Have you ever had the feeling like you are alone? Like no one understands you, or like you can’t do anything right for anyone? What a frustrating feeling this can be. I too know this feeling. Honestly, just about everyone has experienced this feeling at one point or another.
So why do we get this feeling? And is everyone truly against me or disappointed in me? Chances are, not EVERYONE is against you. Let me explain.
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The story of how you feel follows the state of your nervous system.
Experts in polyvagal theory, such as Deb Dana (author of several books including “Polyvagal Theory in Therapy“), call this “story follows state”. Without going into a lot of mumbo jumbo, I will explain a little further. Each of our nervous systems’ have different states of being. As a general rule, most people know this as fight, flight, or freeze.
In fact, your nervous system has two branches- the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Sympathetic– As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, your sympathetic branch is what is responsible for that rush you get when you go into fight/flight. It gears you up to either run away from danger or stay and fight. Your sympathetic nervous system responds by sending rushes of action hormones like adrenaline to external cues your brain identifies as threats
Parasympathetic– Most people attribute the parasympathetic system to a sense of calm. While that is accurate, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the parasympathetic branch has a main nerve called the Vagus nerve that has two pathways responsible for the control of the parasympathetic branch:
- Ventral Vagal path– This pathway responds to safe connections and is our “social” pathway. It helps us to feel connected to others. In ventral vagal, you feel a sense of calm. You feel engaged with others around you.
- Dorsal Vagal path– This pathway is responsible for our “freeze” or shutdown response. When your dorsal vagal path is activated, you often feel sick, tired, and dissociated. You feel disconnected from others, and “not there”. Because the vagus nerve is connected to the heart, lungs and stomach, when you are in dorsal vagal these systems slow down often leaving you feeling like you have the flu.
So what is my point? What does any of this have to do with feeling like everyone hates me?
Recently, I felt this way. Simple (and might I add non-threatening) text messages from friends, coworkers, or family turned into me feeling attacked. I read and responded to emails feeling as though I needed to defend myself. When I guffed up a recipe, I was left crying, wondering “why do I screw up everything?!” (yeah, that dramatic).
It took a conversation with a friend for me to recognize I was under an incredible amount of stress that maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention to as I should have. She gently pointed out I was in the middle of a Rheumatoid Arthritis (a recent diagnosis) flare up which had left me on crutches, stresses of my oldest son’s recent car accident and school issues, as well as the other many stresses I had going on.
Wow. She was right. And until that conversation, I could not recognize that what I was experiencing was shifts between dorsal vagal (leading me to feel unwanted and unconnected) and sympathetic fight/flight due to the high stress I was under. I had paid zero attention to my nervous system- a critical component in controlling how I feel. My nervous systems “state” had lead my “story”. And this my friends is my point in explaining your nervous system.
Now, I know this may not be a popular opinion- that my own stress levels are responsible for how I was perceiving other people and not the other people themselves being a**holes. Popular or not, it was the case in my recent scenario, and is often the case in the story of others as well.
So what are we supposed to do?
Those of you who follow my blog, or know me personally, hear me often talk about how important self care is. I’m definitely not going to change my stance now because self care is definitely where its at. But self care is more then a bubble bath and a good book (or movie if that’s your jam).
Self care is multi-dimensional and includes your physical, emotional, spiritual, lifestyle, and social. When all of these areas are balanced, it’s easier to deal with stress in whatever form it comes as. This balance helps your nervous system remain in homeostasis. That is- it helps all of the branches in your nervous system work in harmony the way they are supposed to (identifying threats when there are really threats, and allowing for social engagement and connection). Let’s explore these areas a little more and talk about ways you can balance these out.
- Am I getting enough water? Making sure you are drinking enough during the day, everyday is a big part of physical self-care. Many processes in our bodies rely heavily on being appropriately hydrated. Personally, I like ice cold water which is why I use a stainless steel insulated water bottle like this one to keep my water ice cold all day.
- Am I eating the right foods? Making sure you are eating healthy is also important. When you feed your body the foods it needs to thrive, it thanks you by functioning properly. I have recently been reading Dr. Steven Gundry’s book “The Plant Paradox” and I am learning all kinds of new information on ways to feed my body what it needs.
