Next, I will introduce you to a series of practices you can use to relieve suffering. Remember, this is just the first step to deactivate the fight-or-flight response. So, many will look familiar. Again, at this stage, we are not trying to solve any issues. We are triggering the release of serotonin in the system by creating a sense of safety. After we feel safe, we can work toward feeling centered and successful. We will review those practices in Phase Two.
Suggested exercises for the Phase One Practices are listed below, but remember, not everything works for everyone. You’ll try some, and they’ll work while others won’t. Just keep going until you find the one that relieves your suffering. You can highlight or take note of those that resonate with you.
The important thing to learn in this phase is, ‘What works?’ We have all used coping mechanisms of one kind or another our entire lives. Now, we want to measure how successful they are. So we can build a foundation on which we can grow. Get a feeling for what you think will work. Then, try it. If it works, note it. If it doesn’t, discard it. Over time, you will learn your best practices.
Important note: If you have addictions, try to avoid using anything connected to your addictive patterns in this phase of the program. When you feel a craving, it means your amygdala is triggered. When this happens, you may think your addiction is the only way to relieve your suffering. But I promise there is always a better way, and it includes a world free of the guilt, shame, and immense pain that accompanies addictive behavior. I’ll go deeper into addiction cycles later in the book, and I want to assure you that you won’t need to worry about controlling your addictions as you continue. Instead, you’ll learn to try several healthy options first. Over time, the practices will free you of addiction and its control over your life. You can also visit YourWayRecovery.org to join our free online addiction recovery program for practices specifically suited to addiction recovery.
Recommended activities to stimulate the Rest-And-Digest State
- Connect with water. Water is a vital resource to our primal brain. So, it is a source of comfort for most people. For this practice, you can take a bath or shower, sit by a river, or listen to water simulation on a sound app.
- Lie on the floor. The body enters a recovery state when lying horizontally on the floor. Your position doesn’t matter, and you can be almost anywhere. You can use the floor in your house, the grass outside, or the higher floor of an apartment. You can also use a yoga mat or blanket, but you can’t be on a bed or a couch. It must be on what your brain perceives as the ground.
- Change locations or go outside. New information shifts your focus from internal to external, relieving your suffering. Being outdoors also stimulates the senses, usually triggering multiple sensory experiences simultaneously. This practice can be as simple as going to your favorite place to relax, enjoying time in the sun, playing in the rain, or gazing at the stars.
- Read something effortless. As mentioned above, we don’t want to overwork ourselves while stressed. This principle is as true for our minds as it is for our bodies. So, save more complicated books for the next phase of the practice. Reading a recreational book or magazine or listening to an audiobook is better for calming your triggers.
- Try self-comforting behavior through ‘positive sensory stimuli.’ Try to focus on one or more of the five senses to stimulate a sense of safety.
- Touch: Non-sexual, physical contact is the most potent placebo for humans. So, tapping, dry brushing, bonding with a pet, and caressing your arm, face, or a soft pillow are all beneficial sensory touch exercises.
- Taste: Trigger the rest-and-digest state by activating your digestive system. Have a light snack or beverage and make it healthy food or drink. Sustenance that is good for your body will stimulate the same response as unhealthy eating habits and help sustain states of calm long after eating them.
- Smell: Scent is the most acute sensory organ, commuting in a direct pathway to the unconscious mind. Similar to taste, scents can also trigger digestion. So, you have a wide range of options here. You can use scented candles, incense, or diffuse essential oils. You can also buy your favorite flowers or use scents that trigger memories of safety.
- Sound: Listen to soothing music, mantras, or nature sounds on a sound app. This practice is specific to soothing the system. So, avoiding high-energy sounds at this phase is advantageous as it can stimulate further adrenal imbalances. High-energy music or frequencies can come later. Listen to something that soothes.
- Sight: Externalize your focus. Fight-or-flight is a state of internal fixation. Look away from the body’s suffering or the mind’s chatter and notice colors in the room or focus on something nearby, paying attention to its details. Describe them out loud, or try to write a description of what you see to deepen the practice.
