Ask Anne-Marie: What Steps Can I Take When the Intensity of My Thoughts & Emotions Takes Over?
This article is in response to a question posted to the Ask Anne-Marie global forum. A place where we co-explore burning questions across multiple topics of leadership, erotic nature, power dynamics and relationships.
Welcome back to Ask Anne-Marie and this week’s question.
What Steps Can I Take When the Intensity of My thoughts and Emotions Takes Over?
There are times in life when we are maxed out, brain-fogged and spinning like a top with anxiety and narrating stories of the difficult things that might happen as a result of the challenge or uncertainty in front of us.
This is the grit of being a primal animal wired with safety and threat signals. We are driven not just by physical survival of food, water and shelter, but also by emotional and psychological survival. We share a universal, basic need to belong, to contribute, and to know we’re loved and that we matter. Any threat to these basic needs can cause stress and overwhelm.
Two of the most important interventions into managing and regulating the cycles of fear and anxiety are through cultivating presence and self-compassion.
The scaffolding needed to access our internal muscle of abiding presence and inner witnessing is built through:
cultivating a practice of mindfulness and studying how you’re wired and inherited conditioning that takes you away from being relaxed and present
expanding self-awareness of your reactive habits and the strategies of protection you call upon when stressed
mapping the looping thought patterns and emotional states that build and embellish narratives about the future or past that launch you into states of contraction, controlling, grasping, striving, avoiding, complying, etc.
We need heaping doses of self-compassion when we set foot on this path of embodiment.
To accept that we often have no answers and that all we have is the choice to surrender or strive to fix.
For me, self-compassion begins with cultivating an open-hearted approach towards myself, no matter what is occurring. No matter how dark my thoughts. No matter how extreme my emotional states. No matter how judgmental I feel towards others or myself. No matter how much pain I feel when I disconnect because of overwhelm. No matter how many times I turn away from the connection I most need because I don’t trust I can get what I need and end up feeling alone and sorry for myself. It’s a lonely spot and I need to be my own ally as much as possible.
Proactive Step for when You are NOT activated:
These are practices to cultivate when you are not activated. It’s about building an internal foundation of your power center of presence.
Cultivate a relationship with your Inner Witness: Cultivate a practice that supports you to build the muscle of your inner witness. The aspect of you that can observe what is happening like a split screen monitor. Both registering your reactivity, narratives, assumptions and interpretations as well as being the neutral witness who observes without a need to fix or react.
Educate yourself about your nervous system: You’re wired to respond to a threat through fight, flight or freeze. Educating yourself about how you’re wired allows more of a gap when you’re activated to not go down the rabbit hole. Take inventory, which state are you in? Do you notice the impulse to blame, judge or control (fight)? To avoid or run (flight)? Or, collapse in helplessness and victimization (freeze)? Learn about the power of your heart intelligence and develop a partnership with your mind-body wisdom.
Map your inherited conditioning: Map the nuanced ways that you respond to stress, connection, and your place of belonging in the world. Where do you grasp? Avoid? Judge? Collapse? Strive? Notice what you believe about how you “should” be and how others “should” be. Like a map maker, study your unique superpowers and kryptonite. Celebrate them all as important medicine. Know how they present in your body so you can recognize them before they take over in harmful ways. Questions to consider:
Early in life, what do you learn about who you “should be” to be loved and belong?
What strategies did you adapt to protect your vulnerability? (humor and being an entertainer; intelligence; a high achiever; a nice person who takes care of other’s needs over your own; the one in control, etc.)
Knowing how you’re wired to protect your vulnerability and identifying the roles you’ve taken on to build your identity are essential components of mapping your stress responses and the ingredients of transformation. For more read, Wired to Protect & Connect
Build a tribe: Identify a minimum of one or two trusted allies who you know are committed to the same values as you. Co-create a shared reality about how you want to support, mirror and remind one another of who you are when you’re activated and in your primal animal fighting, hiding, or freezing alone in isolation.
Steps for when you ARE activated:
There are many ways to regulate an overwhelmed and activated nervous system. What is the best prescription for each of us? It’s a personal journey, and a moment-to-moment discovery of how to meet ourselves in the midst of internal chaos.
