Something happened to you and you became numb. You stopped feeling. You took your pain inward and banished it to the depths of your mind. You did this as a means of protection. You thought it was an act of self-love, not allowing yourself to feel the hurt.You suppressed the trauma and the hurt became dominant.
But let me tell you this: exiling your trauma to the back of your mind will allow it to become a part of you. And it’s tender, the way it settles quietly into your body.
You will start to notice the body language of trauma: your body tightens and caves in. You fold your arms and tuck your legs to your chest and let yourself become as small as you can be. Your body will become afraid of its own shadow, afraid of the way its darkness takes up space.
The longer you pretend your trauma doesn’t exist, pretend it doesn’t still hurt, the more distant it becomes – but it will also get stronger too. Eventually, your hurt will swell. It will take up so much space inside of you that you don’t even realize it. And it will become nearly impossible to defeat. It will become louder and it will convince you that the trauma was your fault: what happened and how you dealt with it.
This is the brutality of it all: you hold yourself back from feeling that pain, despite how crucial it is. You fawn. You tiptoe around it as if your mind is a minefield: you dodge the memories of how it felt and what hurt the most.
It’s complex, the very thing you’re afraid of is what you have to face the most. In its own twisted way, this “armor” is self-sabotage: by letting your trauma make a home in your body, you’re keeping yourself from true healing.
You have to return to the war. You have to let yourself feel it all: the righteous anger, the quiet grief. Bring the trauma to the forefront of your brain and fight it. Don’t let yourself be numb to it forever. By confronting it, you can then let it go. Don’t let yourself become numb to the trauma forever. Be brave enough to go back to the battlefield and face it head-on. Stare it down until it surrenders. Fight for your healing. Your heart. Yourself. Because you don’t really have another choice.
Sometimes we catch fleeting glimpses of them, sometimes we witness them in full frontal chaos. But for the most part, we ignore and bury their existence either out of fear, guilt or pure shame.
However, as tempting as it is to suppress our demons, discovering and owning them is a vital part of our spiritual journey.
As authors and psychotherapists Steve Wolf and Connie Zweig note:
In other words, the Shadow isn’t just the centrally wounded part of us, but it also provides a path towards a more authentic and fulfilling life. In order to heal and grow on a mental, emotional, and spiritual level, we need to practice Shadow Work.
Shadow Work is a practice that helps us to become whole again. It works on the premise that you must 100% OWN your Shadow, rather than avoiding or repressing it, to experience deep healing.
This daunting and often frightening task is a requirement of every person. But you don’t have to go at it alone.
In this long and detailed guide, I will offer you a helping hand. Having studied and worked with the Shadow for years, I’ll share with you some of the best tools, insights, and advice that I have gathered thus far.
Please note: Shadow Work exercises should not be undertaken if you struggle with low self-esteem. Exploring your demons will likely make you feel a million times worse about yourself and may spiral into self-hatred (especially if you’re going through the Dark Night of the Soul). Before doing Shadow Work, I strongly and emphatically encourage you to work on cultivating Self-Love. Shadow Work should only be undertaken by those who have healthy and stable self-worth and a friendly relationship with themselves.
Why Focusing Only on the Light is a Form of Escapism
For most of my life, I’ve grown up firmly believing that the only thing worthy of guiding me was “light” and “love.”
Whether through the family environment I was raised in, or the cultural myths I was brought up clinging to, I once believed that all you really needed to do in life to be happy was to focus on everything beautiful, positive, and spiritually feel-good. I’m sure you were raised believing a similar story as well. It’s a sort of “Recipe for Well-Being” dictated by our culture.
But a few years ago, after battling ongoing mental health issues, I realized something shocking:
I was wrong.
Not just wrong, but completely and utterly off the mark. Focusing only on “love and light” will not heal your wounds on a deep level.
In fact, I’ve learned through a lot of deep inner work, that not only is focusing solely on the “light side of life” one side of the equation, but it is actually a form of spiritually bypassing your deeper, darker problems that, let me assure you, are basically guaranteed to exist.
It’s very easy and comfortable to focus only on the light side of life. So many people in today’s world follow this path. And while it might provide some temporary emotional support, it doesn’t reach to the depths of your being: it doesn’t transform you at a core level. Instead, it leaves you superficially hanging onto warm and fuzzy platitudes which sound nice, but don’t enact any real change.
What DOES touch the very depths of your being, however, is exploring your Shadow.
What is the Human Shadow?
What is the human Shadow? In short, the Shadow is our dark side; our lost and forgotten disowned self. Your Shadow is the place within you that contains all of your secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and parts deemed “unacceptable,” shameful, “sinful” or even “evil.”
This hidden place lurking within your unconscious mind also contains suppressed and rejected emotions such as rage, jealousy, hatred, greed, deceitfulness, and selfishness.
So where did the Shadow Self idea originate? The concept was originally coined and explored by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. In Jung’s own words:
When the human Shadow is shunned, it tends to undermine and sabotage our lives. Addictions, low self-esteem, mental illness, chronic illnesses, and various neuroses are all attributed to the Shadow Self.
When our Shadows are suppressed or repressed in the unconscious long enough, they can even overtake our entire lives and cause psychosis or extreme forms of behavior like cheating on one’s partner or physically harming others. Intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs also have a tendency to unleash the Shadow.
Thankfully, there is a way to explore the Shadow and prevent it from devouring our existence, and that is called Shadow Work.
What is Shadow Work?
Shadow Work is the process of exploring your inner darkness or “Shadow Self.” As mentioned previously, your Shadow Self is part of your unconscious mind and contains everything you feel ashamed of thinking and feeling, as well as every impulse, repressed idea, desire, fear and perversion that for one reason or another, you have “locked away” consciously or unconsciously. Often this is done as a way of keeping yourself tame, likable, and “civilized” in the eyes of others.
Shadow Work is the attempt to uncover everything that we have hidden and every part of us that has been disowned and rejected within our Shadow Selves. Why? Because without exploring what is hidden within, we remain burdened with problems such as anger, guilt, shame, disgust, and grief.
All throughout the history of humanity, Shadow Work has played a powerful yet mysterious role in helping us discover what is at the root of our individual and collective mental illness, physical dis-ease, and even insanity resulting in crimes of all kinds.
Traditionally, Shadow Work fell in the realm of the Shamans, or medicine people, as well as the priests and priestesses of the archaic periods of history. These days, Shadow Work falls more commonly in the realms of psychotherapy, with psychologists, psychiatrists, spiritual guides, and therapists showing the way.
Do We All Have a Shadow Self?
