This week, we’re exploring how to create internal safety so you can feel any emotion. All of us tend to push down, resist, and avoid difficult emotions because they scare us. When we feel afraid, our brains kick into overdrive, creating even more anxiety, fear, and stress in our bodies, and all of this makes perfect sense from a biological standpoint.
My goal today is to show you how to handle difficult emotions, process them, and take care of yourself at the same time. It all comes down to understanding and mapping your nervous system which plays a vital role in how you think, feel, and respond to the world around you. Understanding your nervous system is like unlocking the inner workings of your body’s control center, and I’m showing you where to start.
Join me in this episode to learn the basics of polyvagal theory and your nervous system. You’ll hear why creating internal safety is so important, the power that comes with being able to recognize your somatic experience, and how to get familiar with different nervous system responses so you can intentionally shift your experience of Autism parenting.
You are listening to episode 82 of The Autism Mom Coach, Creating Internal Safety: Nervous System 101.
Welcome to The Autism Mom Coach podcast, I am your host, Lisa Candera. I am a lawyer, a life coach, and most importantly, I am the full-time single mother of a teenager with Autism and other comorbid diagnoses. I know what it is like to wonder if you are doing enough or the right things for your child and to live in fear of their future.
I also know that constantly fueling yourself with fear and anxiety is not sustainable for you or of any benefit to your child. That is why in this podcast I will share practical strategies and tools you can use to shift from a chronic state of fight, flight to some calm and ease. You are your child’s greatest resource, let’s take care of you.
Hello, everyone and welcome to the podcast. I hope you are doing well and I’m so glad you’re here. Last week we talked about the spectrum of grief. And I plan to do a few episodes where I talk about the various emotions that we experience during our spectrum and how they specifically relate to Autism parenting. But before I do that, I want to teach you how to create safety for yourself in your body, in your nervous system to feel any emotion. Here is why that’s important.
We tend to avoid, resist or push down difficult emotions because they scare us, the feeling actually scares us. And once our body feels afraid, our brains kick into overdrive, feeding us more and more thoughts that create more and more anxiety, fear, stress, worry, whatever it is in your body. I want to teach you how to understand this, slow it down and resource yourself so that you don’t have to be afraid of your own emotions. You can have them, you can process them, and you can take care of yourself.
To do this, we’re going to start with nervous system 101, which is really generous, this is not even 101, but bear with me. This episode is an important one, one that you should probably listen to more than once. That is because understanding the nervous system is like unlocking the inner workings of your body’s control center. The nervous system is the operating system, always playing in the background. It plays a vital part in how you think, feel and respond to the world around you.
Now, up to this point, I have talked a lot about the self-coaching model that I use in my coaching program. And I did a whole episode about this early on in the podcast. It’s episode six and I will link it in the comments, but I’ll also give you a recap right now. As a reminder, there are circumstances in the world, life happening, neither good or bad.
So things that are circumstances are things like your age, your marital status, your child’s diagnosis, what someone said to you, what somebody posted on Instagram, your past, what other people do or don’t do, what other people think. These are all circumstances, things that you can’t control and things that don’t cause you to have any emotions until you have a thought about them. Something happens, you have a thought about it and those thoughts create feelings in your body.
Your feelings fuel your actions, whatever you do and don’t do and the outcome of your action and inaction are the results that you have in your life. Well, before we even have a thought in our brain to create a feeling in our body there is a nervous system. Our nervous system, through our senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, detects and relays messages between our brain and every part of our body.
So before you even have a thought, your nervous system has made some determination about what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling and it’s sent signals to your body. So before you even have a thought about something, your nervous system is sending information. The nervous system is the foundation of all of our lived experience. It’s where everything begins. The nervous system works in service of our survival, it’s constantly perceiving and interpreting information in the world.
This perception is constant and automatic and it’s always happening below the level of our conscious thought. So before we even have a thought, our nervous system has assessed the situation and has sent signals to our brain and our body about whether we are safe, whether we need to get out or fight or whether we just move into disconnection and disappearance and shut down.
To better understand the interplay between what is happening in our nervous system and what we are consciously experiencing, I want to talk a bit about polyvagal theory. I just want to give you a little bit of information about this framework to help you better understand your experience. And the polyvagal theory and the visualization of the nervous system ladder has been so helpful to me and to my clients.
So what is polyvagal theory? Polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and it is a theory of the nervous system that helps us understand how our nervous system responds to stress and safety cues in our external environment. Polyvagal theory describes our autonomic nervous system, which means automatic and autonomous as having three distinct states, each associated with a different state of arousal and response to stressors.