- Color. I define coloring practices as filling predefined spaces. Options for coloring are available as both physical crafts and apps. They include:
- Coloring books: Stress relief has driven the creation of most adult coloring books. These books work well as they offer many small spaces to fill rather than the larger spaces of a child’s coloring book. Either book is fine. However, it is essential that you follow the rules below to get the full benefit of coloring.
- When coloring, remember to fill each space. Don’t scribble or leave gaps of space where you can see the page beneath.
- Take your time. It may take a month to complete a single page. That’s okay. Instead of measuring success through the completion of the page, you will measure your success by the time you spend and how you feel after.
- Try to stay within the lines. So many people have found freedom through coloring outside the lines, which is fantastic. However, for this practice, we are using the bounds of each space to stimulate concentration. Once we have managed the trigger, there will be time to color outside the lines.
- Don’t judge the work. This practice isn’t about the art you produce. It’s about the brain function you’re stimulating. So you can discard anything you don’t like.
- Aside from coloring, you can also try the following:
- Paint by numbers.
- Jigsaw puzzles.
- Latchet hook rugs or looms.
- Anything that requires you to fill a predefined space. You can use apps as well as physical projects.
- Enter a cocoon. Most animals retreat to a den or burrow when feeling threatened. Feeling engulfed can stimulate the same sense of safety in humans. To do this practice, you can wrap yourself in a blanket, snuggle into an oversized chair, or wear your favorite sweater.
- Engage in mild exercise. I emphasize the word ‘mild’ here. It’s important to avoid strenuous workouts while stressed. Since the muscles contract during fight-or-flight triggers, you risk injury if you overwork them. Instead, you can go for a walk, try tai chi, practice yoga, or stretch. You can resume more intense workouts once you’ve managed the trigger.
- Do chores or yard work. Many people clean to calm their nerves. You can hand wash dishes, dust, or get your hands in the dirt. Engaging in external activities forces us to disconnect from what’s happening inside. As an added benefit, accomplishing something also increases feelings of success, which soothes our fear.
- Distract yourself. Televisions and cell phones have become national obsessions. Because the brain processes what we see as first-hand experiences, it frees us from suffering by taking us to another world. Utilizing them works for the first phase of our program. However, making healthy choices about what we watch and keeping the practice to the recommended time limits is vital.
- Draw on spiritual rituals. This is where your faith serves you most. Fight-or-flight responses can be isolating, and being alone is a significant trigger to the primal brain. So, if you already have an established belief system, this is the time to connect with Him/Her/Them/It. Whether it is rote prayers, rosary beads, chanting, channeling, or heartfelt pleas, remember that connecting with a reliable Source reduces stress.
- Note: If you don’t have an established practice, this is not the place to create one. This practice works best when there is already an established faith. Use something different for now and engage in any spiritual practices you want to learn during the next phase.
- Breathe. Take long, slow, deep breaths. If you already do breathwork, don’t use Hatha or Firebreath in Phase One. Each breath should take approximately 5 – 8 seconds, and you can count while breathing to bring additional focus.
- Recite the alphabet backward. Since most of the amygdala’s programming occurs when we are young, the information we learn during early development is more accessible when triggered. If we then take that information and make it increasingly complex, it returns us to present mature consciousness.
- Count. Like with the alphabet, we also learn to count as children. So, the exercise should be easy at first, becoming progressively complicated as you go. Try different counting exercises such as:
- Counting to ten as many times as you can as fast as you can.
- Counting sums: 1+1=2, 2+2=4, 4+4=8, 8+8=16 and so on.
- Counting random numbers: count by 8s or 12s.
- Practicing multiplication tables. Begin with the easiest tables, gradually increasing the difficulty as you go.
- Use established coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms you’ve established through other programs or processes are a great resource here. Even if it isn’t the goal, placating behavior can be a good beginning. Just be sure any coping mechanisms you use are healthy and that your suffering is reduced after using them.
- Create a practice not listed above. Remember: when selecting Phase One exercises that work, they must be practices that:
- calm you or create some level of relief,
- are not connected to any addictive behavior, and
- are easy to do when in a highly agitated or depressed state.