The vagus nerve is often overlooked as a potential means of lowering anxiety and stress. We have all heard that taking a walk or exercising is a great way to relieve feelings of worry or tension. We probably have experienced the positive results of taking a stroll near the ocean, enjoying the sights that only nature can provide. Such an activity promotes peace and well-being for many reasons, and one I would like to explore here is vagal nerve stimulation.
A look at the nervous system reveals just how amazing the human body is. It truly is a miracle in action. The nervous system relays information from the brain to the body and back again. One of the most important bidirectional nerves is the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the body. The word “vagus” comes from the Latin word “vaga” which means “to wander”. This nerve originates from the brain and wanders around the body affecting many major organs. It is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It controls involuntary processes such as heart rate, digestion, circulation, and breathing to name a few. Most of us have never even heard of this important nerve, much less how to stimulate it for our own mental and physical health benefit.
The sympathetic nervous system helps us respond to stressful situations by stimulating the “fight or flight” response. As a result of this response, our heart rates increase, blood pressure increases, and we may feel knots in our stomach. This response can be helpful if we are in real danger and we need to flee the situation immediately. Usually, however, we are not in actual physical danger and the prolonged stress response can be physically and mentally taxing.
Increasing vagal tone helps the parasympathetic nervous system recover after a stressful event, which provokes the “fight or flight” response in the body. It can help the body relax and return to a state of peace.
Regular exercise, such as walking, running, yoga, and weight lifting, contributes to healthy vagal tone. Other methods to stimulate the relaxation response are deep slow breathing, singing or chanting, gargling, laughing and socializing, massage, meditation, Omega-3 fatty acid intake (found in fish), probiotics, and exposure to cold. Group drumming is also a great activity that supports vagal tone.
When your vagal tone is high you can experience more positive emotions, greater heart rate variability, lower blood pressure, better digestion and clearer thinking. This can help you achieve better health overall.
So get outside for a walk. Drum, sing, hum and chant. What happens in the vagus, doesn’t stay in the vagus. And that, my friends, is a very good thing!
You’re going to grow familiar with the art of the apology.
And even if your apologies are genuine, some people aren’t going to forgive you. They’re going to hold the times you bailed against you, even if you had a good reason. Even if it was impossible for you to climb out of bed that day, let alone answer a text or meet up for dinner. Sometimes your anxiety is going to cause you to disappoint the people you never wanted to hurt, and even though it’s not your fault, it is your responsibility to deal with the aftermath, the hurt feelings, the guilt.
You have way more responsibilities as an adult, which could worsen your anxiety.
You might have hoped that your anxiety would go away once you were older and got used to living this way. But the older you get, the more you’re meant to do on your own. You can’t rely on your parents to make appointments for you or do the talking for you in social situations. You have to set your own schedule and advance your own career and hold your own conversations. Things might have actually gotten harder as the years have passed, but you can’t let that get you down. You have to remember that you’re taking on so much more today than you did yesterday. That’s why everything feels so overwhelming. You haven’t gone backwards. You’re simply taking on more.
You’re going to have to learn to hype yourself up.
When you’re younger, you might have people around who are going to encourage you to open up, who are going to push you to achieve your dreams, who are going to remind you that you have what it takes when you’re scared to leave your comfort zone. But when you’re older, you won’t always have someone around to hype you up, so you’re going to have to do it yourself. You’re going to have to remember that you’ve been in tough spots before and have made it through. And you can do it again. You might be scared, you might be shaking, but you have what it takes. You do.
You need to be gentle with yourself – but also brutal with yourself.
You need to learn to differentiate between the days when your anxiety is manageable and you can push through the pain – and the days when you genuinely need a mental health break and should stay home and rest. You need to be gentle with your mental health so you don’t burn out, but you also need to fulfill all of your responsibilities in order to survive. That means you need to figure out how to balance everything in a healthy yet productive way – and that takes time to learn. It takes trial and error.
You need to take it upon yourself to search for help.
When you were younger, you might not have realized you had anxiety. You might not have known why your heart was pounding so fast and your palms were getting so sweaty at the thought of certain tasks. But now that you’re older and know yourself better, you need to take better care of yourself. Whether you attend therapy, take medication, or simply download meditation apps and learn grounding exercises on your own, you need to do something to make your life easier. You need to treat your mental health as a priority, even when it’s inconvenient.
If you have a mental illness or are in recovery, you’re likely not a stranger to unsolicited advice. I know it’s something I hear a lot, so I get how overwhelming and frustrating it is, which is why before I go any further, I want to ask you a question. Why is unsolicited advice unhelpful to someone with a mental illness or a person with substance abuse challenges?
Unsolicited advice is more for the person advising the person needing support for their mental health, according to Verywell Mind.
Unsolicited advice oversimplifies complex conditions like trauma, addiction, and a mental health diagnosis.
Unsolicited advice is patronizing, invalidating, and can be traumatic, making a person feel worse and ashamed of themselves.
As you can tell from the above points, unsolicited advice is more harmful than helpful. A big reason is unless a person has lived experiences with things like a mental health diagnosis or an education in psychology, understands trauma-informed care, or has experienced adverse childhood experiences. It isn’t easy to understand how complex these challenges and similar ones are. It takes years to understand mental illness, substance abuse, or anything related to psychology or mental health, for that matter.
I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t support a person; I’m trying to say you first need to learn how to support someone, and even though supporting a person can be tricky, it is possible. A great way to start is by keeping the following questions and tips in mind when supporting someone.