- Am I sleeping okay? Sleep is huge. It’s often a topic that clients bring up in my therapy sessions. There’s no one size fits all solution to sleep but there are many things you can do individually to address sleep issues. Turning off electronics before bed, keeping a notepad to jot down worries/thoughts, and practicing deep breathing exercise are just a few ways to help get a good night sleep. If I had a particularly stressful day and need a little extra help unwinding, I go to a sleepy time tea such as chamomile. This ones my favorite: Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time Tea (it’s an oldie but a goodie).
- Am I getting enough exercise? I’ve personally fallen back in love with yoga. You can read my blog post all about how yoga helps your mental health here. But you don’t have to practice yoga to reap the benefits of exercise. Walking, High Intensity Interval Training, and weight lifting all are proven to help your nervous system and mental health.
- Do I have a routine? We all thrive on routine, not just kids. Knowing what to expect and what comes next creates a sense of safety in our minds. Safety, as I mentioned earlier, is when you are in ventral vagal.
- Have I done something for me? Do something you find relaxing. Here’s where that bubble bath and good book come into play. Getting a massage, listening to some good music, or all of the above.
- Have I prioritized? This kind of goes hand in hand with your routine. If you are facing a lot of stresses, it can help to prioritize what needs to be taken care of right away and what can wait.
- Have I meditated lately? I hear this a lot- “Meditation just isn’t for me”. And I get it. Most people when you mention meditation think about sitting cross legged on a pillow, hands on knees, chanting “OMMMMMM”. Yes, meditation can be this. But it can also be taking a quiet 10 or 15 minutes in your chair to focus on your breath and your senses; or listening to a guided session on a platform such as Insight or Calm. Moral to the story, meditation helps! Do it.
- Have I journaled lately? Another coping skill that people often say is not for them. I understand it can feel a little weird sometimes to sit down with a notebook and start a sentence with “Dear Diary…today…”. As meditation varies in the way it can be practiced, so can journaling. Some people use a verbal journal. This can be just talking out loud, or could be a recorded “session”. Some people use bullet or guided journals like this one. And other people just enjoy using a good old fashioned notebook. Whatever tickles your fancy, there is something to putting it all out there that is truly cathartic.
- Have I gone to therapy? While therapy is not always needed, it can be useful when you are feeling stuck or are struggling with your emotions. Therapy can be an unbiased and guided way to figure out ways to best take care of yourself.
- Have I connected with supportive friends? If you haven’t taken a moment to connect with supportive and caring friends, do so now. Stop reading, pick up your phone, and give someone a call. If you can’t call, give them a text. But connect somehow. Our ventral vagal pathway thrives on safe connections so connecting with a good friend is the perfect way to get into ventral vagal.
- Have I set boundaries? Boundaries are a crucial part of social self-care. Boundaries keep us from taking on too much or becoming unsafe within a relationship. Being able to tell people “not right now” when being asked to take on one more responsibility that you know you couldn’t handle is a healthy way to set a boundary.
- Have I connected with a pet? Sometimes I just need to hang with my dogs. There’s something about experiencing their unconditional love and positivity that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. As a bonus, when I take them for a walk, I’m often stopped by other people who ask if they can pet them and then I get extra social interaction.
- Have I connected with something beyond myself? Here’s where folks get confused. To practice spirituality does not mean you have to practice a specific religion. Having a connection with something outside of yourself, like say, nature for example, can be an excellent way to practice spirituality.
- Have I meditated? Not only can meditation calm you down, it can also connect you with yourself. As we form a stronger connection to ourselves, it allows us to connect to the things outside of us.
- Have I practiced forgiveness? If you have not been wronged by someone at some point in your life, or you haven’t done someone wrong, I would like to ask you if you are even paying attention in life??? Chances are, even if it was a small wrong doing, there is something in your life that requires forgiveness. It may be that you have to forgive yourself. It could also be that you need to forgive someone else. But practicing forgiveness is an important component in a balanced life. Here’s a free worksheet to explore forgiveness. Fill it out and/or bring it to your therapist to discuss further.
Bringing it all together…
So, to bring this whole post to a close, and to sum it up in a nutshell… when you start to feel lonely, check in with your nervous system. Your nervous system, and the amount of stress you are experiencing, may very well be the culprit of why you feel disconnected from those around you.
Until next time,
Dana, D. (2018). A Beginners Guide to Polyvagal Theory. Retrieved from http://www.debdanalcsw.com/resources/BG for ROR II.pdf.
Wagner, D. (2016, June 27). Polyvagal Theory in Practice. Counseling Today