When I was 36 years old, I was diagnosed with a chronic disease. I remember feeling shocked for about a week. Then I started searching for how the diagnosis couldn’t possibly be true and the hoping the doctor was wrong. And then I shut down.
I remember sitting with some co-workers at an after-work function soon after getting the news. I could only half listen to the conversation. I wasn’t really thinking about that much, maybe occasionally the disease process or a thought how might life had to change as a result, but mostly what I noticed is that I felt disinterested, detached and numb.
People were laughing and joking and generally having a good time, and I literally could not make myself concentrate to pay attention. I tried to act interested, but this felt fake and disengenuine. Then I got a stomach ache from hell, and took it as an opportunity to excuse myself and get out of there. I drove home, got in bed, and proceeded to take a 12 hour “nap.”
What the heck was going on with me? When we receive new information or feedback, our brains need time to process it, to decide what to do. Sometimes when we get really overwhelmed by something we perceive as hugely negative, our brain activates a hard stop. As in, it literally shuts down our nervous system and prevents us from taking in new information. In the event that we hear scary or bad information, especially of this magnitude, it’s like our neuroregulatory system has screamed “Ahhhhhh, time to turn off! I can’t take anymore news right now.”
In these moments of extreme stress, we have to take care of ourselves. Walking around with our overwhelmed switch turned on constantly is like a zombie trying to do calculous… it’s just not possible. In order to feel “normal” again, our brain has to enter a different neural regulatory substrate. It must move from overwhelm to safety.
As a person that struggles with overcontrol tendencies, I tend to try and push through things. When the nicest thing I could do to myself would actually be to say “Hey, I need to take care of me. I’m going home, ordering a pizza, sitting in front of a funny movie with my big orange cat, and allowing my brain to destress. I’m just not doing well today.” I’m sure every one of my colleagues would have expressed care for me and a “catch you next time.” Doing self-care through mental safety activation in moments like these is essential.
In Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RODBT), there is a skill called safety activation that is designed to move ourselves from threat and overwhelmed modes to a calm and relaxed feeling. It involves many behavioral tools including: moving our facial muscles (laughing at a movie), eating and drinking (pizza), touch (cat) and slowing our breath. When we turn on the safety system in our brain, we can make better decisions and feel clearer. (See Lesson 3 in the RODBT skills manual for more).
If overwhelmed mode is something you feel a lot, a really good trick is to start noticing moments that you do feel safe and capable rather than numb or overwhelmed. They might be brief, but nevertheless they are happening. Once you know what safety feels like, you can get a better if idea of what actions get you in that mode and make yourself a safety tool kit.
And remember, that you have to practice safety activation often! Drinking a nice cup of tea or listening to some chill music is not going to solve your problems, but it will allow you to gain a bit of clarity. The more in tune you are with what safety mode feels like, the more likely you will try and seek it out when you are distressed.