Why does a person’s language and beliefs around mental health and substance abuse matter when giving advice?
The average person doesn’t realize the complexities of living with a mental health condition or substance abuse issues. Otherwise, I hope they wouldn’t be telling people things like “Why can’t you just quit?” or “Go for a walk” and other helpful statements. Like my favourite one: “Isn’t everyone a little ADHD?” Those forms of advice and microaggressions are toxic and cause a person to feel things like shame and disempower a person.
When you speak like this, you’re telling a person who is likely already nervous and hesitant about doing things like taking medications or seeing a therapist and other forms of support that those options aren’t helpful. You’re also invalidating their experiences when you downplay or mock a person. I get how everyone has an opinion, but it’s time people realize opinions aren’t facts. Those stigmatized opinions negatively impact the person on the receiving end more than you realize.
Instead of focusing on unhelpful opinions and beliefs, my best advice is to try focusing on educating yourself with the help of peer-reviewed sources and asking questions to people like doctors, pharmacists and therapists, and other professionals. Otherwise, your inaccurate beliefs and opinions can stop or scare a person from receiving much-needed medical care, dramatically decreasing their quality of life.
How can you make a person feel validated and that you care about their issues, challenges, and diagnosis?
You can start by advocating for a person who wants to see a psychiatrist or takes medications instead of making them feel bad for seeking professional help. While telling them things like there’s no shame in taking medication or seeking professional help and respecting their boundaries around getting treatment, seeing a therapist, or going to a 12-step program.
You can also own your incorrect words, attitudes, and behaviours. Yup, that’s right—owning those things and learning healthier, more medically accurate beliefs. I know admitting you’re wrong isn’t fun, but it shows you care and respect that person enough to properly educate yourself and take a better approach to support them.
When you do things like this, you’re telling someone they matter, and as a person with mental health challenges, I can tell you this simple step can mean the world to someone. Another thing you can do is advocate for them to get treatment and positively talk about seeking professional help instead of saying things like it’s a weakness or makes you a burden.
That’s why it’s important to realize what we say and even what we post, share, and like on social media can send a message to someone that you think they matter. But unfortunately, it can also indirectly send a message that you don’t think mental health challenges are valid, making a person feel even worse causing them to suffer in silence instead of getting the help they deserve.
It’s time people started focusing on building others up instead of tearing them down before they don’t understand what certain people have been through in their life. Lastly, below are a few ways advocating for seeking help for mental health professionals is beneficial to someone from Healthline and my personal experiences.
Just because you’re a parent or friend doesn’t mean you know more than a mental health professional trained in CBT, ACT, medications and medication adherence, and other helpful interventions. Professionals also have in-depth education in diagnosing mental illness, trauma, and other healthcare resources.
Don’t shove their past challenges or mistakes in their face because doing so does nothing but shame a person and make them feel worse. Also, if a person is getting annoyed at you for disrespecting their boundaries around seeking help for their mental health, that doesn’t mean you’re a snowflake or overly sensitive. It means that you’re putting your message. It means that you’re interfering in something that you have no right to interfere with, plain and simple.
Seeing a mental health professional is great for empowering us to gain a healthy understanding of our emotions and reframing our inner dialogue.
Just because a celebrity, health guru, or influencer posts something about mental health doesn’t mean that that advice should be taken over the advice of a qualified mental health professional.
It’s better to be non-judgmental and compassionate and give us a safe place to share our thoughts, feelings, and struggles instead of judging us for those things.
1. You’re constantly called “type A” or “anal retentive” or just “a perfectionist.”
People credit you with going above and beyond the call of duty, and always executing things to an nth degree. They poke fun at how you (sometimes unintentionally) seem like you have a “my way or the highway” mentality, like it’s just a personality quirk. In reality, the idea of not finishing something or doing something exactly how you’ve envisioned makes you sick to your stomach. Things like someone coming over and seeing your laundry or missing a deadline by even an hour makes your head spin. They shouldn’t seem like a big deal to you, they should be something you can move on from and not dwell on, but they aren’t. You obsess and overthink, dwell and stew. So your perfectionist ways (seem) to manage that.
2. You have little ticks that manifest physically, but they just seem like “bad habits” to the outside eye.
Nail biting, hair picking, knuckle cracking, lip chewing. Even picking at your skin or scabs or leaving your cuticles in a bloody mess. They’re all little symptoms of your anxiety. You try to keep your panics and nervousness internalized as best you can, but it slips out in these seemingly little things.
3. You don’t know when to say when.
“No,” is your most underused work in the English language. You don’t know how to stay away from reaching your limit. So you pile things on top of each other, always assuming that you can just handle anything and everything. You stretch yourself way too thin and then even after you’re breaking, still try to take on more.
4. You can relate to the idea of “compartmentalizing” your emotions.
No one would ever be able to say that you’re someone who wears their heart on their sleeve. In fact, you do pretty much the opposite. You’re so used to and trained to behave like everything’s “fine” even when that couldn’t be further from the truth, that you’re nearly impossible to read. You’ve told yourself so many times that you’re just being “dramatic” or that no one would understand that you’ve become a professional level faker of being fine. You rarely let how you’re actually feeling show, instead you just bottle it up and cover it up and hope that it goes away.