So I want you to picture a ladder as I talk about these three states. At the top of the ladder is ventral vagal, next, in the middle is sympathetic, i.e. fight flight, and at the bottom is dorsal or shutdown. For each of these states, I am going to describe what they look like. And I’m going to do this using my own nervous system mapping. Yours might look different, of course, because we all have different nervous systems.
Each state of the nervous system has its own somatic experience, how we feel the emotions in our body and it has what I’m going to call its own playlist, that means the thoughts that you think when you are in that state. So, for instance, when you’re in ventral, you have certain thoughts that you don’t have when you’re in sympathetic or when you’re in dorsal and vice versa. And so just think of each of them has a playlist and those playlists can’t be played in the other states, it’s basically impossible.
The playlist in each of these states is automatic in that it just triggers the default thoughts we think when we’re feeling calm or when we’re feeling threatened or when we’re feeling overwhelmed. Knowing your somatic experience and what your playlist is in each of these states is a great way for you to identify where you are. And the reason we want to identify where we are is because that gives us the ability to figure out how to get where we want to be. It’s like a map, you have to know where you are first in order to figure out how to get to where you want to go.
Okay, so let’s start at the top of the ladder, ventral vagal. Now, this is our home. This is where our nervous system feels safe and connected. This is where we want to be. So imagine a state where you feel safe, relaxed, and socially engaged, your heart is steady, your digestion is working smoothly. You’re able to connect with others and communicate and you experience positive emotions. When you are in ventral, you have perspective.
You’re able to see the big picture and you feel connected to yourself and other people and the community. And importantly, when you are in ventral, you are your most rational and you are capable of your highest level of thinking using your prefrontal cortex, which enables you to reason and plan. I’m going to give you an example of my playlist in ventral and I’m also borrowing from a few of my clients because it’s part of my practice for all of my clients. We map their nervous systems so that they can become familiar with how they show up depending on how they’re feeling.
So some of the thoughts from ventral, Autism is challenging but I can do this. My child will be okay. We will figure this out. She is happy. I don’t want her to be someone else. We are not alone. We have support. We are loved. I’m a badass. This is ventral. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t challenging, but you have a different perspective. You feel connected to others and you feel safe.
Now, let’s move just a little bit down the ladder to sympathetic, this is fight flight. So for so many Autism moms, this is our home away from home unfortunately. We are very familiar with this state. So what is sympathetic fight flight activation? Well, when you are faced with a threat or a challenge or a perceived threat or a challenge, your body switches into action mode. Your heart rate accelerates, your muscles tense up and are ready for action and you become alert and focused and ready to fight or flee.
In addition to the physical changes that we experience, our perspective changes quite dramatically. We go from open and social and engaged and safe to hunkering down. Our focus narrows, we no longer have perspective. Our thinking becomes all or nothing, always never. It’s us versus the world. When we are in fight flight, our rational thinking goes offline and we are reacting from our survival brains.
So some examples, some examples where you might be triggered into your fight flight. IEP meetings or even the thought of them. A phone call from the school. Stares from people in public. Seeing your child struggle to connect with other children. Not knowing why your child is upset or how to help her. Comparing your child to neurotypical peers. Any and all of these circumstances can activate our fight flight response. And when our fight flight response is activated, our focus narrows, our bodies speed up, our thoughts speed up, and we feel the need to act.
So let me share with you some of the thoughts about Autism and Autism parenting when we are in fight flight, again, sharing from personal experience with myself and my clients. No one understands. It’s not fair. I hate Autism. Autism makes everything harder. Autism stole my baby. It should not be this hard. People are judging me and my child.
Now, think about yourself in a fight flight state where this is your playlist and let’s just say that somebody walks up to you and says, “But remember yesterday when you said you could figure this out”, and gives you some of your examples of your ventral vagal playlist. And you’re like, “Oh, no, I have no time for that.” Even though the thoughts are thoughts that you’ve had in the past and even thoughts that you believe, when your body is in that state of biological activation, those thoughts are not available to you.
Alright, last but not least, let’s move down to the bottom of the ladder. This is dorsal, also known as freeze or shutdown. So if a situation becomes overwhelming or inescapable, your body may enter a shutdown state, your heart rate slows down and you might feel numb, detached or disconnected. Entering the dorsal or shutdown state is your body’s way of conserving resources when it perceives that neither fighting or fleeing is possible.
I actually just had this experience with my cat today. I had to take her to the vet for some bloodwork and getting her into that carrier is a job and she fights it every step of the way. She runs and she hides and as I’m actually picking her up to place her into the carrier, she’s yelling. She’s scratching me. She’s putting her paws out wide, so I can’t actually fit her body in until I finally stuff her in and I close up and she almost goes dead.
