When we self-regulate well, we are better able to control the trajectory of our emotional lives and resulting actions based on our values and sense of purpose. ~Amy Leigh Mercree
We are entering into that time of year again. That time here in the northern hemisphere where the light recedes and we enter into more and more darkness as each day passes. It is also the time of year of the fall and winter holiday celebrations, which can for some of us, bring their own darkness with them.
I have always declared that the winter holiday season begins with my birthday in mid-October. Then quickly follows Halloween and All Souls and All Saints Days. Next is Thanksgiving. And then we move into December when most religions and spiritual traditions have a festival of lights celebration of one kind or another. With all these holidays often comes gatherings with family – ones that we either attend or avoid. With these gatherings come all the stresses of connecting with our families, be that in person or in spirit.
There is also the truth that for many of us this time of year is a painful reminder of the people we have lost in our lives, either through death or severing of ties. It can be a reminder of those we loved who aren’t here to celebrate with us, and the grief that comes forward has its own way of showing up at a time of year we are told over and over we need to be joyous.
There are a million plus different reasons why this time of year can be challenging in many ways and why we all need to remember self-care, real self-care, during the coming season.
One of my frustrations with our current culture is how the term self care is defined. For many this term has a very white, privileged look to it. It looks like spa days or mani-pedis, or days at the salon, or weeks at some tropical local. It’s looks like, according to many, something only the wealthy can afford.
I have a very different definition of self care.
For me, self care is first and foremost about calming and soothing our nervous systems. It is self-regulation and being able to bring ourselves back from a “triggered” or highly emotional state. This can look like many different things, including drinking water, getting sleep, any of the numerous Nervous System Soothing tips I share with you in the weekly love letter and on social media, drinking herbal tea, locking ourselves in the bathroom for five minutes of solitude… all of those things are self care. These are the small, non-glamorous things that keep us going and keep us feeling calm and sane.
And, self-care isn’t 100% regulating our nervous systems. Another big piece of self care, for me, is boundaries.
You know, that whole being able to say No thing. (I’ll talk more about boundaries as self-care next week.)
However, I do believe that before we can really connect to, and then honor and enforce, our boundaries, we need to be able to connect to our bodies and calm and regulate our nervous systems.
What do I mean by “calm and regulate our nervous system,” “triggered state,” or “activated nervous system”?
I deeply believe that all of us have trauma living within our bodies. It could be a trauma (or multiple traumas) of our personal lived experience. This could look like abuse, neglect, rape, or car accidents, surgeries, living through natural disasters. Any and all of those events that we may personally experience our bodies can experience as traumatic events.
In addition, we have ancestral trauma living in our DNA. Epigenetics has shown us how these “trauma markers” are passed down through the generations and how they are “mutable” or “reversable”. This means that the unresolved, unprocessed traumas of our parents, grandparents, and back to the beginnings of time, live in our bodies today.
Finally, there is what I call Cultural Relational Trauma. This is the trauma we experience living in a white supremacist, capitalistic, misogynist, patriarchal culture. This is the trauma of isolation, of being told we are less than, not enough, too much, that we should feel shame for who we are and for existing at all. This is the trauma that tears us from our communities and teaches us that one “group” is somehow superior to another. It is the trauma we hold in our bodies that is put in us every day.
Because we all carry trauma in us, our nervous systems are generally all out of sorts. What this looks like day to day is that we are easily irritated, or anxious, or depressed, or have rapid and far ranging mood swings, or feel like we want to crawl out of our skin on a regular basis – but with all of these things happening we can’t always pinpoint the why or what actually caused the dysregulation or what is also called an “activated” nervous system or a triggered state.
Calming or soothing our (sympathetic) nervous system brings us out of this activated state. It allows us to feel good in our bodies, to be in our frontal lobes (where empathy and logic live), and eventually to respond to stimulus (or triggers) in a way that isn’t harmful to ourselves or others (and by harmful I mean not only physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically).
I talk more about this in this 7 minute video.
This essay is the first in a three part series I have put together to introduce some of the topics we’ll be exploring in my winter self-care circle, Self Care for the Holidays. If you’d like to learn more and possibly join us, you can click right here.
Other essays in the series:
The Holidays, Trauma, & Our Nervous Systems (this essay)