5. And because of this, you’ve been called “stoic” or “unemotional” even when that couldn’t be farther from reality.
You’ve likely gotten a reputation for being rational and logical to a fault, because you don’t let how you’re actually feeling show. Your compartmentalization is next level. Rather than feel your feelings and process them in real time, you put them on a metaphorical shelf in your mind in order to “deal with it later.” Problem is, later rarely comes. And then there are all of these anxieties and issues and feelings that pile up on top of each other and it becomes unbearable to manage.
6. You joke about having FOMO — but it’s much bigger than that.
It’s not so much an “I wish I was included” notion, it’s more a deep-seeded fear of missing out on an opportunity. It’s the fear of being a bad friend if you don’t go somewhere with someone. It’s the fear of not being enough if, for some reason, you’re not able to do everything.
7. You worry about opening up because you’ll be accused of “not getting it” because you seemingly live a normal day-to-day life.
There’s this idea in your head that because you’re still “functioning” your anxiety isn’t a problem, and won’t be perceived as one. Even if you don’t mean to, thinking this way plays into that “trauma olympics” mentality. It’s the idea that because you DON’T do something that’s associated with anxiety, or because your anxiety is different in any other way, you don’t “qualify.” So, rather than say, “This is what I’m struggling with,” and open up, you say nothing at all.
8. You lose a lot of sleep.
You keep yourself up at night often. Whether it’s because your mind is going 10,000 miles a minute or because you’re convinced you can just finish one more thing, you’re way too familiar with being exhausted. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” you probably laugh after another sleepless night. But reality? It weighs on you. Both physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s a problem.
9. Most people would just call you an “overachiever.”
Because when you look at someone who’s so good at compartmentalizing, repressing, deflecting, and who’s anxiety manifests in a way that makes them hyper-vigilant about very specific things (ie: work, staying occupied, cleaning, list making) it can be so, so easy to only see their successes. But what you don’t see, is the battle that it took to GET there. People only see the achievement part, not the stress, the anxiety, the sleeplessness, and the self-deprecation that it took to get there.
10. You joke about needing to be busy to be happy.
“I LOVE being busy.” “I’m happier with a full to-do list.” “Keeping busy keeps me out of trouble!”
It sounds like a glorification of being busy, but really, it’s a cover-up for a fear of what will happen if you stop. The go go go becomes like a drug. The “always having something do” keeps your mind off of, well, your mind. The constantly chasing something else and doing something is ultimately, a big distraction from the anxiety that is ever present in your life.
11. One of your biggest fears is letting people down.
“You could’ve been better.” “Why did you do this?” “You’re such a bad daughter.” “I wish you were a better friend.”
Are those things being said? Probably not. But in your head, in your anxiety-riddled brain, you hear them when presented with the possibility of not doing something at a top tier level. The pressure you put on yourself is enormous. And it ultimately stems from the idea that if you don’t hold yourself to some near-unacheivable standard, you’ll be letting someone down. And that breaks your heart. It may be the anxiety talking, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it every single day.
Social anxiety means you have to push past your discomfort anytime you want to send a text, answer an email, or make a phone call. It means venturing outside of your comfort zone every single day, whether you feel like you have the energy or not. It means having trouble doing things that seemingly come easily to everyone else – like introducing yourself to someone new or smiling hello to strangers. It means exhausting yourself with activities that other people don’t have to think twice about. It means feeling out of place and unwanted everywhere you go, even when you know for a fact the people around you care about you.
Social anxiety means double checking your texts before sending them off because you’re worried about including a typo or offending the other person or saying something lame. It means hesitating before answering phone calls because you aren’t sure whether you have the energy to hold a conversation with someone, whether you would even be able to pick up without your heart beating out of your chest. It means going back and forth on whether to accept party invites because you aren’t sure what type of mood you’re going to be in that day – are you going to be having a good week and feel comfortable surrounding yourself with people, or are you going to be having a rough week and want to hide yourself away?
Social anxiety means praying that the other person will cancel plans because you don’t want to go out – but you don’t want to be the one to cancel either. You don’t want them mad at you for backing out at the last second. You don’t want them to feel like you’re avoiding them because you actually enjoy spending time with them. Your anxiety simply makes it hard to relax and have fun, even with the people that you love and trust the most, the people you know are always going to be there for you even when your anxiety has hit its peak.
Social anxiety means spending hours before an event picking out an outfit, then double checking with everyone you know to see what they’re wearing so you don’t show up looking out of place. It means examining photos of yourself again and again before posting to make sure that you don’t look stupid or that your caption isn’t too corny. It means going over the same imaginary scenarios in your head in the shower and underneath the covers until you’re sick to your stomach. It means making up problems even when none exist and having hypothetical arguments that you would never actually have in reality.
Social anxiety means it takes a lot of effort for you to go out with friends or even send a text – but instead of feeling weird for how hard you have to try, you should be proud of yourself. Yes, these things are harder for you than everyone else, but that’s what makes accomplishing them so incredible. That’s what makes you so strong.
Anxiety is that voice that keeps me up late at night when all I want to do is sleep.
It’s knowing nothing about me is normal. Even when I try so hard to be.
Anxiety is like a highlight reel of my life on rewind but the only parts that play are the mistakes I’ve made, the people I’ve hurt and the things I’ve done I haven’t forgiven myself for.
It makes me feel like an idiot when I know normal people aren’t hung up on something that happened five years ago.
Anxiety is the ruthless critic that I’ll never be good enough for.
Because no matter what I do or say or achieve anxiety counters it with an insult.
And I believe it.
It’s hard enough being good enough for others, it’s even harder being good enough for yourself when you are your own worst enemy.
Anxiety makes me doubt myself and doubt everyone around me.