Yes, we ALL have a Shadow Self.
As uncomfortable as it may sound, there is a dark side within every human being. Why is this the case? The reason why all human beings have a shadow is due to the way we were raised as human beings, often referred to as our ‘conditioning.’
“But I’m a good person! I don’t have a ‘shadow’ side,” you might be thinking. Well, the reality is that yes, you might be a good person. In fact, you might be the most generous, loving, and selfless person in the entire world. You might feed the hungry, save puppies, and donate half of your salary to the poor. But that doesn’t exclude you from having a Shadow. There are no exceptions here. The nature of being human is to possess both a light and a dark side, and we need to embrace that.
Sometimes, when people hear that they have a Shadow side (or when it is pointed out), there is a lot of denial. We have been taught to perceive ourselves in a very two-dimensional and limited way. We have been taught that only criminals, murderers, and thieves have a Shadow side. This black and white thinking is one of the major causes of our suffering.
If the thought of having a Shadow side disturbs you, take a moment to consider whether you have developed an idealized and unrealistic sense of self. Signs of an idealized or unrealistic sense of self include attitudes such as:
“I’m not like those people, I’m better.”
“I have never strayed.”
“God is proud of me.”
“Criminals and wrongdoers aren’t human.”
“Everyone sees how good I am (even so, I have to remind them).”
“I’m a role model.”
“I should be validated and applauded for my good deeds.”
“I don’t have bad thoughts, so why do others?”
Such perceptions about ourselves are unrealistic, unhealthy, and basically delusional. The only way to find inner peace, happiness, authentic love, self-fulfillment, and Illumination is to explore our Shadows.
How is Our Shadow Side Formed?
Your Shadow side was formed in childhood and is both (a) a product of natural ego development, and (b) a product of conditioning or socialization. Socialization is the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.
When we are born, we’re full of vast, innocent, wide-eyed potential. As time goes on, we learn more and more to become a certain type of person. Slowly, due to our circumstances and preferences, we begin to adopt certain character traits and reject others.
For example, if we’re born into a family that shows little interpersonal warmth, we will develop personality traits that make us self-sufficient and perhaps standoffish or mind-oriented. If we’re born into a family that rewards compliance and shuns rebellion, we will learn that being submissive works, and thus adopt that as part of our ego structure.
As authors and Jungian therapists Steve Price and David Haynes write:
As we can see, developing the Shadow Self is a natural part of development.
But you also formed a Shadow due to social conditioning, i.e., your parents, family members, teachers, friends, religion, and society at large all contributed to the repression of some parts of you.
Well here’s the thing: polite society operates under certain rules. In other words, certain behaviors and characteristics are approved of, while others are shunned.
Take anger for example. Anger is an emotion that is commonly punished while growing up. Throwing tantrums, swearing, and destroying things was frowned upon by our parents and teachers. Therefore, many of us learned that expressing anger was not “OK.” Instead of being taught healthy ways to express our anger, we were punished sometimes physically (with smacks or being grounded), and often emotionally (withdrawal of love and affection).
There are countless behaviors, emotions, and beliefs that are rejected in society, and thus, are rejected by ourselves. In order to fit in, be accepted, approved, and loved, we learned to act a certain way. We adopted a role that would ensure our mental, emotional, and physical survival.
But at the same time, wearing a mask has consequences. What happened to all the authentic, wild, socially taboo or challenging parts of ourselves? They were locked in the Shadow.
What happens as we grow up?
Through time, we learn to both enjoy, and despise, our socially-approved egos because, on the one hand, they make us feel good and “lovable,” but on the other hand, they feel phony and inhibited.
Therapist Steve Wolf has a perfect analogy that describes this process:
But while the Shadow Self may be portrayed as our “evil twin,” it is not entirely full of “bad” stuff. There is actually gold or goodness to be found within the Shadow.
What is the Golden Shadow?
Jung once stated that “the shadow is ninety percent pure gold.” What this means is that there are many beautiful gifts offered to us by our Shadow side if we take the time to look. For example, so much of our creative potential is submerged within our darkness because we were taught when little to reject it.
Not everything within our Shadow is doom and gloom. In fact, the Shadow contains some of our most powerful gifts and talents, such as our artistic, sexual, competitive, innovative, and even intuitive aptitudes.
The ‘Golden Shadow’ also presents us with the opportunity for tremendous psychological and spiritual growth. By doing Shadow Work, we learn that every single emotion and wound that we possess has a gift to share with us. Even the most obnoxious, “ugly,” or shameful parts of ourselves provide a path back to Oneness.
Such is the power of the Shadow – it is both a terrifying journey, but it is ultimately a path to Spiritual Enlightenment or Illumination. Every spiritual path needs Shadow Work in order to prevent the issues from happening that we’ll explore next.
What Happens When You Reject Your Shadow?
Rejecting, suppressing, denying, or disowning your Shadow, whether consciously or unconsciously, is harmful and dangerous.
The thing about the Shadow Self is that it seeks to be known. It yearns to be understood, explored, and integrated. It craves to be held in awareness. The longer the Shadow stays buried and locked in its jail cell deep within the unconscious, the more it will find opportunities to make you aware of its existence.
Both religion and modern spirituality have a tendency to focus on the “love and light” aspects of spiritual growth to their own doom. This over-emphasis on the fluffy, transcendental, and feel-good elements of a spiritual awakening results in shallowness and phobia of whatever is too real, earthy, or dark.
Spiritually bypassing one’s inner darkness results in a whole range of serious issues. Some of the most common and reoccurring Shadow issues that appear in the spiritual/religious community include pedophilia among priests, financial manipulation of followers among gurus, and of course, megalomania, narcissism, and God complexes among spiritual teachers.
Other issues that arise when we reject our Shadow side can include:
Hypocrisy (believing and supporting one thing, but doing the other)
Lies and self-deceit (both towards oneself and others)
Uncontrollable bursts of rage/anger
Emotional and mental manipulation of others
Greed and addictions
Phobias and obsessive compulsions
Racist, sexist, homophobic, and other offensive behavior
Chronic psychosomatic illness
Depression (which can turn into suicidal tendencies)
Narcissistically inflated ego
Chaotic relationships with others
… and many others. This is by no means a comprehensive list (and there are likely many other issues out there). As we’ll learn next, one of the greatest ways we reject our Shadows is through psychological projection.
The Shadow and Projection (a Dangerous Mix)
One of the biggest forms of Shadow rejection is something called projection. Projection is a term that refers to seeing things in others that are actually within ourselves.
When we pair projection and the Shadow Self together, we have a dangerous mix.
