People in our society are stressed because they don’t know how to be happy. We think that happiness is a reward that comes after hard work, creating wealth, finding a suitable partner, or faking it ‘till we make it. The truth is we have everything we need to be happy no matter what the circumstances.
I offer myself as a perfect example. I was a highly successful trial attorney for 27 years when I had a nervous breakdown and quit practicing law in 2004. I was a hot mess. I was diagnosed with PTSD from adverse childhood experiences and catastrophic injuries throughout my life (5 near death experiences). I had been divorced twice, was obese, had high blood pressure, prediabetic and was suffering several other symptoms of trauma response disorder.
We are stressed because we are living in fear with no training on how to create the life that we want or what we are afraid of in the first place. It is our ego’s job to keep us alive and it is constantly looking for danger. In other words, it keeps us afraid. Happiness is not the ego’s concern, that is the function of our soul.
At an early age we learn to do what our parents, teachers, coaches, and employers tell us to do and bury our true selves (souls). I became a trial attorney because that was the path that was decided for me before I was born. I didn’t want to be a trial attorney; I hated the constant battle and conflict. However, to please my parents and honor family tradition, I became a successful attorney and suffered in silence. At least until I had a nervous breakdown.
Now I am an energy healer and mentor thoroughly thrilled to be alive. I am happily married, healthy and a recognized authority in my field. I want to share what I did to find happiness so others can do the same.
Henry David Thoreau stated, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” While he was talking about men who settle for “less” just to survive, the truth is found more in our neurobiology and childhood. I ask my clients what they needed in childhood that they did not get. A common answer is to feel loved and understood. Most of my clients would be considered financial successes. They have acquired tremendous wealth and stuff; yet they are stressed and unhappy.
The key to “successful unhappiness” lies in our subconscious mind. In other words, we don’t know the cause of this paradox. The answer lies in our past and our brains. We are born with an autonomic nervous system which is divided into two parts: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system (ego) is our “reptilian” brain which developed from our reptilian ancestors. It controls our fight or flight impulse and is hard-wired to keep us alive. It takes over when we are faced with danger (real or imagined) and continues to control our thoughts and behavior until circumstances change and we feel safe.
The parasympathetic nervous system takes over when we feel safe and we can be creative, rational, play, dream, communicate, be intimate and be social. The parasympathetic nervous system calms down our hearts, lungs, muscles and helps us relax. It is the source of civilization.
When we perceive the threat of trauma, we automatically activate the sympathetic nervous system, and we stay on high alert. This is lethal over the long term, and we were only designed to operate on this system for brief periods of time. When the sympathetic system is activated, we pump adrenalin and cortisol into our body. It is impossible for us to feel empathy or compassion, be happy, or feel safe.
Everyone’s threshold for sympathetic response is different and depends on how safe we feel. If we have been traumatized at an early age, we do not feel safe in our bodies and our ability to connect with others is limited. Our psyche is constantly looking for danger, either in our environment or the people around us. It is impossible to be happy. While I was an attorney, I thought I had some periods of happiness. It wasn’t happiness, it was a relatively low grade of anxiety.
Even though men are stereotyped into strong, emotionless, individual loners, the opposite is true. Every human being, regardless of gender, requires connection (including eye contact), touch, safety, support, communication, and fun. Without those basic needs, we suffer, withdraw, and become antisocial.
The secret to a happy, successful life lies in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When we activate the parasympathetic system, the body relaxes, we feel safe, the body secrets the “happy enzymes”: endorphins, melatonin, serotonin, and oxytocin. These are responsible for the sensations of joy and happiness. When we are happy, we can connect, be intimate, and be productive.
Recent scientific studies have identified that the Vagus nerve is the portal to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When this nerve is activated or stimulated, the parasympathetic system is engaged. It can turn off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic system, which is what we want.
Tips for healing stress and emotional pain:
There are several ways to activate the Vagus nerve. Our facial nerves are directly connected to the nerve through our cranial nerves. Smiling, rubbing our face and forehead will start the activation process. Eye movements will stimulate the orbital muscles around our eyes and stimulate the same nerves. The process known as Emotional Freedom Technique (“tapping”) stimulates the same nerves.
Our cranial nerves connect with the Vagus nerve behind the throat and esophagus, so singing, breathing (pranayama yoga), or humming will make us feel better. That is why spiritual people say “OM” all the time—it is activating their Vagus nerve. Moving our head from side to side will also stimulate these nerves. Deep breathing will activate our lungs and chest cavity which will stimulate the Vegas nerve which runs through that part of the body.
The importance of stimulating the Vagus nerve in times of stress cannot be underestimated, particularly when the stress is trauma related. We must be in a parasympathetic state to be socially connected and foster healthy relationships. We must engage this system to be happy, have fun, and to be intimate. The secret to a successful mentally and emotionally healthy life is the ability to feel safe and make others feel safe.
The emotion we call love is directly connected to the concept of safety. We love people who feel safe, and we can be close to physically and emotionally. When people are in sympathetic survival mode, their face (menacing), their body language (stiff), and verbal skills (one word response) change. It is difficult if not impossible to love someone who is in warrior mode because they don’t look or feel safe.
Emotional and mental health are based on feeling safe, whether it is in their bodies or their environment. Whenever someone with trauma or PTSD in their past faces the world, they disassociate when they sense danger, whether danger is present or not. They push people away or engage in other anti-social behavior. This can be remedied by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, when we activate the sympathetic nervous system, we activate our ego. When we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, we experience our true selves, our soul.
Now that I shifted to another existence entirely, I have activated my parasympathetic nervous system and experiencing life on an entirely different level. I focus on my polyvagal activation every day. It has allowed me to redefine my reality, my relationships, my business success and probably put 25 years on my life span. It is with great satisfaction and pleasure that I teach others how to change their reality and have the life they dream. To put it in neurobiological terms, I found my soul.
See the post as it originally appeared on the Good Men Project web site.