From every word I say to every text I send to every email that goes out, triple checking it multiple times.
Anxiety makes me feel like an idiot not because I mess up but because I worry so much about mistakes.
Anxiety makes me think everyone is out to fuck me over when in reality that isn’t the case.
I know I have good friends, so why am I questioning and doubting them when they gave me no reason to? Why do I think everyone is going to leave me when they’ve stood by me for a decade.
But anxiety makes me feel like an idiot because I need to know things are okay. I need to know you aren’t mad at me. I need constant reassurance.
Anxiety has complete control over me.
It’s questioning every text and word and worrying to a point where emotional exhaustion is a real thing in my life.
It’s the apologizing too much and too often. Then when I try to explain to someone why I’m apologizing, as the words appear on the screen as I type them I think, “I sound like an idiot.”
Anxiety is the company at a party or in a crowd but drowning in negativity that’s inside my own head.
So I stay silent simply observing everything going on around me out of fear of saying and doing the wrong thing. Out of fear I shouldn’t be here or no one wants me here or I was invited out of pity. That’s what anxiety tells me.
It’s wanting to talk but not trusting myself enough to not say something stupid.
Anxiety makes me a paranoid fuck because I can tell when there’s the slightest shift in someone or in a relationship. And I try and fix it but only make things worse.
Anxiety is striving for perfection I know I’ll never achieve it. Anxiety taunts me for my failures while ignoring my success.
Anxiety makes up every worst case scenario that can happen and then it doesn’t and I tell myself you shouldn’t have gotten so worked up. But I did.
Anxiety makes me feel like an idiot for worrying as much as I do.
It’s constantly turning around to make sure that door is locked or that stove is off. Even though I have never left the stove on or door open. Anxiety tells me “what if” and I watch in my mind as something horrible happens.
Then I turn around and double check and yes, like every day before it’s fine.
Anxiety makes me feel like an idiot because I shouldn’t be like this. But I am. I care. I care about doing the right thing. I care about saying the right thing. I care about never hurting someone.
Anxiety makes me hyper aware of things because I care too deeply.
It makes me terribly insecure.
People with anxiety struggle to live in the moment because we are always dwelling in the past and worried about the future and I feel like an idiot because I’m trying to be as happy as everyone around me but I struggle.
Anxiety is breaking down because something didn’t go the way I wanted it to even though nothing ever does, I need that structure.
It’s the want and need to control everyone and everything because this thing controls me.
Anxiety makes me feel like an idiot because my mind can never be quiet and silence and peace of mind is something I’ll never achieve in life.
And maybe I think too much and am too hard on myself but at the end of the day I simply try and do my best and that’s all I can ask of myself even when anxiety tells me it’s not enough.
What do you do when you’re doubting yourself? When those thoughts begin to take space in your brain, telling you all the reasons you’ll fail. Or ways things might go wrong. We are all too familiar with this feeling. And when it creeps in, you can’t simply kick it out. You can’t just flick it off like a crumb on a counter.
The thing about doubt is that it wants to grow. Like a stubborn weed. While our minds mean well, our brains will go out of their way to hold us back from any and all potential danger. Even if that so-called danger is a crucial step in expanding your growth. Even if that so-called danger isn’t even danger at all.
Doubt exists to contemplate. It exists to provide a way for us to make sense of uncertainty. And in some cases, this doubt can be immensely powerful. Maybe you doubt your ability to “wing” a presentation, and instead you decide to put in time to practice it. That’s good. That is a beneficial doubt.
But there is a difference between asking questions, being curious, and straight sabotaging yourself with never ending doubt. The kind of doubt that locks you into your comfort zone. The kind of doubt that makes you opt out of the presentation or in any case, the “thing”, all together.
This doubt will win if you don’t push back. And the longer you let this doubt win, the less likely will you ever allow yourself to discover. Because on the other side of doubt are new experiences, successes, and a version of you that’s waiting to be realized.
So what do you do when you’re doubting yourself? While it may feel too simple, you have two choices: You either let that doubt win, or you shut it down and keep going anyway.
You won’t rid yourself of the doubt forever. And you don’t need to learn to live a life extinct of worry. If you are existing on this earth, there will always be new uncertainties that come across our way. But it’s how you decide to face them anyway and not give them this unleashed power.
Think about your future self.
See how far you can go if you stop letting the doubt grow untamed. See yourself flourish if you begin to lean into all the ways something can go right. See just what you’ll make of this life if you stop doubting yourself every single time you try something new or unfamiliar.
See what happens when you let yourself win, instead of doubt.
Your body speaks to you in a thousand ways each day, and illness is no exception.
As one of the most frustrating, draining, and in some cases, debilitating experiences you can have in life, sickness can leave you feeling helpless.
And if you continually receive negative results on tests with no clear underlying cause for what you’re going through, your illness can be even more infuriating and insufferable.
I am not a medical doctor and I’m not prescribing medical advice here, but I have experienced numerous “unsolved” illnesses before with no clear biological cause.
What I’ve learned is something that many medical professionals now agree on and studies prove: that the mind and body are intimately connected.
Not only that, but our aches, pains, and health struggles can actually be a spiritual wake-up call if we learn to observe them deeply enough. (This is spiritual psychology 101.) I’ll explain why our illness can be a wakeup call in this article – and what healing avenues might bring you some relief.
What is a Psychosomatic Illness?