Because as psychotherapist Robert A. Johnson writes:
There are many different ways we ‘punish’ those who are mirrors of our Shadow qualities.
We may criticize, reject, hate, dehumanize, or even in extreme cases, physically or psychologically seek to destroy those on whom we project our Shadows (e.g., think of countries who go at war with the “enemies”).
None of us are innocent in this area. We have ALL projected parts of our rejected Shadow Selves onto others. In fact, Shadow projection is a major cause of relationship dysfunction and break down.
If we are seeking to bring peace, love, and meaning to our lives, we absolutely MUST reclaim these projections. Through Shadow Work, we can explore exactly what we have disowned.
12 Benefits of Shadow Work
Firstly, I want to say that I have the highest respect for Shadow Work. It is the single most important path I’ve taken to uncover my core wounds, core beliefs, traumas, and projections.
I have also observed how Shadow Work has helped to create profound clarity, understanding, harmony, acceptance, release, and inner peace in the lives of others. It is truly deep work that makes changes on the Soul level, targeting the very roots of our issues, not just the superficial symptoms.
There is SO much to be gained from making Shadow Work a part of your life and daily routine. Here are some of the most commonly experienced benefits:
Deeper love and acceptance of yourself
Better relationships with others, including your partner and children
More confidence to be your authentic self
More mental, emotional, and spiritual clarity
Increased compassion and understanding for others, particularly those you dislike
Discovery of hidden gifts and talents
Deepened understanding of your passions and ultimate life purpose
Improved physical and mental health
More courage to face the unknown and truly live life
Access to your Soul or Higher Self
A feeling of Wholeness
It’s important to remember that there are no quick fixes in Shadow Work, so these life-changing benefits don’t just happen overnight. But with persistence, they will eventually emerge and bless your life.
7 Tips For Approaching Shadow Work
Before you begin Shadow Work, it’s important for you to assess whether you’re ready to embark on this journey. Not everyone is prepared for this deep work, and that’s fine. We’re all at different stages. So pay attention to the following questions and try to answer them honestly:
**Have you practiced self-love yet?** If not, Shadow Work will be too overwhelming for you. I have starred this bullet point because it is essential for you to consider. Shadow Work should not be attempted by those who have poor self-worth or struggle with self-loathing. In other words: if you struggle with severely low self-esteem, please do not attempt Shadow Work. I emphatically warn you against doing this. Why? If you struggle with extremely poor self-worth, exploring your Shadows will likely make you feel ten times worse about yourself. Before you walk this path, you absolutely must establish a strong and healthy self-image. No, you don’t have to think that you’re God’s gift to the world, but having generally “good” self-worth is important. Try taking this self-esteem test to explore whether you’re ready (but first, don’t forget to finish this article!).
Are you prepared to make time? Shadow Work is not a lukewarm practice. You’re either all in or all out. Yes, it’s crucial to take a break from this work from time to time. But Shadow Work requires dedication, self-discipline, and persistence. Are you willing to intentionally carve out time each day to dedicate to it? Even just ten minutes a day is a good start.
Are you looking to be validated or to find the truth? As you probably know by now, Shadow Work isn’t about making you feel special. It isn’t like typical spiritual paths which are focused on the feel-good. No, Shadow Work can be brutal and extremely confronting. This is a path for truth seekers, not those who are seeking to be validated.
Seek to enter a calm and neutral space. It’s important to try and relax when doing Shadow Work. Stress and judgmental or critical attitudes will inhibit the process. So please try to incorporate a calming meditation or mindfulness technique into whatever you do.
Understand that you are not your thoughts. It’s essential for you to realize that you are not your thoughts for Shadow Work to be healing and liberating. Only from your calm and quiet inner Center (also known as your Soul) can you truly be aware of your Shadow aspects. By holding them in awareness, you will see them clearly for what they are, and realize that they ultimately don’t define you; they are simply rising and falling mental phenomena.
Practice self-compassion. It is of paramount importance to incorporate compassion and self-acceptance into your Shadow Work practice. Without showing love and understanding to yourself, it’s almost guaranteed that your Shadow Work will backfire and make you feel terrible. So focus on generating self-love and compassion, and you will be able to release any shame and embrace your humanity.
Record everything you find. Keep a written journal or personal diary in which you write down (or even draw) your discoveries. Recording your dreams, observations, and self-analysis will help you to learn and grow more effectively. You’ll also be able to keep track of your process and make important connections.
How to Practice Shadow Work
There are many Shadow Work techniques and exercises out there.
In the guide below, I will provide a few to help you start off.
1. Pay attention to your emotional reactions
In this practice, you’ll learn that what you give power to has power over you. Let me explain:
One Shadow Work practice I enjoy a great deal is paying attention to everything that shocks, disturbs, and secretly thrills me. Essentially, this practice is about finding out what I’ve given power to in my life unconsciously, because:
what we place importance in – whether good or bad – says a lot about us.
The reality is that what we react to or what makes us angry and distressed, reveals extremely important information about ourselves.
For example, by following where my “demons” have taken me – whether in social media, family circles, workspaces, and public places – I have discovered two important things about myself. The first one is that I have an issue with control; I hate feeling vulnerable, powerless, and weak . . . it quite simply scares the living hell out of me.
A part of me wants to feel unworthy because that is what I’ve developed a habit of feeling since childhood (e.g., “You’re a sinner,” “It’s your fault Jesus was crucified,” etc.) and therefore, that is what I secretly feel comfortable with feeling: unworthy. So my mind nit-picks anything I might have done “wrong,” and I’m left with the feeling of being “bad.”
Thanks to this practice of paying attention to my emotional reactions, I’ve welcomed more compassion, mindfulness, and forgiveness into my life.
Paying attention to your emotional reactions can help you to discover exactly how your core wounds are affecting you on a daily basis.
How to Pay Attention to Your Emotional Reactions
To effectively pay attention to your emotional reactions (I call it “following the trail of your inner demons”), you first need to cultivate:
Without being conscious of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling and saying, you won’t progress very far. Journaling is a wonderful way to cultivate more self-awareness.
If, however, you’re fairly certain that you’re self-aware (or enough to start the process), you will then need to:
2. Adopt an open mindset
Have the courage and willingness to observe everything that makes you feel uncomfortable, and ask “why?” What do I mean by everything that makes you feel “uncomfortable”? By this, I mean that, whatever riles, shocks, infuriates, disturbs, grosses out, or terrifies you, you must pay attention to. Closely.