1. Name it and tame it: Acknowledge to yourself that you’ve been hijacked and are activated. Notice if you’re in fight, flight or freeze and name it to tame it. What are your impulses? Blame, fight, collapse into self-blame, run away, avoid, etc. Track your behavioral impulses as clues. When our higher thinking (cortex) communicates to our emotional center (limbic system) that we see what’s going on, this can begin a quieting immediately. This is a significant step to calming the brain and nervous system.
2. Breathe & Access Your Heart Intelligence: Seek space to sit with your fear body and breathe deeply and slowly, while focusing your awareness into the center of your chest. The depth and lengthening of our breath expresses more oxygen into our system which helps to disperse stress hormones as well as prompt the heart to release hormones and messages up to the brain to settle. I’m a certified facilitator for the HeartMath Institute’s Resilient Advantage training. Their extensive study over decades has contributed greatly to understanding the power of our heart intelligence and its capacity to regulate our system. For more on this science, check out Heartmath Institute video on the heart’s intuitive intelligence and capacity to regulate our activated states.
3. Stop. Create Space: Stop doing and running away through busyness and sit yourself down to feel the intensity head on through meditation, talking with a trusted ally, receiving bodywork, journaling or spending time in nature.
4. Access your senses: Come into your senses as much as you can. What do you see that is beautiful? Smells of spring blossoms, the touch of someone who loves you, the cold grass under your feet. Seek contact with your senses and let the mind rest, as much as possible!
5. Rest from fixing: Being highly reactive and activated is like being drunk. Our higher thinking and functioning goes offline, leaving us incoherent and slurring in mind and body. You don't want to make big decisions or do anything rash until your higher mind and self are back online.
Suspend the need to fix and control the outcomes
Let your system become more regulated before you decide anything
6. Focus on love and gratitude: Seek internally or externally for where you feel the tiniest sliver of love or gratitude and feel it through your body. Maybe it’s through petting your dog, hearing the caring voice of someone you love, or turning your attention inside to feel the presence of your being. Interrupt the compelling thoughts of doom and gloom with small sips of gratitude. Even if it’s as simple as standing by the window during a contracted moment and allowing yourself feel the warmth of the sun on your back and shoulder.
7. Ask for support: Seek a person, spot in nature, a journal, or whatever loving and neutral source you can find that will hold you and help you settle without trying to fix you or judge you for where you are. If you feel connected to your lineage or a spiritual path, this is a good time to ask for support, even through the whispers of your lips into the silence of the space. We are never alone. Reach for contact from the unseen realms too.
Seek Refuge In Your Inner Wisdom:
What is the love balm that you need the most when you’re stressed? I need self-acceptance for the intense states of mind that have my attention. For the subconscious protective patterns that I am addicted to feeding. I also need to feel my sense of connection with life outside of my mind and the fear-based spinning. This is when I seek refuge through:
connecting with myself in nature or through meditation, self-inquiry and journaling
friends who I know can sit in the unknown with me and normalize my experience without judgment or trying to fix me
beloveds who can remind me of my humor, laughter, and my commitment to embrace everything as it arises
the natural world, hiking, hot springs, river plunging and watching wildlife go about their daily foraging and playing
The ultimate practice is to bring a state of witnessing and compassion towards the wild and uncontrollable states of mind and emotions that arise. Our natural response to stress or threats will be fight, flight or freeze. Map your stress patterns. Track where you are and ask for help to come back into connection (with yourself or others). Speak your direct experience and interrupt the churning of stories, based on the future or past, that do nothing more than fuel stress and an impulse to protect or collapse.
Be mindful about whether you are telling stories about reality based on unchecked assumptions or conditioned history of pain and suffering. Be fierce with honesty about impulses to enroll as a victim to what other’s (or life) has done to you. Reclaim your sovereignty by dropping the bones of blame and shame and place your attention on how you want to respond and the values you life by. When challenged try to suspend impulses to blame and fight. It’s compelling when we feel threatened to blame; catch the habit and come back into your power of choice and ability to respond.
Self-awareness coupled with self-compassion sets us free moment-by-moment. The promised land of peace and rest is not in the future. It’s now, in each moment, based on how we respond. We become empowered by truth telling and conscious choice, over and over again.
What are your practices to regulate your nervous system and manage your cycles of thought and emotional based stress?
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