A Key Skill for Healing Our States & Stories
A Key Skill for Healing Our States & Stories

A Key Skill for Healing Our States & Stories

This week we are going deeper than we usually go on the podcast because I want to share a key skill you can cultivate to disarm your negativity bias, bring healing to your nervous system, and realign your sense of self with the values you hold today. Just little things, ya know? This is a great episode for revisiting, so remember that you can read transcripts of essays on my website as well as get more support our Patreon.

If you’re among the majority of people who struggle with a negativity bias, I see you. The layer of grief over our lives can teach our brains to look for more danger and assume there is loss waiting on every corner. A negativity bias is not just a pessimistic attitude. It is a tendency to notice negative things happening around us but to also dwell on those things. It also means we tend to internalize a negative experience more intentionally than a positive one.

When we approach life with a bias toward noticing and attending to the negative events and stimuli, we become hypervigilant. Even if we are experiencing safety in the moment, our nervous system is engaged and ready for protection – always on alert – always trying to prevent more loss or pain.

We call this loss aversion. It may sound silly – of course we’re averse to losing, and that shouldn’t be a negative thing – but if we are unaware of our loss aversion behaviors and thoughts, we create more trouble for ourselves long term. Remaining in a state of loss aversion or hypervigilance means our nervous system is not cycling through to the rest and digest portion of our very complicated lives. Without resting, our nerves remain fraught long term. Long term, this state of loss aversion means we start embodying our trauma to the degree that we don’t know why our stomach always hurts at grandma’s house or why we feel lightheaded at the thought of seeing our old high school again.

No matter our life experiences, we are all carrying some type of embodied traumatic story. We’re all grieving something, whether we recognize it or not.

But when we approach our grief with the intention of investigating the story of our losses, but fail to take the state of our nervous system into account, we can only really do half of the work. If our nervous system is activated and on alert during the retelling of our story, how do you think you will feel before, during, and after your grief work session? For clients, when they’re activated and showing signs of distress, we stop the work. The storytelling takes a pause, and we step away from the memories.

What we want instead is to work with our nervous systems to create awareness of our inherent safety. We can approach places in our stories that feel settled when we are more grounded in our bodies and minds.

So although I would love to walk you through a litany of somatic and nervous system soothing exercises today, we’re actually going to use all of this context about trauma and negativity bias and loss aversion and put it all together to use a strategy from cognitive behavioral therapy called Catch, Check, and Change.

You may be wondering why we’re using a cognitive or mind based approach to address a dysregulated or hypervigilant nervous system. Go back with me for a moment to the negativity bias we talked about before. The mind is part of the body – if you’re new here to Restorative Grief, you may not know that we treat our grief and our personhood holistically – mind, heart, body, and spirit. While all of these parts may seem more treatable individually, the holistic self needs us to practice integrative and collaborate approaches to bring us back toward alignment with our values, our selves, and what really matters to us long term.

Catch, Check, and Change is a thought exercise that helps us notice how our negativity bias and thoughts could be contributing to or intensifying our state of hypervigilance. Using CBT, we can move away from the instinct for loss aversion and instead, address the situation head on.

We start by catching the thought we want to address. I’ll create a scenario, but you can bring one of your own to mind as well. Let’s say my experience in high school felt socially traumatic. Whether it was awkwardness or isolation, bullying or being ignored, maybe something in me feels uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, and scared at the thought of returning to the high school building for any reason.

Notice I said “something in me” feels uncomfortable, not that I feel uncomfortable. When we’re doing this or any grief work that evokes emotion, we can deepen the sensation of progress by treating our feelings as “something in me” rather than overidentifying with them. That invites curiosity and compassion and releases a whole lot of guilt over feeling some kind of way.

So when I have the presence of mind to notice that something in me feels uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, or scared at the thought of returning, that’s catching the thought. I’ve become aware of the story I’m telling in my head that thoughts of high school are not good. This is when I check in with the state of my nervous system. Most people will be in a state of hypervigilance here, automatically guarding against the familiar somatic experiences of a negative thought. Our bodies notice the thought feels unsafe, and acts accordingly to prevent further loss.