Likely, you’ll discover surprising patterns emerging in your life. For example, you might be outraged or embarrassed every time sex appears in a TV show or movie you like (possibly revealing sexual repression or mistaken beliefs about sex that you’ve adopted throughout life).
Or you might be terrified of seeing death or dead people (possibly revealing your resistance to the nature of life or a childhood trauma). Or you might be disgusted by alternative political, sexual, and spiritual lifestyles (possibly revealing your hidden desire to do the same or even an inner bigoted side).
There are so many possibilities out there, and I encourage you to go slowly, take your time, and one by one pick through what you place importance in.
The moment you emotionally react to something is the moment you have given that thing power over you. This practice of open awareness helps you to regain perspective, understanding, and access to your Shadow.
2. Artistically Express Your Shadow Self
Art is the highest form of self-expression and it’s also a great way to allow your Shadow to manifest itself. Psychologists often use art therapy as a way to help patients explore their inner selves.
Start by allowing yourself to feel (or draw on any existing) “dark” emotions. Choose an art medium that calls to you such as pen and pencil, watercolor, crayon, acrylic paint, scrapbooking, sculpting, etc. and draw what you feel.
You don’t need to consider yourself an “artist” to benefit from this activity. You don’t even need to plan what you’ll create. Just let your hands, pen, pencil, or paintbrush do the talking. The more spontaneous, the better.
Artistic expression can reveal a lot about your obscure darker half. Psychologist Carl Jung (who conceptualized the Shadow Self idea) was famous for using mandalas in his therapy sessions.
3. Start a Project
The act of creation can be intensely frustrating and can give birth to some of your darker elements such as impatience, anger, blood-thirsty competitiveness, and self-doubt. At the same time, starting a project also allows you to experience feelings of fulfillment and joy.
If you don’t already have a personal project that you’re undertaking (such as building something, writing a book, composing music, mastering a new skill), find something you would love to start doing.
Using self-awareness and self-exploration during the process of creation, you will be able to reap deeper insights into your darkness. Ask yourself questions like, “What am I feeling and why?” Notice the strong emotions that arise during the act of creation, both good and bad. You’ll likely be surprised by what you find!
4. Write a Story or Keep a Shadow Journal
Write a story where you project your Shadow elements onto the characters – this is a wonderful way to learn more about your inner darkness!
If stories aren’t your thing, keeping a journal or diary every day can shine a light on the darker elements of your nature. Reading through your dark thoughts and emotions can help you to recover the balance you need in life by accepting both light and dark emotions within you.
5. Explore Your Shadow Archetypes
We all have different varieties of Shadows within us, also called Shadow Archetypes. These archetypes are sometimes defined as:
The Shadow Witch
The Shadow Mother
Here are my thirteen classifications which are based on my own self-observations and analysis of others:
1. The Egotistical Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: arrogance, egocentricity, pompousness, inconsiderateness, self-indulgence, narcissism, excessive pride.
2. The Neurotic Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: paranoia, obsessiveness, suspiciousness, finicky/demanding/compulsive behavior.
3. The Untrustworthy Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: secretive, impulsive, frivolous, irresponsible, deceitful, unreliable.
4. The Emotionally Unstable Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: moody, melodramatic, weepy, overemotional, impulsive, changeable.
5. The Controlling Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: suspicious, jealous, possessive, bossy, obsessive.
6. The Cynical Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: negative, overcritical, patronizing, resentful, cantankerous.
7. The Wrathful Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: ruthless, vengeful, bitchy, quick-tempered, quarrelsome.
8. The Intolerant Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: uptight, rigid, racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic,transphobic,obstinate, uncompromising, inflexible, narrow-minded.
9. The Glib Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: superficial, cunning, inconsistent, sly, crafty.
10. The Cold Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: emotionally detached, distant, indifferent, uncaring, unexcited.
11. The Perverted Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: masochistic, depraved, sadistic, vulgar, libidinous.
12. The Cowardly Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: weak-willed, passive, timid, fearful, untrustworthy.
13. The Immature Shadow
Defined by the following qualities: puerile, childish, illogical, superficial, vacuous.
Keep in mind that the above Shadow Archetypes are by no means exhaustive. I’m sure that there are many others out there which I have missed. But you are free to use this breakdown to help you explore your own Shadows.
You’re also welcome to add to this list or create your own Shadow Archetypes, which I highly encourage. For example, you might possess a judgmental and dogmatic Shadow who you call “The Nun,” or a sexually deviant Shadow who you call “The Deviant.” Play around with some words and labels, and see what suits your Shadows the best
6. Have an Inner Conversation
Also known as “Inner Dialogue,” or as Carl Jung phrased it, “Active Imagination,” having a conversation with your Shadow is an easy way to learn from it.
I understand if you might feel a twinge of skepticism towards this practice right now. After all, we’re taught that “only crazy people talk to themselves.” But inner dialogue is regularly used in psychotherapy as a way to help people communicate with the various subpersonalities that they have – and we all possess various faces and sides of our egos.
One easy way to practice inner dialogue is to sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and tune into the present moment. Then, think of a question you would like to ask your Shadow, and silently speak it within your mind. Wait a few moments and see if you ‘hear’ or ‘see’ an answer. Record anything that arises and reflect on it.
It’s also possible to carry on a conversation with your Shadow using this method. Just ensure that you have an open mindset. In other words, don’t try to control what is being said, just let it flow naturally. You’ll likely be in awe of the answers you receive!
Visualization is another helpful way of engaging in inner dialogue. I recommend bringing to mind images of dark forests, caves, holes in the ground, or the ocean as these all represent the unconscious mind. Always ensure that you enter and exit your visualization in the same manner, e.g., if you’re walking down a path, make sure you walk back up the path. Or if you open a particular door, make sure you open the same door when returning back to normal consciousness. This practice will help to draw you effortlessly in and out of visualizations.
7. Use the Mirror Technique
As we’ve learned, projection is a technique used by the ego to help us avoid the Shadow parts within that we’ve disowned (knowingly or unknowingly). However, we don’t only project the deeper and darker aspects of ourselves onto others, we also project our light and positive attributes as well.
For example, you may be attracted to another person who displays fierce self-assertiveness, not realizing that this is a quality that you secretly long to reunite with inside yourself.
Another common example (this time negative) is judgmentalism. How many times have you heard someone say “he/she is so judgmental!” Ironically, the very person saying this doesn’t realize that calling another person ‘judgmental’ is actually pronouncing a judgment against them and revealing their own judgmental nature!
The Mirror Technique is the process of uncovering our projections. To practice this technique, we must adopt a mindful and honest approach toward the world. We need to be prepared to “look in the mirror” and own that which we have disowned!
