If you suffer from low self-esteem, self-loathing, or self-sabotage… if you’ve got toxic shame, chronic anxiety, or depression… if you seem to have a perpetually dysregulated nervous system and just can’t shake your bad habits, intrusive thoughts, and self-defeating behaviors, you may be asking yourself… what the fuck?!
Well, I’d like to take a moment to answer that question for you.
Where It All Began
The fuck that you are inquiring about is most likely a maladaptive trait or coping mechanism that you used to survive less than ideal circumstances in early life. Some call this a trauma response, but don’t let that language scare you.
The famous Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) conducted in the 1990s by Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente and Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC showed a definitive, scientific correlation between shitty childhood situations and lifelong mental, emotional, physical, social, and economic challenges.
In the original study, they asked around 17,000 middle-class Americans to answer yes or no to ten simple questions regarding their exposure to childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Their responses and subsequent connection to long-term health outcomes were astounding.
On a scale from 0 to 10, a person with an ACE score of 4 is 390% more likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in later life than someone with an ACE score of 0 and 460% more likely to be depressed. Similar correlations are made between ACE score and addiction, suicide, STDs, divorce, alcoholism, obesity, unemployment, domestic violence, incarceration, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, various auto-immune diseases, and basically all the worst things in life.
That makes sense.
The reason childhood abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are still major factors in one’s quality of life fifty years later is because a trauma response is a physiological adaptation of your nervous system. It literally changes who you are. This is why knowing better is not a strategy for success but more often the reason people bludgeon themselves in toxic shit-spirals of shame and self-condemnation.
“I should know better by now” is the refrain of someone who thinks their intellect controls their central nervous system. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider the case of someone who was mauled by a street dog as a child. Later in life, despite being well aware of how friendly and harmless most dogs are, this person still has a visceral stress response to stray dogs. Completely understandable, no?
Your nervous system doesn’t want you to be rational, or to be right, it wants you to be alive.
What needs to happen then, in order to slowly rewire your nervous system, is to provide it with cues of safety and security so it stops flipping out and ruining your life all the time.
Regulating Your Nervous System 101
Here are a few things to work toward as a means of reclaiming the keys to your life:
Be in touch with your feelings and grounded in your body.
Understand what your feelings are telling you about your needs.
You feel good when your needs are satisfied, and you feel bad when they’re not. Simple as that. Instead of just saying, “I feel like shit,” and aimlessly flopping around or self-medicating, maybe you can learn to say “I have an unmet need.” Get curious about what that is and know that you have the power to do something about it.
Know what your needs are.
If you don’t even know what your basic human needs are, you’ll be that hungry idiot in a restaurant staring at the menu for hours saying, “I don’t know what I want.” C’mon now, get it together. Maslow’s Hierarchy is a good place to start. Please educate yourself so you stop believing all you need is food, water, and air. You need so much more to function properly.
Communicate your needs and get them met in healthy ways.
If you were the nervous system inside of a body that never asked for its needs to be met, you’d be freaking the fuck out too. No one else is going to state your needs for you. You absolutely have to learn to do this yourself. Also, know the difference between the unhealthy extremes of being overly dependent, independent, or codependent and the healthy goal of being interdependent.
Consistent self-love and self-care practices.
This is how you tell your nervous system, “I’m a healthy, loving, trustworthy adult, and I’m going to take good care of you now. You have nothing to worry about.” It’s called reparenting yourself — doing the things you needed but perhaps did not get when you were a child.
Identify a dysregulated nervous system and self-soothe in appropriate ways.
If you can’t recognize when you’re triggered, your lizard brain is gonna take you for a ride to see the dope dealer (whatever brand of self-destructive escape you fancy), and maybe make a few poor decisions and regrettable accusations along the way. The difference between self-soothing and self-medicating is awareness and choice. Get real familiar with how you feel and act when you’re triggered and keep a list of healthy self-soothing activities handy (call a friend, listen to music, meditate, nap, etc.).
Practice Practice Practice
These six practices are just that — practices.
You won’t do them perfectly. You’re not supposed to.
Just start today.