Forwarded from a friend?
A few weeks ago, I visited Door County, Wisconsin, with my extended family. My parents rented a huge lake house perched on the Niagara Escarpment, right on the shores of Lake Michigan. I went stand-up paddle boarding almost every day.
It was glorious.
The blue sky, green pine, and white stone. The plip plop of the water as the board sliced through it. The up-down, up-down sensation. The way my muscles and mind worked in concert. Everything about being out on the water held me just right so I could completely melt into the moment, like a perfectly plush pillow. I felt calm, present, and deeply connected with myself and the world.
When I feel like that – mindful, connected – I’m reminded of something I learned from licensed therapist and trauma expert Deb Dana,* author of Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. In the book, she explains that, according to polyvagal theory, the nervous system has three primary states: ventral vagal (safe and connected), sympathetic (fight and flight), and dorsal vagal (shut down and disconnected). It’s normal to move through these states all the time, every day, she says.
Not only do these states feel different emotionally, but Dana argues that they act as a kind of filter on the world, coloring your interpretation and perception of reality. In sympathetic, that neutral email becomes a cutting rebuke. But in ventral vagal, she says, you see more clearly. Maybe the sender was strapped for time. Maybe it’s not about you.
Being able to tell what state you’re in can help alert you to times when your nervous system may be filtering reality in an unhelpful way. When I notice my heart racing and jaw clenched, I know I’m likely in sympathetic, and the world may seem scarier than it really is.
Being able to shift your state can help you access a different point of view, one that may be more suited to the circumstances.
To facilitate this, Dana recommends identifying anchors to help you drop into a ventral vagal state. Place can be an anchor. The idea is to think about where you have felt safe and connected. What did you see? What did you smell? What did you hear? What did you taste? What did you feel in your body and mind? Once you’ve got all the details, practice traveling there. Build up the mental muscle of shifting your nervous system.
For me, the memory of paddle boarding in Door County is a new ventral vagal anchor.
Perhaps that sounds convoluted. On one level, of course, it’s obvious: It feels good to think of good times.
But let’s face it: “Because it feels good” isn’t a reliable guide for healthy behavior. In the moment, it feels good to stay up past midnight as well, but that decision doesn’t support being my best self the next day. Knowing this, I tend to go overboard on tamping down those pleasure-seeking impulses. I appreciate tools, like Dana’s anchors, that help me strike a balance, see reality more clearly, and support myself more skillfully.
For instance, on the drive home, I updated my phone’s lock screen from a picture of my family last summer to a snap of just me and my paddle board. A beat after I made the swap, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. My stomach clenched. What kind of mother am I? What mom’s phone lock screen is a picture of just herself? How narcissistic.
But when I set aside judgment and actually looked at the photo, I felt a hum in my chest. I felt connected and capable.
What kind of mother am I? One who values emotional regulation. One who tries to take care of herself.
*I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana for two Everyday Health articles: How Not to Be Sad: 9 Tips for Managing the Emotion and All About Sadness: What Causes It, How to Cope With It, and When to Get Help
Books I Think You’ll Like
When I’m having a hard time, I ask my friends for book recommendations. Like a pot of soup or a silly meme, book recommendations are a way to make the feeling of caring tangible. I try to recapture that feeling here because I know it can mean so much to get the right book at the right time.
A while ago, during one of those aforementioned hard times, a friend passed me her copy of Disappearing Earth: A Novel by Julia Phillips which takes place in far eastern Russia. When I flipped it over, I saw the words “literary thriller” and “missing children” and thought “no thank you.” My tender heart simply could not take those things right then. But when I needed a book to bring on vacation this month, I packed it, and I’m so grateful I did.
It’s true that Phillips’s novel is intense — it’ll pull on your heartstrings and push you to keep reading. But the complexity of the novel’s portrait of a place and people is a counterweight to the drama of it. The result doesn’t make you feel like you’re deriving pleasure from other people’s pain. Instead, it made me feel held and transported, like all good storytelling.
Last month, I mentioned crying at Button Poetry‘s Wordplay booth. My tears felt like salty signs that their poetry could powerful medicine, so I bought three of their books to savor, including You Better Be Lightning by Andrea Gibson. This collection is filled with validation for the tender-hearted and wisdom for those seeking it. Here just one beautiful line, that you’ll find on page 5.
“I know most people try hard
to do good and find out too late
they should have tried softer.”
I heard Idra Novey, the author of Take What You Need: A Novel, speak on a panel at Wordplay and knew almost immediately I needed to read her most recent book. She spoke about the challenges and power of writing a book that takes place where you’re from, when where you’re from (in this case, Appalachia) is a place most people don’t think much of. The story follows two woman — an older woman who stayed right where she grew up and her estranged step-daughter who left. It’s about the doubt and determination of being an artist, the way politics shape what we see, and how economic realities influence individuals and communities. If you liked Demon Copperhead, put this one on your list.
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*I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post