Another helpful mindset that we can adopt is that other people are our mirrors. In other words, we can understand that those around us serve as the perfect canvas onto which we project all of our unconscious desires and fears.
To start this practice, examine your thoughts and feelings about those you come in contact with. Pay attention to moments when you’re emotionally triggered and ask yourself, “What might I be projecting?”
Remember that it’s also possible to project our qualities onto another person who really does possess those same qualities. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as “projecting onto reality.” For example, we might project our rage onto another person who is, in fact, a rage-filled person. Or we might project our jealousy onto another who genuinely is jealous.
Ask yourself, “What is mine, what is theirs, and what is both of ours?” Not every triggering situation reveals a projection, but more often than not, they do. Also look for things you love and adore about others, and uncover the hidden projections there.
The Mirror Technique will help you to shed a lot of light onto Shadow qualities that you have rejected, suppressed, repressed, or disowned.
Shadow Work Q&A
Here are some commonly asked questions about Shadow Work:
What is shadow work?
Shadow Work is the psychological and spiritual practice of exploring our dark side or the ‘shadowy’ part of our nature. We all possess a place within us that contains our secrets, repressed feelings, shameful memories, impulses, and parts that are deemed “unacceptable” and “ugly.” This is our dark side or shadow self – and it is often symbolized as a monster, devil, or ferocious wild animal.
How to do shadow work?
There are many ways to practice shadow work. Some of the most powerful and effective techniques include journaling, artistically expressing your dark side (also known as art therapy), using a mirror to connect with this part of you (mirror work), guided meditations, exploring your projections, and examining your shadow archetypes.
What is the spiritual shadow?
There is light and darkness within all areas of life, and spirituality is not exempt. The spiritual shadow is what occurs when we fall into the traps of spiritual materialism – a phenomenon where we use spirituality to boost our egos and become arrogant, self-absorbed, and even narcissistic. The spiritual ego arises out of spiritual materialism.
Own Your Shadow and You Will Own Your Life
If you’re looking for serious, deep, authentic, and long-lived healing in your life, Shadow Work is the perfect pathway to experiencing profound inner transformation.
Remember that what you internalize is almost always externalized in one form or another.
There is plenty of advice out there about how to heal from trauma and bring more self-compassion into our lives however we don’t often learn WHY we get blocked and how we can use that information to inform our healing.
The 10 key concepts of Resonant Healing are the foundational neuroscience concepts for healing. Understanding these 10 concepts gives us a scaffolding of understanding to stand on as we observe our challenges, and gives us a clear path to heal.
Concept #1: Resonance | Concept #2: Self-Warmth | Concept #3: Neuroplasticity | Concept #4: Default Mode Network | Concept #5: Left and Right Hemispheres | Concept #6: Body-Centered Awareness | Concept #7: Vagus Nerve | Concept #8: Traumatic Experiences Are About Loss of Accompaniment | Concept #9: Time-Travel Empathy | Concept #10: Circuits of Emotion + Motivation
Dive into the 10 Concepts of Resonant Healing
Concept #1: Understanding Resonance
Did you know that our bodies actually vibrate with emotion? And that each emotion has a different vibration? This insight comes to us through the work of Jaak Panksepp and his research into the mammalian circuits of emotion and motivation.
To truly understand resonance, we must understand that our bodies ACTUALLY vibrate with emotion. Anger moves us in a different way than sorrow. We are taken into emotional states that have qualities that are recognizable to other humans… as long as those humans are not stopping their vibrations in response to others.
There’s a diagnostic tool we can use to see where our own resonance is blocked: begin to notice when and why we step out of relationship (with ourselves, and others) and when we cannot be in the fullness of a particular emotion. For example, if we start to grieve and immediately become angry, this means we are unable to resonate with grief, and we have learned that it’s easier for us to respond with anger, rather than feel grief.
One major way humans stop their own resonance is shifting into the left-hemisphere. We do this when there is not enough capacity for self-regulation to be with the particular emotion that you, or another person is feeling or expressing. When we have emotions that we cannot resonate with, when our bodies can’t hold it in resonance, we shift out of relationship in order to care for our systems, to not get “flooded” with an emotion that we don’t want to feel.
Concept #2: The Healing Power of Self-Warmth
Have you ever noticed little humans (or even non-human mammals) who carry tiny stuffed animals or blankets with them everywhere they go? This is often a strategy for little ones to get an additional level of warmth that they aren’t receiving from their primary care-givers. If humans have failed us completely, it is often small non-human animals (including stuffed animals or inanimate soothing-objects) that can support us in having some sense of togetherness, warmth, and affection.
Certainly, we can receive warmth in other ways–whether from animals, plants, experiences of the divine–yet the experience of receiving warmth from humans is hugely important in order for our skull-brains to develop the unshakable self-warmth of secure attachment, through building fibers of attachment in the brain.
In the western world there are many religious traditions and that tell us that self-warmth is selfish or sinful. We are often encouraged to project warmth outward, as compassion for others or for the world, but warned that we shouldn’t turn “too much” of this warmth toward the self.
In my humble opinion, there is an absence of understanding in western culture about how deeply harmful loneliness is for humans, and how important it is that we learn to cultivate warmth for ourselves. I call this nervous system state of not receiving enough warmth, and not having internalized a loving resonating self-witness, “alarmed aloneness.”
Understanding how and why human brains need warmth is a key reason why resonant healing works to repattern our nervous systems toward kindness and resilience.
Self-warmth is about the integration and internalization of experiences of affection, presence, understanding, and kindness that come to us from others. If we haven’t received this as young ones, we can build it ourselves through cultivating our resonating self-witness.
Concept #3: Neuroplasticity is Real
Why is understanding how the brain works important to healing? Because neuroplasticity is the foundation for hope. And for faith in neural change and healing. Neuroplasticity has a number of elements – it is the science that shows us that neurons can find brand new connections between their branches, new receptors for neurotransmitters, and there can be strengthened connections through practice.
Our brains can actually change; we can grow our capacity for self-warmth and resonance, no matter how old we are, no matter what our genetic predisposition, and no matter how broken we feel. Neuroplasticity is real.
Concept #4: The Default Mode Network
Scientists are still discovering the secrets of the default mode network, but we know for sure that the DMN is responsible for integrating new experiences. It’s a bit like a tailor that stitches together our sense of self: who we are and how we are related to each other socially, it tells us the story of who we are. The DMN is our “inner voice” — the voice of the DMN is essentially our sense of self being reflected back to us as a voice that tells us about ourselves, what we’ve forgotten, how we have erred, etc.
