The Mystery of Cortisol: Stress, Trauma and Healing – November 2014
November 20, 2014
I’ve been working on what it’s like to say “no,” for the last week. In NVC we often talk about finding the “yes” behind the “no.” This last week has felt more like deep dyad work. The questions have felt like “Do I exist enough to have any “no’s?” “Does it make sense to expend any life energy on saying no, given that offering resistance in my original dyad resulted in being crushed in the oncoming juggernaut?” and “Wouldn’t it be better to be evasive and side-step the whole question, just like I’ve always done?”
Deep dyad work always brings us back to how we treat ourselves. As I bring it home, the questions become “Am I willing to hear my own “no?” “Am I willing to matter to myself?” “Am I willing to trust that there are other ways to get my needs met if I hear my own “no?” For some reason it all seems to come back to this question: “Can I move more slowly?” Can I slow down enough to hear the panic that I feel when someone asks me for something I don’t want to give, or asks to give me something I don’t want, and be gentle with that ancient panic? Can I hear the alarmed rush of hopelessness that brings an automatic freeze and shutdown, and hold it with warm curiosity until it thaws? And what will my new, fully self-supported “no,” bring with it if I let it come?
This exploration has been happening in the larger context of studying cortisol this month for the November teleseminar. Bringing both questions together, I’ve been thinking about the brain and body changes that come from having a practice of somatic-based empathy. The work is literally life-changing: it improves our health and well-being, brings us deeper intimacy, warmer community, and a greater capacity to appreciate the small moments of connection that are sprinkled through our days like stars in the milky way.
Here are some of the physical shifts that happen as we begin to hold ourselves with warmth:
– Our heart-rate, blood pressure and respiration levels decrease
– Our heart-rate variability increases
– Our eyes shift focus to be able to read the subtleties of peoples’ facial expressions
– The tiny muscles of our own face come to life
– Our ears tune to the emotional world of others’ speech
– The muscles all over our body relax and soften
– The tiny bronchii in our lungs relax and expand
– Our digestive system works effectively
– Our red blood cells carry more oxygen
– And our immune system shifts to produce the cells that fight illness and cancers (away from the production of cells that fight infection from physical cuts and tears in the skin)
As we can see, holding ourselves with warmth is a mind-blowing invitation to health and well-being.
And yet, it’s a series of requests that are fraught with difficulty. Here are the explicit requests you will be making to yourself if you decide to start down this path:
Are you willing to have affection for yourself in this moment, just as you are? Can you enjoy and respect your body for its efforts to respond to what you feed it and how you treat it from moment to moment?
Can you have affection for the part of you that reaches for food, actions or substances that don’t support your long-term health and well-being?
Do you respect your own social awkwardnesses and all the ways you are torn? Can you stand beside yourself as an ally, even when you take actions that you regret?
Are you willing to do the work to transform any self-contempt or self-loathing that you have for your present or younger selves into gentleness and love?
Are you willing to time travel to the past moments when you were heart-breakingly alone in your life, arriving as a resonant and understanding support to offer empathy right there and receive all the messages of your deeper self that live in each complex, previously unknown emotion?
And as you clear away the obvious traumas by creating strong, warm connections with your younger selves, are you willing to hold the pre-verbal self with care, noticing the almost elemental responses you have to issues of trust, presence, nourishment, differentiation, intimacy and delight?
My own answer to these requests is, “umm, maybe… when I have enough support… and in my own time…”
And as I do this, and I start to transform my own responses to stress, and to live with more peace from moment to moment, I am beginning to wonder what my own deep “yeses” and “nos” will bring with them.