A psychosomatic illness is an illness for which there are no biological causes (such as physical injuries, hormonal imbalances, viruses, etc.). In other words, a psychosomatic illness is an illness triggered by a mental state such as anxiety, stress, anger, depression, and so on.
Perhaps more simply, a psychosomatic illness – psycho meaning mind and somatic meaning body – is a mind-body ailment.
“It’s All in Your Mind”
Please note that just because a psychosomatic illness is triggered by a mental state such as grief, fear, and so on, it doesn’t mean that it’s “not real.”
As one who has suffered from psychosomatic illnesses such as intense chronic pain, fatigue, immobility I know how painfully real such experiences can be.
If you can’t seem to pinpoint the exact cause of your physical suffering, and if all the tests come back saying everything is “normal,” it doesn’t mean you’re delusional or a hypochondriac. Instead, it likely means that your illness is psychosomatic in nature.
Not only that but likely, some kind of trauma may be the underlying cause.
Trauma & Psychosomatic Illness
When we’re traumatized – whether as a child or as an adult (or both) – we often haven’t been able to recover from something known as the freeze response.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight, flight, and freeze response before. Such behavior has been studied by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, zoologists, and so on for a long time.
The fight response happens when our body’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered, generating adrenaline that makes us want to attack, kick, punch, and so on. Think of a person getting into a street fight.
The flight response happens when we have the irresistible urge to flee: to run away as fast as we can. Think of a zebra that is being chased by a lion in the wild.
The freeze response, on the other hand, immobilizes us in the immediate threat of death or pain (whether physical/mental/emotional) so intolerable that we shut down.
Clinical psychologist and trauma researcher Peter Levine says that freezing helps to offer a reprieve from the pain of death (as a natural analgesic). But also, if we don’t manage to shake off that freeze response from our nervous systems, we become traumatized.
In other words, we need to be able to “complete the cycle” (or shake off the energy and return back to normal) within us to discharge the intense energy generated by the life-threatening (or chronically endangering) situation we experienced. If we don’t, if our neocortex (thinking brain) takes over and mentally spirals, we experience what I’ll crassly call the “blue ball” effect.
The blue ball effect happens when our nervous systems become frozen full of so much undischarged energy that this causes us to stay in a traumatized state. (On a side note, observe animals in nature that have experienced a traumatic brush with death. What is the first thing they do? They shake off the energy, and so must we according to Levine.)
How does this frozen trauma manifest?
Like a valve on a pressure cooker, there must be some kind of release for this pent-up inner energy. The result is – you guessed it! – the occurrence of psychosomatic illness (often accompanied by mental and emotional disorders).
Psychosomatic Illness Examples
So what types of psychosomatic illnesses are there?
It would be impossible to list them all, but I’ll give a few examples below:
Essentially, psychosomatic illnesses can impact any area of your body, whether inside or outside.
A Call to Adventure
As distressing as psychosomatic disorders are, there’s a deep calling inherent in them:
They’re a call to awaken the healer within us; to go soul searching, uncover what is distressing us, listen to our soul’s deeper needs, and find freedom again.
Of course, some people might understandably be skeptical about attributing any “higher” meaning to their illness. That is fine, at the end of the day we’ve got to take what resonates and throw away the rest.
But I’ve personally found, that unveiling the deeper meaning behind our suffering and seeing it as what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “a call to adventure” is empowering and healing.
Holocaust survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl refers to the transformative power of finding meaning “logotherapy.” Indeed, finding a deeper purpose behind his own horrific pain and trauma in the nazi death camps helped him to survive, and eventually, find the will to thrive.
Pain as a Spiritual Wake-Up Call
To build on top of the previous section, another reason why pain can manifest in our bodies is that it is serving as a spiritual wake-up call.
So many of us live our lives constantly dissociated from our bodies, disconnected from the present moment, and living in the world of the mind. Such an existence is what Buddhists would call “dukkha,” that is, fundamentally unsatisfying, stressful, and empty.
If along with physical pain, you regularly experience sensations of feeling empty inside, feeling alone, and feeling like you’re lost in life, your physical suffering may be serving as a loud spiritual wake-up call.
Perhaps hearing that our pain is a wake-up call may sound a little silly, crazy, or even sadistic to you. “Right. But isn’t there a better, more gentle way of having a ‘wake-up’ call?!” we might protest.
The answer is that when we’re profoundly entrenched in mental stories, emotional programming, and various forms of negative societal conditioning, sometimes the only thing that can get our attention is pain – and a lot of it!
After all, how else would you wake someone up who was deeply asleep? Would you gently whisper to them? Probably not. They wouldn’t hear you! No, you’d probably speak loudly or even shake them awake! The same is true of psychosomatic illnesses, they shake us to awake us!
How to Discover What Your Psychosomatic Illness is “Trying to Tell You”
So what is the hidden message behind your pain? What is it trying to tell or teach you?
Of course, pain can sometimes just be pain – its function may simply be to get your attention so you can alleviate it, and that’s it.
But sometimes psychosomatic pain has a lesson or message for you. It might, for instance, teach you about:
The undigested emotions associated with it
The unmetabolized trauma you need to process
A decision in your life that you need to examine
Something you need to let go of ASAP
A part of your shadow self that you need to explore
A negative habit you need to correct
An opportunity for self-love and self-care you can take
An ancestral wound you’re carrying
Keep in mind the above list isn’t exhaustive and there could be many other lessons buried in your pain.
So how do you discover what your psychosomatic illness is trying to tell you?