The DMN is hugely affected by trauma. The more a person has experienced trauma, the more shaming and self-critical our default mode network becomes. Psychologists sometimes refer to this kind of self-criticism as “negative self-cognition” and we now know through fMRI brain scans, that this voice becomes critical through experiences of trauma. We are not born that way, our experiences of trauma can make our brains more critical and difficult to be with.
Surprisingly, the DMN is actually trying to help us. It tries to sew us together so we know how we experience ourselves in the world, based on what we’ve learned about who we are and what we deserve. It tries to keep us safe, to never be surprised again, to never make mistakes again.
Learning how to heal a cruel and fragmented DMN through resonance is a key concept to building a more cozy brain. But first, we need to understand that we make sense. Our DMN attacks us because it’s trying to help, but it needs to learn new stories.
Concept #5: The Left and Right Hemispheres
For the left hemisphere, other living beings are tools instruments. For the right hemisphere, people are souls, each holding knowledge and wisdom, and what is important is how the collective moves and holds each of our unique voices.
The left-hemisphere cares most about what we are getting done. Checking off our to-do list.
The right hemisphere cares most about how we are received and connected to others. How many other people in this room are connected to me? How can I contribute and belong in this complex ecosystem?
A key piece of understanding the differences between the hemispheres is in body-centered awareness – we find enormous treasures and meaning when we witness emotion through the body. Another reason we pay attention to the body, is that that’s how we know we are in the right hemisphere. The integrated body map lives here in the right-hemisphere, it has the capacity to decode the messages that are coming, to give them emotion words, and to understand a little bit of the deep-longings that are at the seat of deep emotion.
The left hemisphere has little ability to connect action and consequence on its own. Emotions are just inconveniences, they get in the way, they give us stomach aches, they are immaterial and just need to stop. Until it is introduced to the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere doesn’t know or understand the great gifts our emotions and bodies can offer us in accomplishing our dreams.
We have choice in how we live and perceive the world to whatever extent we have received resonance.
Concept #6: Body-centered Awareness
There are several reasons why we might have our bodies closed. We can learn this habit from our parents. And/or from really difficult things that have happened to us and have contributed to our default mode networks becoming lacerating, which then can prevent us from accessing our body’s sensations.
(As an aside, this is why constellations are so beautiful, we get to be somebody else, but in our own body, allowing our bodies to safely experience intense emotions that are not ours. Like doing body-centered awareness push-ups!)
Concept #7: Understanding the vagus nerve
Perhaps you’ve heard of polyvagal theory, the work of Stephen Porges, fight-flight-freeze—etc? The vagus nerve is a huge bundle of nerve fibers that runs from our pelvie to our head and controls much of our lived experience and our perceived sense of safety and belonging, especially in terms of how we relate to other humans.
The term “ventral vagal” refers to the state of our nervous system that we are in when we have a sense that we are safe and we matter. Especially in western cultures, we tend to believe that the brain in the skull is all-knowing and in charge, controlling everything, including knowing when we are safe or not. But actually, only 10% of the vagal nerve fibers run downward; 90% of the fibers run UP to the skull brain from the body, giving us critical information about the world and what is safe (and what isn’t.)
What this means is that we can’t actually tell ourselves what to feel. We can be present, decode, hold and resonate with what to feel, but we can’t tell ourselves to be happy, when we are sad. If we’re neutral, in social engagement, relaxed and self-regulated, we can actually invite ourselves into a different state of consciousness. But not when we’re activated.
When we have a neuroception of safety in our vagal nerve, our body shifts – we see more clearly, we hear more clearly, we decode, understand and we have a sense of both physical and emotional safety. Emotional safety is required for full functioning of humans. Understanding how the vagal nerve works is key to having compassion and understanding for experiences of fear, fight and flee, and freeze that occur without the thinking brain.
Concept #8: Trauma is about loss of accompaniment
Trauma isn’t not necessarily a house fire, an earthquake, a car accident, it’s not necessarily abuse or neglect. What determines if something is trauma is to what extent we are accompanied by warm-understanding during or after a traumatic experience.
Trauma leaves traces in the brain because memories that are difficult—-those that create alarm and are not resolved, where we move through social engagement into immobilization—remain as trauma-knots in human memories. The amygdala has the power of super-glue with memory, and when it grabs a trauma memory, it keeps it forever in present time! It keeps it here in the present in order to preserve our lives and make us safe. It wants us to learn from our experiences so it keeps them fresh, creating bubbles of trauma, the hell of the mean default mode network.
Understanding trauma means understanding that it’s not the event itself that creates trauma. It is how alone we were in it.
Concept #9: Time-traveling with Resonance
When we have traumatic experiences where we are not accompanied, the amygdala super-glues everything about the experience together and stores those memories in present time. It does this so that those experiences of terror/fear will help us to NEVER experience that thing again. Trauma is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe by remembering all the times we didn’t feel safe so that we can avoid them again in the future.
While this is a hellish thing, to be always present with our feats from the past, this means that the DMN is eternally available for resonance. This is very hopeful! When we are resonating with experiences from the past, time-traveling with empathy to our younger selves, we are bringing resonance and self-warmth, leveraging neuroplasticity to change and organize the right hemisphere, create more body-centered awareness,and moving our vagus nerve into social engagement, so that we become the full people we are.
We can’t really know ourselves until we experience ourselves in a neuroception of safety. Moving knots of memory from implicit, amygdala-held memories, to explicit, hippocampus-held experiences, we’re able to time-stamp and contextualize the things that we have lived through.
Concept #10: Circuits of Emotion and Motivation
Understanding emotional circuitry is a huge piece of beginning to untangle the webs of trauma that keep us stuck.
For most of us, we’ve had the unfortunate experience of being stuck in a circling vortex of negativity, self-doubt, frustration, and exhaustion. When caught in one of these spirals, it can feel impossible to break free.
Why is this?
One of the reasons could be that these feelings seem to compound on each other. Exhaustion can lead to negative thoughts. Thoughts such as “Why am I not good enough to do a thing?”, “Why can’t I keep up with my peers?”, “Can I do anything right?”, or “Why is this hard for me to do?”
These thoughts can deeply frustrate us, as we don’t want to be stuck thinking these things. These thoughts can also be heavy, stressful, or debilitating, thus exhausting us even more. You might see how a pattern can develop.
Another reason could be that we are innately programmed to give more attention to negative thoughts rather than positive ones. This is called Negativity Bias. As humans, we are inclined to attend to, learn from, and dwell on negative information more so than positive information. Negative events usually evoke a faster and more critical response. During our hunter-gatherer days, negative events posed a threat to our survival. They were burned into our brain so that we would learn from them.