And even when we get to the vet’s office, they take her out and they put her on the table and she doesn’t move. She doesn’t make a sound. It’s like she’s playing possum. So she went into full on fight flight but when she figured out that there was nothing else she could do, she was like, “Okay, I’m here.” And it seemed like she just gave up. That’s dorsal, it’s like I’m done. I think dorsal shows up in an interesting way for Autism moms.
I’ve had the experience so many times of white knuckling it through days, weeks or months, and then the smallest of things can cause me to crumble into a crying and inconsolable mess. Dorsal can look and feel a lot like depression, giving up. It’s not rational, it’s emotional. So some of the thoughts from the dorsal playlist. I can’t. Nothing works. I’ve done everything. Nothing I do matters. This will never end. It will never get better. It will always be like this.
My personal experience and the experience that I’ve had with so many of my clients is they basically live in fight flight most of the time and it takes a lot to get to dorsal, but when they go dorsal they go full in, but maybe you go right to dorsal. There’s no judgment here, it’s whatever your experience is. But that’s why mapping your nervous system is so helpful, because it just really gives you a look into your own operating system.
So again, these emotions aren’t happening to you, these reactions aren’t happening to you. They all make perfect sense from a biological standpoint. So once you get familiar with how you experience these three states of the nervous system response by identifying the physical and emotional and the cognitive experiences that you are having.
Once you know what’s happening, it’s almost like you have the ability to then pause and course correct, or at the very least, notice what’s happening from the biological perspective, takes out so much of the shame and judgment we have of ourselves for our own reactions. However you are reacting makes perfect sense on a biological level. And although it makes perfect sense, maybe there are some ways that you react that you don’t want to and you want to shift.
And having this awareness is really part of the process of understanding, hey, for me, when I’m in the no one understands, this isn’t fair. I am deep into some fight flight and that is my cue to myself to reset, to give myself a break. And so for you, the more familiar you get, you’ll become more aware of your cues that tell you, I need to slow down, I need to take a breath, I need to take a time out. And by doing this there are a lot of benefits.
First, stress management, by recognizing the signs of your body’s stress response you can learn to activate the ventral vagal brand, the safe and connected through relaxation techniques, mindfulness and resourcing, which we will talk about in the next episode. Another benefit, improved communication. Being aware of where you are on the ladder and where other people are on their ladder can lead to more effective communication.
When you know that you’re in a state of ventral then you are better equipped to empathize, to listen, and to connect to the people around you. But when you notice that you are in fight flight or that your child is in fight flight, you can remind yourself that this is not a time for a teachable moment for either of you. Think of all the conflict you could avoid by knowing when to engage and when to release the reins. By understanding your nervous system more, you can do that.
Another benefit, self-regulation, knowing how to shift from a state of fight flight to ventral can help you regulate your emotions and your reactions in challenging situations. This can improve your decision making process and your problem solving abilities, so this is all to say that understanding your nervous system, understanding your operating system is like the keys to the kingdom.
Our nervous system is constantly working below the level of our conscious awareness. So by mapping it and understanding it, we are bringing conscious the unconscious and when we do that we have so much power to shift our own experience. Instead of being driven, we can be the driver.
If this is something that interests you, you are ready to nerd out about this and map your nervous system, time to schedule a consultation call. This is what I do with my clients as part of our process. Understanding your nervous system and your reactions is really the key to shifting your experience. So whether you’ve been listening to me for a minute or you just got here, if you are interested in shifting your experience of Autism parenting, from constantly being in fight flight to actually experiencing joy in the present moment, this is what I help my clients with in my one-on-one program.
You can schedule a consultation call on my website, under show notes and we can get started right away with helping you feel better and step into your power as an Autism parent. Also, for those of you who are intrigued by the nervous system, I have linked a worksheet in the episode notes and this is from my polyvagal intensive training with Deb Dana that gives you a visualization of the nervous system and the three states and describes to you some of the thoughts, some of the emotions that you might be having in each of the states, similar to what I described today.
You can print that out for yourself and start to get curious with yourself so you can start creating your own internal map. Alright, I hope you enjoyed this episode, I hope it was helpful and we will be talking about this a lot more in the coming episodes. Take care and I’ll talk to you next week.
Thanks for listening to The Autism Mom Coach. If you are ready to apply the principles you are learning in these episodes to your life, it is time to schedule a consultation call with me. Podcasts are great but the ahas are fleeting. Real change comes from application and implementation and this is exactly what we do in my one-on-one coaching program. To schedule your consultation, go to my website, theautismmomcoach.com, Work With Me and take the first step to taking better care of yourself so that you can show up as the parent you want to be for your child with Autism.