The best methods I’ve found are journaling, meditation, visualization, and breathwork. Here are some practices you can try:
The hand-resting technique (best for specific pain). Get into a relaxed state. Close your eyes. Place your hands over the part of your body that is causing you pain. Send some mindful, soft breaths into that area to release any tension. Then ask internally or out loud, “What are you trying to tell me?” Note any memories, flickering images, words, or sensations that bubble up on the surface of your mind. You can take this mental material and journal about it and ask further clarifying questions such as “What does that mean?”
The body journeying visualization. In this visualization, you’ll be meeting your bodily pain as personified by a garden and a gardener. Relax by lying down somewhere and listening to soft ambient music (sounds of nature are the best to add to the experience). Imagine that you’re standing in a field full of soft grass swaying in the wind. In the distance is a tall gate with a long fence stretching out either side. You can’t see what’s behind it so you move closer. As you go to open the heavy gate you notice a sign hanging off it saying “Welcome to Your Body.” You swing open the gate and peer into the garden in front of you. What does it look like? What stands out to you? Take a moment to look around and acclimatize yourself. Suddenly, in the distance, a gardener approaches you. He or she says, “Hello, welcome to this garden.” You then ask whatever questions you’d like to know the answers to. For instance, you might ask, “What do I need to know about how to take care of this garden (my body)?” “What does [x,y,z] part of the garden mean?” and so on. Once you’ve finished the conversation, thank the gardener and leave the garden, closing the gate behind you. Once you’re back in the grassy field, return to normal consciousness. Journal about what you learned.
The body dialoguing journaling technique. Dialoguing with your body can be a simple but illuminating way of uncovering the meaning and lessons behind your psychosomatic illness. Begin your journaling session by addressing the part of your body causing trouble (or whole body if it’s generalized pain). You may like to write, “Dear back, neck, chest, etc. what would you like to share with me?” Close your eyes, let go of any thoughts in your mind and let yourself write without stopping (this is also known as the stream of consciousness technique). Try not to judge yourself, correct your spelling, or stop for any reason, just let your writing flow unhindered. Once you’ve stopped, think of another question to ask your body. Keep the conversation flowing until you are satisfied. Thank your body at the end. Reflect on your discoveries.
Sometimes it takes a little practice to tune into the voice of your illness and create that mind-body connection. But choose one practice and keep at it – you might be wildly surprised by what you discover!
How to Release Psychosomatic Trauma
As I mentioned earlier, psychosomatic illnesses are often caused by unreleased/unresolved trauma in the mind and frozen in the body. Some psychologists refer to this as “somatization” which is when our inner states of anxiety, heartbreak, and anger are converted into physical distress in the body.
Releasing this frozen energy often requires professional assistance, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or Somatic Experiencing psychotherapy.
But to equip you with some resources in the meantime, I want to offer you some ways you can experience relief:
Take an inventory of what you eat (aka. what unhealthy foods can you eliminate and replace with more wholesome options?)
Exercise each day, even if that just involves gardening or housework
Try breathwork techniques that help to soothe the mind and body (e.g., pranayama or yogic breathing like Nadi Shodhana)
Practice consciously shaking your body – explore TRE or the Tension and Trauma Release Exercise
Do self-massage each day
Make sleep your priority
Practice mindfulness and meditation (progressive muscle relaxation and body scanning may be particularly helpful for you)
Do some gentle stretching or yoga each day (my favorite simple asanas for body pain are cat-cow, child’s pose, seated twist, butterfly pose, and seated forward fold)
Walk barefoot in nature (if you have grass in your backyard or live near the ocean, let the grounding energy of the earth soothe your body!)
I can’t promise that any of these practices will be a “magic solution” for you, but they have certainly helped me and those I know of who have suffered psychosomatic illnesses.
Chronic illness can make us feel debilitated, confused, and weak. And yet, for some, it can trigger a positive existential crisis – a quest for healing or a call to adventure that awakens the healer within them.
For others, psychosomatic illnesses are like wake-up calls that shake us out of our normal autopilot state and sparks the desire to go soul searching.
Whatever meaning you attribute to your illness (or not), just know that it can be transformed into a ‘sacred wound’ that enables you to grow and evolve. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote about “bells of mindfulness” that occur in our everyday lives, and pain is most certainly one of them!
Do you suffer from a psychosomatic illness? What do you think its purpose, origin, or teaching is? I’d love to hear from you below in the comments.
What is it with us and that enormous emotional baggage that we tend to carry around? For a second, imagine yourself standing in the heavy pouring rain with an empty bucket. The longer you stand there holding the bucket, the heavier it gets. It gets heavier rather quickly, doesn’t it? How long can we hold it for? There comes a moment when we need to release it before it gets too much…
Sometimes we think that what happens to us and what goes to our emotional baggage is what defines us.
We have our bag of sorrows about the past and this striving desire to go back in time and change a few things for the better. Why? Because reality looks nothing like we have imagined. We have this image in our mind of the way things should be and it’s daunting us down. Some of us have trouble accepting what happened in the past and how things turned out because of that. And our emotional baggage grows with new sorrows.
So what hides in our emotional baggage? Isn’t it all about fear? Isn’t about the fear of getting hurt again? Or making the same mistakes and going through disappointments and betrayals? And we then find ourselves trapped in that damaging and “protective” mechanism that keeps us away from living our lives free from used patterns.
How Much of Emotional Baggage Do We Carry Around?
We all have emotional baggage. Some of us have 3 suitcases of heavy things, some of us have just a tiny bag… Everyone has them. Sometimes we feel as if we were carrying a lifetime’s heaviness of sorrows, pain, and anger.