So, how can we stop this spiral? How can we work against this Negativity Bias? How can we ultimately break this pattern once we are stuck in its cycling negative winds?
I want to share three helpful tips that I’ve learned about in regards to working our way out of negative thinking spirals.
Try to forgive yourself for spiralling. Forgiveness isn’t always easy. We might find shame and guilt present, wondering why it’s so hard for us to get out and see the brighter side. Try to hold yourself with love and self-compassion. As mentioned earlier, we’re working against thousands of years of mental conditioning. This is tough work. The fact that you’re here reading this shows you’ve already made the first and most pivotal steps. First, it shows that you are self-aware of your own negative thinking patterns. Second, it demonstrates you have a desire to change. Know that getting caught in these spirals is normal and is part of the human experience.
2.Savoring the Positives
Since our brain is cognitively wired to focus more on negative thoughts, we have to work towards reprogramming it to focus on more positive thoughts. This requires turning short-term positive moments and feelings into long-term memories. Next time something positive happens in your life, try to savour it as much as possible! Stick with the moment or feeling for as long as you can. Savouring a moment could look like extending a hug with your friend for a few more seconds, journaling your feelings after a really awesome experience, or recalling moments in your life where you felt truly loved. Notice the sensations and feelings in your body. The more you’re able to practice savoring these positives, the easier you might find it gets to pull yourself out of a spiral. This is reprogramming in action.
3.Challenging the Negatives
The goal here is to question the validity of negative thoughts. Quite often these negative thoughts happen so fast and automatically that we just believe them. We don’t even think to question them. Challenging these thoughts can be tricky, as it requires you to narrow down on certain negative thoughts while they are coming up. Practice asking yourself the following questions:
· Are these thoughts respectful to you?
· Are they useful to you?
· Is there any evidence that supports this thought?
· What evidence do I have that disproves this thought?
· Have I ever faced this situation before? How did it turn out?
It’s no picnic getting caught in negative thinking spirals. Though it may feel hopeless escaping these gloom-ridden hurricanes, there are tools that can help us. Just remember to have patience and compassion for yourself as you start navigating these winds. You’ve got this!
Sometimes being vulnerable isn’t easy. And sometimes it isn’t easy being vulnerable with someone you love; there’s always the possibility of abandonment, heartache, and pain, and there’s always the possibility that the person you love is going to leave you, ignore you, or worse, reject you.
It’s hard to open up to others when you see how easy it is to keep things to yourself and to keep yourself as a closed book. Sometimes, I bet you wonder how easy it is to keep yourself from telling others about who you are. It can be so easy sometimes to not share what you’re feeling to others and especially being vulnerable with them too, and yet you sometimes forget that there are people out there that care about you too.
In a lot of ways, telling someone how you feel or maybe how you felt in the past is like having your chest ripped open and exposed. It can feel so daunting and intimidating to open up to others about your insecurities, anxieties, and doubts when it’s such a momentous task and when you feel so much self-hatred towards yourself; how can this be good for your heart? How can you even express the amount of guilt and self-blame you feel to others when you feel such dark and heavy emotions towards yourself?
Even scarier, how can you be so sure that they won’t hate you or dislike you for everything you are? How can you be certain when there’s the possibility that they might not actually like what they see or like what they hear; the endless possibility of being rejected—and worse, not loved—is always sitting in your chest and resting heavy on your lungs.
It creeps up on you on some nights, keeping you awake from sleep and genuinely bothering you to the point where you are frustrated at yourself. There’s a quiet desperation inside of you that’s seeking love and care, and yet there’s also a silent feeling of anger, and you don’t even know who to direct it at. You hate it so much when it bothers you like this and when it gets to you so deeply because you hate having to feel such overwhelming emotions, especially at night.
You can’t help but feel hate and anger at yourself for not being able to just tell someone what’s going on and how you feel. The endless blame and the endless hurt you feel just deepens the wounds, because being vulnerable with others has always been told to you as “the right thing to do.” The blame feels like it can only rest on you, because who can actually help you at this point, and who genuinely would want to?
For some, it may be easier to tell others how they feel and open up about their experiences or traumatic events throughout their life. But for you, staying silent has always been your best option because it has kept you safe from hurt and you told yourself it was for the best and for your own protection. It was genuinely just easier to not say anything and to stay silent because you felt that it protected you from further hurt, blame, or the possibility of anger misdirected your way. And I hate the way you’ve collapsed into a ball of fear and shame; I genuinely can’t even begin to express how I hate seeing you hurt like this, and hurt for such a heart-breaking reason.
In the past, you have never felt what most people have gotten to feel, and I know it’s particularly unfair for you; it’s so easy for some people to open up about their fears and secrets, and yet for you, it’s just something you can’t seem to do and it literally breaks your soul every time you try; sometimes, when I see you open up to others, you can’t even help but cry. That’s evidence of how long it’s been since you’ve reached out to someone who cared about you, and that’s how long you’ve had these thoughts sitting inside your chest letting it grow into deep wounds.
You’ve never gotten to feel genuine connection, love, and care going your way and I hate this so much about you but you blame yourself for it; you think you’re the problem just because you can’t open up about your darkest thoughts. And sometimes, you become so self-destructive to the point where you think you are the only person in the world who could do this themselves, because at the end of the day, who else can you blame?
I hate how you think you are alone in this. How have you never realized that being vulnerable requires strength and bravery, and guess what, you have it within you too; you have it within you to share the darkest parts of your mind and soul. And sharing parts of your story and even things that others do that hurt you can be hard, but look at the people who stay and surround you and listen to your words; look at the reward. Look towards the one person who has never left your side—me. Because truly, at the end of the day, I promise, opening up to others isn’t a burden for them, so it should never be and should never feel like blame directed towards you, or even the blame you direct towards yourself.
Vulnerability encompasses the essence of feeling strong and brave, but that doesn’t mean feeling weak and fatigued and exhausted is not a part of the process. Just because you’re feeling scared or anxious doesn’t mean you aren’t strong and brave, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean you can’t share what’s going through your head at the moment or even right now. I can’t say it enough, I am just one person that’s not going to leave your side because of what you are willing to share, so don’t even hesitate or worry about it; you can open up to me and I can be your confidante, and let me share your thoughts, pains, and heavy burdens with you; we can uncover the deepest parts of your soul that you protect your hardest to guard. Because you’re guarding your heart too tightly and you’re only guarding it because of how others have treated you in the past, so please, just try something new and be strong, and please just let me in.