We want to stay with our selves here for a moment. Check is not a process of just noticing and then changing our minds about what we experienced or how we think about it. Check is an invitation to decide if the thoughts we have and the state of our nervous system are what we want. Are these thoughts and state inline with our values? Do we want to feel something anxious, nervous, or uncomfortable in us when we consider our high school days?

This is where we have a chance to treat our younger selves with a lot of kindness, too. What you know today in your life is not what your younger self knew. The strategies you used for survival served you as well as you could, and inviting change into your nervous system state is a way of also inviting your younger self into the safe body you now inhabit. High school cannot impact you the way it did when you were younger. You’re not in high school anymore. You’re not exposed to the same behaviors and you’re not the same person.

That means when we make the decision to change the way we think about our past experience, current sensations or feelings, and our younger selves in the middle of it, we are recognizing that we have the power to choose mercy for ourselves in the moment.

I was going through my own experience recently with a younger self, and the age I explored left something in me feeling so much frustration about my choices. I’ve tried the “change your mindset” way of thinking about that time of my life, and it never felt lasting. I still carried something in me that I couldn’t name.

When I opted to see my younger self with kindness and notice how my body responded to the thoughts of returning to that place, I was returning in my mind to that place full of resources. Full of wisdom, years of experience, and physical safety knowing that I do not inhabit that unsafe place any longer.

You are bringing the fullness of all your wisdom and insight to your younger self. When you check yourself and decide you want a change, you’re not just changing your mind to a better thought. You’re not simply becoming an optimist and going about life laughing all the time.

You are rescuing your younger self with mercy.

What I learned about that “something” in me wasn’t expected. I found the block in my healing about that situation and loss was all the regret I had embodied from my trauma.

Years of doing something counter to my values today left me critical and activated when considering what I tolerated then. But my values today are different now, guided by knowledge and experiences younger me didn’t have access to.

The change part of Catch, Check, and Change can be even more simple if you’re not dealing with something traumatic like I’m describing here. For example, if you want to think more highly of your neighbor, you have the power to catch your thoughts, check if that thought is aligned with what you believe in, and change the thought each time it comes up. The process may feel tedious or repetitive, but overall it is an effective tool.

But for those of us who grieve, the “change” part is a deliberate act of mercy, compassion, and rescue toward our younger self who felt the danger first hand and needs the now safe present day version of us to alleviate the stress.

Noticing what in me carried regret made me cry, you guys. Naming the regret gave me power to recognize how the circumstances had continued to follow me for decades. Discovering what regret had to teach me about my current state and what lies in the future for me empowered me to release the obligation of an overprotective nervous system.

Now the thought of that past self and the players involved doesn’t make my heart race. I don’t feel nauseated or afraid of what could happen or be said about me. Instead, I remember the woman I was then and bring her close, allowing the softness and wisdom of my today self to be what tells my nervous system that we are safe.

Thank you for listening to episode 110 of Restorative Grief. All the ten dollar words in this week’s episode boil down to this: You are a bundle of all your life experiences, but you are not obligated to live today from the influence of all the earlier experiences. You get to choose which ones impact you the most. Grief work is all about creating meaning for the present self in a way that leads hopeful, happier futures. So that means sometimes, we have to dig a little deeper to see what might be keeping us in that state of self-protection and no-longer-necessary fight or flight responses.

We covered a lot of ground today, so if you’ve ever considered becoming a Patron of the show, now is a great time to do it! Remember the workbook I mentioned at the top of the episode? You can snag one for November as a one-time thing or become a Patron and gain immediate access to all past workbooks. Using a podcast as a tool in your self-coaching toolbox only works if you apply the concepts to your life. My workbook will help you do that.

If this is your first time listening to the show, thank you for being here and sticking with a little bit of a denser episode. Please subscribe so you can catch every one of our weekly episodes, and leave a five star review, if you feel so inclined. Come find me on Instagram or other social media platforms under @MandyCapehart and if you’re interested, you can even reach out at MandyCapehart.com to see if one-on-one grief coaching is a good fit for you.

Links are available in the show notes with all the details, and before we go, as always, one last thing: Please remember, the only solution to grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.

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