Painful emotions tend to shape us and the way we see others. Those memories and emotions influence what we seek and draw to our life and the way we interact with people. Painful memories from the past create a blueprint for the subconscious mind, which prevents us from fully taking part in new situations and relationships. Meaning that we might treat people we’ve just met as the “guilty” ones whom we feel anger towards because of the past. Or we recreate look-alike experiences to relieve and work out the past.
Memories are just thoughts that have a tendency to rise like dough when it gets hot, but they aren’t real. It just happened and your past has no effect on you in the NOW. We can release ourselves from the tight grip of worrying by focusing on being present.
We don’t have to be tortured by guilt and things that happened in the past. We couldn’t comprehend back then how to handle things better. We tried our best at that time because no one can act beyond their level of consciousness. There is nothing worse than being tremendously upset with ourselves all the time.
We can’t change the past. There is no future in the past anyway. What we can do is to define our sorrows, release the pain and clear space for better things that life has in store for us.
Spotting Emotional Baggage
1. Endless Comparing Cycle – How often do you compare yourself and your life with others? Do you worry that you are not good enough?
2. Utter Deficiency – It’s sharply experienced when we pay too much attention to our faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses feeling inadequate compared to the others. It turns into a habit and even obsession. We tend to go on a quest and dig up something new that we think is “wrong” about us. I certainly know the feeling…
3. Swinging Swords of Bad Moods – it happens when we feel contempt towards new situations, uncertainty about the future, people, and negative outlook on life as a whole.
4. Relocating Emotions and Feelings – Have you ever flipped out at someone because of something when you felt annoyed about something completely different? If we feel angry or annoyed with something or someone, we tend to transfer those emotions to someone else.
5. Terrified of Being Alone – when we are uncomfortable in the company of ourselves, we jump into relationships we don’t care about, we work till we burn out completely, we even exercise extensively, we do-do-do… whatever it takes to distract ourselves from our thoughts. We run the race against ourselves and feel busted when we learn that there is no escape from our thoughts. And we need to learn to deal with them and that emotional baggage that we carry.
How to Deal With Emotional Baggage Effectively
1. Identify The Triggers & Acknowledge Your Emotions
Now. Imagine a crochet hook. Think about the hooks that yank unpleasant emotions. Make a list of all the things you could think of that weight you down. Think about your limiting beliefs and what caused them. Look for the similarities and the patterns. Then pay attention to your emotions.
The more we pay attention to the way we react to things and why the more we control our reaction and what triggers it. Identify the reality which is a direct reflection of your thoughts. And then, think about your new behavior that would enable you to live more freely from the sorrows of the past.
Emotional baggage is often framed as a “story” we tell ourselves. The more you challenge those stories, the faster you accept that you don’t have to carry that heaviness. The more you understand that you can leave that unnecessary heaviness out there on the carousel of the baggage claim and away from you and your life.
2. Do You Have a Desire to Heal and Be Free?
Our conscious desire to heal and be free from emotional baggage is crucial. We cannot heal unless we know what healing should feel like.
Ask yourself this: What will it feel like when I let go of the heaviness and leave my emotional baggage behind? How would I act and think since I don’t have to carry it with me anymore? How would my relationships with people look like?
Take your time to think and reflect on those questions.
Have your desire to heal and to be free at all times in your mind.
3. Forgiveness is Vital
Make it your goal to release yourself from all the weight of the emotional baggage. If you refuse to let go then all you do is sniff rotten milk you should have thrown away ages ago…
Tap into your awareness and stay vigilant of your thinking process. Be aware of what exactly goes into your bucket and make sure you release it on time.
Bless your past, wish it well, forgive and let go…
When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future. – Bernard Meltzer
4. What Did You Take From The Experience?
Let’s take a look at our past experiences. What did you take from them? What lessons did they bring you?
It’s up to us how we choose to see the world: through the glasses of fear and contempt towards the future… or we can choose to embrace it with all the hope and forgiveness of the past.
The process of letting go and healing takes time. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes a lot of courage and dedication to face the fears and sorrows. But it’s worth it. The moment we start shaping our decisions – our destiny changes.
Emotional baggage is all about fear. But remember that on the other side of fear your freedom is patiently waiting for you to come and claim it.
Anxiety: a dreaded feeling you never want to experience. Yet, over 33% of the U.S. population will experience anxiety in their lifetime- that’s 40 million Americans. However, a holistic and functional approach to health can help explain why anxiety isn’t just in your head, while addressing and healing chronic anxiety disorders.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety describes an inner state of emotional turmoil. It’s a mental, and often physical, response to stress, fear, and worry. In many cases, anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction to unknown situations or danger. However, deeper trouble arises when anxiety becomes chronic and debilitating.
Different Kinds of Anxiety Disorders
When anxiety starts to negatively impact day-to-day activities, a formal anxiety disorder might be at play. The most common kinds of anxiety disorders, include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Feelings of excessive anxiety and irrational worry
Panic Disorder (PD) – Panic attacks and feelings of intense fear
Social Anxiety Disorder – Fear and anxiety in social situations
Phobias – Persistent fear of an object or situation
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Frequently repeating thoughts or actions
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Fear triggered by a previous traumatic event
Major Depressive Disorder – Over two weeks of experiencing low mood
It’s important to work closely with a health professional to accurately diagnose and manage any anxiety disorder.
