nemesis! John finally turns up at 7.50pm. Mary is still waiting, but not exactly pleased to see him. As he walks into the bar, all flustered, and greets her, she must make a choice in what to say. When talking about her triggers, Mary would respond well to this situation by saying: ‘When we agree to meet at 7pm and you show up at 7.50pm, that’s a trigger for me.’ In doing so, Mary makes her response about her and her own triggers, not about John. Mary could add to the communication about the trigger by also including a good description of the reaction. John is late to pick up Mary at the bar and when he arrives she says, “when we agree to meet at 7.00pm and you show up a 7.50pm that’s a trigger for me.” And then she adds, “and now I notice that I feel very angry, upset, hurt, confused and scared. My stomach is tight, and everything feels hot in my abdomen. I don’t feel safe.” We can see in this example that Mary is ready for being triggered and has done some really good work on developing awareness of herself. Before she had learned how to do that work, she might have just said, “I feel terrible and I want to go”. And that’s OK, too. As long as you are just trying to describe what you notice in your reaction, it doesn’t really matter yet how well you do it. It just matters that you say something about your reaction after identifying your trigger. This then sets you up to use the experience productively for your nervous system.