Lost Your Spark?
Many of us are noticing that our spark is dimmed, and we find moments of connection and safety harder to achieve. By “spark,” I mean the motivation we carry inside to face everyday life challenges – that little burst of energy we have inside of us for inspiration and growth. In counseling, we define inspiration as “awe moments.” Awe moments are states in which our brain is open to wonder, curiosity, reverence, and deep appreciation for connecting with ourselves and others. Awe moments determine how we experience the world and how we approach opportunities for growth.
Among the brain’s primary functions are keeping us safe and finding connections. At the most foundational level, our brain creates stories to make sense of our experiences. Since connection is a biological need for survival, individuals utilize their brain and bodies to send signals out into the world, searching for signals in return. Over time, this process of sending and searching can serve us well, create havoc, or simply leave us in a state somewhere in between.
So, if we are created to connect and experience the world, why is it sometimes so difficult to be inspired? The main reason is our brains also have a survival tendency to scan for danger, always asking what is going wrong in life or simply needs to be fixed. The problem with this survival response is that, to keep us alive, our brain is constantly moving from moments of awe to thoughts of worry for the future or regret from the past.
Research in neuroscience shows we have automatic processes that determine how we interact within ourselves and the world, and these processes determine how open we are to moments of awe or how overwhelmed we are with feelings of danger or despair. These autonomic processes are called neuroception. Think about these states of our nervous system as a house (our body):
- The dorsal vagal system keeps the basic utilities running in the background (our heart, lungs, and senses all working within us and using a lot of our brain awareness).
- The sympathetic system is like home security. It is constantly scanning the environment and maintaining a range of responses, in order to react to any emergencies or threats.
- The ventral vagal system is the most important in finding moments of awe. This “regulation” system allows us to experience the present moment, while soaking in and savoring our “home.” It is aware the basic utilities are running in the background (heart rhythm, breath, etc.) and trusts that the alarm system is on standby, ready to react if an emergency arises.
The challenge many of us face is that our alarm system is working overtime, which is making our basic utilities over function. We are constantly feeling a sense of danger or the need to react to situations in a hurry. Our brain starts creating stories that influence how we feel, think, and often behave in the moment, even when there is no danger. These stories typically affect how we see ourselves and how open we are to connection and regulation. For instance, have you ever been at dinner with someone you care about, having the best conversation, and something as simple as your companion checking their phone immediately makes you feel unwanted or sad? The rest of the evening is ruined, and you just can’t go back to having a good time. This happens to us because our brain perceived the experience as dangerous and created a story of disconnection and despair.
The opposite happens when our regulation system (ventral vagal system) is fully engaged. Since we are wired for connection and the story I have in my brain allows me to feel safe, I can assess every situation with an open mind, finding ways to be my best self and understanding that I have the capacity to face whatever comes my way. In the same example, the fact that the person I care about is checking their phone has nothing to do with how much they care and value our relationship. In other words, I have the capacity to know in the moment that I am safe, that my companion is just checking a text message, and that allows me to continue having a great time for the rest of the evening.
Awareness becomes a great way for us to understand how these systems are functioning in our everyday interactions. For example, when you are feeling the need to defend yourself in a conversation at home or a meeting at work, take a moment to check what is going on within your body. Ask yourself where in your body you are feeling the anger/anxiety. Are your hands sweaty? Is the situation reminding you of something else? Taking a few seconds to connect within yourself can make a difference in your response, it will allow you to go from a state of protection to connection – which helps you be at the top of your game.
Other ways to regulate yourself could involve using the T.R.U.S.T. model:
T – stands for Turn Inward. Notice your body sensations – they were put inside you for a reason. They can guide you from protection to connection, if you listen to them. Take a deep breath and ask: What is my body telling me? Am I in protection or connection mode?
R – stands for Resilience. Resilience is the capacity or the ability to return to a state of safety and connection, even though we reacted to a threat at some point. Just take a few breaths, and ask: Is my reaction to my current situation appropriate?
U – stands for Uniqueness. Remember you are special just because of who you are. What helps someone else connect within or with others might not necessarily work for you. Take time to notice what triggers move you from being present in the moment (connection within and with others) to protection (seeing threat based on the past or the future).
S – stands for Shape. Life challenges interrupt both our ability to regulate our body and our flexibility for transitioning into different responses. Re-shaping our survival responses into patterns of connection requires being mindful in the present moment.
T – stands for Try and Try again. It is hard to become great at something unless you practice. If we were able to practice self-compassion at least once a day, we would notice our mental health increasing. It can be as simple as listening to what is going on and responding from a more loving and caring place.
We all have the capacity to be inspired to do great things, if we take a few moments to connect with ourselves and embrace the present moment. We react to threats, because we are not connected with what is going on inside of us, and we are desperately looking for safety. We were created with an alarm system that helps us survive, but living in a constant state of alarm doesn’t allow us to achieve our EPIC self. Finding connection within can help us present the best version of ourselves in everything we do and even inspire others to do the same.
Dr. Rebeca Chow is a bilingual LCP Counselor in Missouri/Kansas and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. She is actively involved in the counseling and play therapy community with topics related to neurobiology, trauma, mental health and multicultural issues, supervision, and technology. She is a consultant for the Kansas Division of Family Services and Sesame Street in Communitie
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