8 Uncommon Reasons Why Anxiety Isn’t Just In Your Head
Although anxiety can feel primarily like a mental or emotional issue, there is much more going on beneath the surface. Meaning, your anxiety isn’t only in your head. In fact, there are many root causes of anxiety. Some of the most common ones are:
Mental or Emotional Stress
Stress comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. And, it can be in response to previous life experiences. Some of the most common sources of mental/emotional stress are:
Learned behaviors as a child
The result of different parenting/attachment styles
Lack of healthy boundaries
Not enough downtime/rest
Social, financial, relationship stress
Ongoing and acute stress (due to finances, work, family, relationships, etc.) can also contribute to anxiety symptoms.
The thyroid gland affects every physiological function in the body. When thyroid hormones become imbalanced, consequential dysfunction occurs. This imbalance can have a major impact on mood regulation. For example: an underactive thyroid can result in low mood or depression, while an overactive thyroid can create anxiety or fear. Autoimmune thyroiditis can trigger both under and overactive thyroid symptoms.
A functional medicine practitioner can help you identify and address any imbalances within the thyroid through functional testing.
In addition to thyroid dysfunction, other hormonal imbalances can be a primary root cause of anxiety disorders. In many cases, these physiological changes create a chronic stress response in the body, leading to chronic anxiety. The most important hormone imbalances to pay attention to, include:
Dysglycemia (blood sugar dysregulation)
Caffeine sensitivity (ie. an intense adrenaline rush when consumed)
Inflammation is the root cause of all chronic disease, including anxiety. Common causes of inflammation include: unhealthy lifestyle choices, an inflammatory diet, chronic infection, acute sickness, autoimmunity, and more.
In the case of anxiety disorders, cytokines play a starring role. Inflammation causes a dysregulation of cytokine production and can lead to cognitive imbalances, like depression and anxiety. More so, the concept of psychoneuroimmunology further explains the role of inflammation on the central nervous system and brain. GABA deficiency has also been associated with anxiety disorders.
Hippocrates once said, “All health starts in the gut.” Hence, poor gut health is a breeding ground for a host of health issues. Regarding anxiety, the following gut imbalances should be addressed:
Unsurprisingly, imbalances in the brain largely influence mood and anxiety. Common examples of brain imbalances, include:
An overactive mesencephalon (midbrain)
Excessive CO2 levels in the body
Increased amygdala function / limbic system activation
Underactive frontal lobes
Neurotransmitter imbalances (ie. GABA deficiency)
Vestibular, Balance or Eye Tracking issues
Unfortunately, toxins are all around us. We find them in our air (pollution, mold, mycotoxins), food (pesticides, herbicides), water (heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, bacterial, parasites, viruses), cleaning products (chemicals, fragrances), cosmetics (endocrine disruptors), and more. Chronic exposure to these toxins in everyday life can greatly alter brain, immune and hormone function.
Various socioeconomic factors can play a role in anxiety disorders. The most common factors, include:
Lack of access to healthcare
Discrimination, racism and bias
Cultural influences and expectations
It might feel like anxiety is all in your head. However, it’s clear that anxiety stems from other imbalances in the body. The key is to identify what is causing anxiety, so that it can be effectively addressed and healed.
How to Heal Anxiety (from a Functional Approach)
Anxiety can feel like a life sentence, but it doesn’t have to be. When looking at anxiety from a functional medicine approach, it’s important to understand and address the root cause, starting with:
1. Improving Gut Health:
You may not be able to change all external factors that contribute to anxiety. But you can somewhat control what you eat. An inflamed gut and brain will have a much harder time managing stress and calming anxiety.
First and foremost, it’s critical to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet when anxiety is present. Minimally, this means removing inflammatory foods (ie. gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, corn) from the diet. However, for those with a chronic health condition, an autoimmune disorder or severe anxiety, the Autoimmune Protocol might be the best option.
Additionally, it can be beneficial to include plenty of gut-healing foods in the diet, like:
2. Practicing Mind-Body Exercises:
Clearly, the mind-body connection is strong. Practicing mind-body exercises is an effective way to address both chronic anxiety symptoms and acute anxiety attacks. Try these exercises to expedite healing:
Vagal nerve exercises
Deep breathing- Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 2, breath out for 8, hold for 2, and repeat.
Deep pressure application- weighted blankets, hugs, massage, applying pressure to your own body
3. Implement Natural Remedies:
Naturally remedies, like supplements and essential oils, are foundational in functional healing.
Supplements- GABA deficiency is very common in those with anxiety. Precursors to GABA, like glutamine, magnesium, and zinc, can help the body naturally produce more GABA. Additionally, adaptogens, like ashwagandha, are helpful in regulating the nervous system and stabilizing mood. For those who are sensitive to nightshades, opt for eleuthero root, instead.
Essential Oils – Essential oils are an effective and enjoyable method of aromatherapy for anxiety. Specifically, Lavender, Wild Orange, Lemon, Ylang Ylang, and Melissa Frankincense have been shown to reduce anxiety and improve stress response.
4. Consider Therapy:
Arguably the most well-known treatment for anxiety is therapy. Various methods of therapy, like talk therapy, neuro-based therapies (EMDR), and energy psychology techniques can be beneficial. Explicitly, EMDR has been shown to help people heal from the past traumas and experiences that cause anxiety in the first place.
Unaddressed anxiety can affect every part of your life. To fully heal from your anxiety disorder and get your life back, it’s necessary to take a root cause approach. And, sometimes, we need help doing so.
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