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  • Writer's pictureErin Weme

What does a therapist do when she's struggling?

Over the last two to three months I’ve noticed myself feeling stuck in an anxious/depressed state. From a nervous system perspective, I’ve more easily + frequently moved into fight/flight/freeze. As a therapist, I thought it might be helpful to walk you through what I’ve been doing to strengthen my resistance to stress so that I can improve my nervous system regulation + stay ahead of any symptoms. This isn’t necessarily a “prescription” approach for all, but I hope it’s helpful to know 1. That a trauma professional still struggles, 2. What I do in real time, to hopefully give some ideas to others, and 3. These are actions to be practiced + incorporated diligently, and there are no quick fixes or perfect solutions.

First things first, I’ve acknowledged what’s going on. This doesn’t happen right away, not even for trained professionals. Behaviorally, I started to observe that my fuse was getting shorter + shorter, I was chronically overstimulated & needed more + more breaks, I had a harder time getting going in the morning and staying going throughout the day, I wanted to isolate, & basic, daily tasks felt harder to complete. Physically, I was fatigued, hardly felt rested, struggled with having an appetite, & started to have gut issues, such as increased sensitivities to certain foods, and my skin was breaking out. And more recently, I have been experiencing hormonal issues that I haven’t experienced in well over a year, another sign to me that something is off. These didn’t all happen at once, but accumulated over time. Stress begets stress.

Once I was able to recognize + accept what was going on (vs. judge myself for it) I could take a step back & problem solve: examine potential triggers + accept I need to take some extra steps to nurture my mind, body + soul. In this season of life, circumstances are good, but we have some exciting albeit stressful changes coming our way, and I believe this is the catalyst for what’s going on for me. I think it’s important to note that finding a trigger can be helpful, but isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a trigger is perpetual + needs to be addressed, other times it’s inevitable (or even a positive change) and you can’t ‘get rid’ of it. Other times it might be microscopic + it won’t be obvious; that’s ok. You can still manage symptoms and nurture your nervous system without knowing the specific trigger.

Now here are the practical steps I've been doing during this season to manage. Many of these things I practice anyway, but I make sure to be extra diligent during times when I need more support:

  1. Go to bed earlier. I prioritize sleep in general, but in low stress or well-managed times, eight hours suffices; I can even make due on seven if I'm feeling wild ;-) In higher stress or symptomatic times our bodies burn through more energy + resources, so we need more sleep to make up for that. Not to mention lack of sleep in general is dysregulating, as it's a threat to your body's well-being. I try to aim for 9-10 hours a night during times when my nervous system needs more support.

  2. Focus on nourishing foods + be more mindful of triggering foods. Similarly to needing more sleep to replenish our energy and resources, we also need more nourishment. While proper nourishment is essential to a healthy nervous system at any time, in low stress or well-managed seasons we may be able to tolerate some less than ideal foods, such as artificial or toxic ingredients or foods have intolerances to. This is because during those times, our body has more energy to put towards processing and digesting those foods. In high stress times, we may be quicker to react to those same foods because our body does not have the extra energy to process them since more of our energy is going towards meeting the demand of the stress. Therefore, those foods pose more of a threat and their impact will be greater.

  3. Exercise the vagus nerve. In simplest terms, the vagus nerve runs from the brain stem through the abdomen, connecting the gut + the brain, and playing a central role in regulating the automatic nervous system. There are exercises we can do to tone it (think of it like a muscle). The stronger our vagal tone, the stronger our resistance to stress/dysregulation. For me, the easiest exercises I try to incorporate daily is humming (I do this with my kids) and breathing in to the count of 3, and out to the count of 6. You can also sing, gargle, laugh, & learn to do a vagus nerve massage.

  4. Focus on minerals. Minerals play a huge role in our nervous system regulation, and most of us are mineral deficient. There’s a lot to learn + unpack here, much of which will be saved for a different day/post — and there isn’t a one-size fits all protocol for everyone, but it’s worth mentioning. An adrenal cocktail is a great way to support your adrenal glands (which play a huge role in the stress response) by replenishing your mineral stores. The key components of an adrenal cocktail are whole food vitamin C (which is rich in copper - a very important mineral to your mental health), sodium, and potassium. I also add magnesium, which 1. most of us are already deficient in, and 2. becomes more depleted by stress. I normally strive for one adrenal cocktail in the afternoon, but when I need more support like I have lately, I aim for two per day - one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

  5. Be mindful of my exercise/movement needs. Exercise is essentially intentional stress on your body designed to create change. There are many times our bodies respond well to this. Remember, stress itself isn’t bad. But I am going to challenge the “Never skip a workout” mentality. We have a stress threshold and sometimes rest is what we need. For example, I usually work out 3-4 times a week with a combo of strength training + cardio, but in recent weeks when I’ve felt frozen + stressed, I’ve worked out at the gym 1-2 times a week, and then tried to incorporate more stretching, walking, + leisurely bike rides on my own time. When we are burning through our body’s resources due to stress, and/or not sleeping well, or not nourishing ourselves well, a vigorous workout likely isn’t what our bodies need to heal; in fact, it may be the opposite of what it needs, leaving us more burnt out and more dysregulated. But, plot twist, no movement is also dysregulating (and can signal to your body a further state of 'freeze'). So when my nervous system is struggling, I accept that it's okay to do fewer intense workouts, and instead focus on lower intensity but consistent movement.

  6. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol requires your body’s resources to process it. In times of stress + dysregulation, alcohol is going to deplete your body’s resources even faster, and be more likely to have a greater impact since your body has fewer resources available to process it. I know for some alcohol appears to reduce stress in the short-term, but physiologically, it is creating more stress in the long-term.

  7. Minimize plans. Busyness is dysregulating, and rest is needed to calm and heal. Don't fill every hour of your weekend or every evening. It's okay if your schedule when you're feeling well looks differently than your schedule when you're struggling (though I'd argue most of us are overbooked most of the time in our culture). For example, this fall my husband and I knew our family needed at least one morning a week when we didn't have to rush anywhere, so we purposely took a break from our kids' soccer so that we could have that. And we protect our Saturday mornings. We won't skip soccer forever, but it's what we needed this fall.

  8. Connect with safe people. Just like it's important to be intentional about saying no to plans, it's also important to be intentional about connecting. Like being too busy, the opposite - isolation - is dysregulating. Healing happens in connection. A regulated nervous system is one that's in a place of security and connection. Connection helps us co-regulate with those around us, and laughter activates and strengthens the vagus nerve. But it's okay to be selective about who gets your time. It's important to know who helps your nervous system, and who triggers you; and while you can't always avoid triggers, buondaries can be very helpful in healing.

  9. Reprioritize wellness. Sometimes our nervous system responds to priorities that have gotten out of order, or indicates a shift that needs to be made. We are going to need different things throughout different periods in our life. As a Christian, a constant in my life is prioritizing my relationship with God through prayer, reading the Bible, and community. But like anyone, this can often fall out of line. I don’t subscribe to the belief that mental health struggles are due to a lack of faith, or that you can pray the depression away (though not dismissing instances when that’s happened for people - just pointing out that is often not the case and that doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong). But for me, re-prioritizing God’s word + prayer is essential to managing my symptoms. The mindfulness that comes with that is also regulating to the nervous system. I’ve also recently prioritized exploring other treatments to help my body heal + regulate, specifically regular massages, biofeedback + craniosacral therapy. This has meant reprioritizing my finances and time to accomodate these services. These are not necessarily services I will need forever, but they are helpful right now. I’ve had clients prioritize myofascial, acupuncture, chiropractic, to name a few. There’s lots to explore + consider here!

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