Don’t be surprised, but people who give you the time of day and show affection and love towards you genuinely give a damn about you, and that may come as a shock; it may feel abnormal at first to be given so much attention and care, but what if it’s what you deserve at the end of the day? What if it’s what you can have even if you’re not too open with yourself, or even with your past? What if this is how a person can be fully loved and deeply cherished just for who they are, and what if you can have that?
In some ways, you just have to try and openly express it. No one is ever going to openly hurt you or abandon you for who you are, and I promise, I am living proof that I am just one person who will stay right in your corner and by your side. Because all I’ve ever wanted was to help you uncover who you really are; the deepest and most vulnerable parts of yourself. All I’ve ever wanted was to uncover what you try so hard to protectively hide and help heal the broken parts of your soul because I love every single damn nice or dark thought that crosses your mind. All you have to do is be yourself with me, and whether you share those parts of yourself with me or not, I promise, that is enough for me.
These past few days have taught me that everyone is going through something. Now, whether it’s obvious or not is a very different story, especially on the world wide web.
Social media should be used as a platform of transparency, not just for posting our best days, because what’s real about that? Trust me, I’ve done my fair share of scrolling and had the uninvited envious thoughts creeping in, but what to do about it is the age-old question we all want to know.
I think we all feel a sense of urgency and competition, but what we fail to realize is that we’re not in competition with others but rather with ourselves. We fail to see small accomplishments (which to others may be huge) because we’re so focused on what else we could have (definitely a millennial problem).
Recently I’ve felt torn between so many paths and have been wondering how anyone can choose just one when there’s so much to see and do in the world, but I’ve realized we have to stop seeing huge life decisions as the end all be all.
Here are the lessons social media should be teaching us:
Live in the now. What do you want in this moment? Where do you want to be? Try not to think past a few months. Take it one day at a time. The decision you make next week or next month is not final. It can be undone. Life unravels in the way it is supposed to.
Be thankfulfor what you have RIGHT NOW. So many of us fail to see this. We’re constantly too busy chasing what we don’t have that we forget what we do.
Age is just a number. This may be the most difficult of all, but squash the norm. So many of us are changing careers, moving abroad, or discovering passions we never knew we had. That’s okay. Go with it. Society won’t care.
Live your life to the fullest. The more time you spend overthinking and worrying about the logistics, the less time you have. Time flies, and it’s better to live without regrets.
So, the next time you go on an avid scrolling spree, think about what you don’t know or what you can’t see. Everyone has a story to tell and a struggle to be faced.
There’s nothing holding you back from getting what you want but your own insecurities and fears. No one has the power to put you down or talk you out of something without your consent. No one can tell you that you can’t do something or discourage you from taking a risk if they know you won’t listen to them because your inner voice is stronger. People know you’re not afraid of failure and others have failed to change your mind before.
Sometimes you need to show people that you’re not someone who is going to take no for an answer. Sometimes you just need to believe in what your gut is telling you, even if it goes against what everyone else thinks. Sometimes you just have to be okay with making mistakes or making wrong decisions because this is what builds your character and this is how you gain wisdom and confidence in yourself. The truth is, without confidence and experience, your life will be stagnant, led by the opinions and choices of others.
Sometimes you just have to dare more and dream bigger, even if you have to face criticism or judgments from others, because if you’re always afraid of the outcome or what people may think of you, you will never truly go after what you want or what could be right for you and you will never make a big move that could change your life. Sometimes you just need to let people know you appreciate their opinions and concerns but you will do what you want either way, and most importantly, you need to stop waiting for people’s approval and validation, because when you stop seeking their approval, you become more powerful, more mindful, and more assertive in your own decisions. You take back control of your life.
Nothing holds you back more than comparing yourself to others, you only have who you were yesterday to compare yourself to. Nothing holds you back more than trusting others instead of trusting yourself. Why do you believe that people know better than you? And even if they do, you will never know what you’re capable of doing until you try and know for yourself. What makes you think that your experience won’t be different than theirs? Why are you afraid of what someone else went through? Nothing holds you back more than taking on other people’s fears and insecurities.
And last but not least, nothing holds you back more than being too hard on yourself. The world is already too hard on you, and most people are not going to lift you up when you need it most, so you have to repeatedly do that for yourself. You cannot lose if you keep betting on yourself after every defeat. You cannot lose if you keep investing in yourself every time someone discredits you. You cannot lose if you’re no longer afraid of losing or trying again when things don’t work out for you the first time. You cannot lose if every time someone abandons you, you choose yourself without hesitation.
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.
You can find anything on social media these days. Dance moves, recipes, how-to videos. Anything you could fathom, it’s out there on the web to be found. With that being said, not all of it is friendly or light-hearted in nature.
There has been what I would call a movement in recent years of people coming forward and being more open with their battle with mental health issues. This in itself is great. It’s shedding light on an issue that has been hidden away in the shadows for far too long. But with that being said, there is also more to this that has been seemingly becoming more and more popular. And that is the romanticisation and glorification of mental disorders.
There is nothing wrong with being open and having a dialogue about battles that you’re facing with depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. In fact, being open and talking about it is the way to continue gaining more and more support for these issues.
But let’s get this straight–there is nothing beautiful about depression. There is nothing beautiful about anxiety. There is nothing beautiful about bipolar. It is tragic, it is ugly, and it can be brutal.
There is nothing glamorous about gasping for air with your heart racing and mind on overdrive in the midst of a panic attack. There is nothing glamorous about swallowing a handful of pills because you so badly want the pain to end. There is nothing glamorous about feeling like the world is coming down on your head and you can’t breathe, so you slice your skin open in hopes of feeling some kind of relief for just a split second.
None of these things are rational and none of these things make sense–but that is part of the battle that numerous people face each day. These are real issues that real people like you and I face every day. And to glamorize it on social media like it’s a beautifully tragic thing? That’s a punch in the face to the ones who are constantly fighting their demons.
I am in no way diminishing any person’s personal battles, because we all face them. And nobody’s battle is worse or better than the next person. A majority of people believe things like self-harm and suicide attempts are nothing more than a cry for attention. A way to get pity. Is that the case sometimes? Maybe so, but this is not always the case. They’re desperate for help and don’t know where to turn or who to go to and just need something in that moment. Some kind of relief. But this also all stems back to the romanticisation of these issues on social media.
We need to be better. We need more dialogue and communication with each other. Check on your people. Even the strong people around you. You never know what kind of demons and battles they’re fighting in their own minds. And one simple act of reaching out can be the catalyst of change.