Know Thy Anchors

by Susie Amundson

I hate to admit it.  Facebook connects.

Last month when I was scrolling through, I spied a photo of a dear friend at a Blazers game.  For those of you clueless about a possession arrow, an and one, and zone defense – I’m talking about a professional basketball team here.

Since I was flying to Portland the next day, I immediately started messaging my friend. She lives in Idaho, me in Alaska and so face-to-faces are rare.  But stardust sprinkled and 36 hours later, my tall beloved and I were waiting at the diner, excited to see her.

Martty adores Liz too. He predicted she would walk up in her beautiful, colorful clothing wearing stunning Native jewelry with her long hair flowing.  Spot-on.  In stark contrast, we looked like we just rolled off the Pacific Crest Trail.

And so our trio sat down and then it began – a settling into our kindred, enduring friendship.

It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking about the delicious ease of dear friends. How our mammalian neurobiology yearns for these deep and warm connections. How the hugs, a touch of the hand, a laugh from the belly, a timed comment, and a trusted conversation fill us up.  

How this back-and-forth sharing of our joys, our niggles, and our views of the world light up our neurophysiological platform where we eat CAKE (feeling calm, alert, kindred, engaged).  How our hearts feel full, our breathing is easy, our cheeks beg to smile, the edges of our eyes crinkle, our jaws relax, and our bodies lean forward toward this trusted mammal. It feels good. It is good. And we know from research, we are our best selves on this neural floor.

I hung on to that visceral state all day.

It’s Gone Missing

For right now, in-person touchable contacts are few as the viral whirlwind spins around us in Alaska and the world.

When Liz and I visited, our nervous systems immediately moved into their ventral vagal networks and we did what any two mammals do when we share that experience – we emotionally co-regulated. And as soon as our nervous systems went to this place of ease, we felt better, the world looked better, and no doubt, we looked better too.

Last month or was it two, I talked about our autonomic nervous system with its three neural states.  For most of us now, we are less in the top floor eating CAKE and a little lower in our autonomic homes “activated” in the sympathetic nervous system. 

From this visceral state, we hear and say: “ I’m scared.” “I can’t get anything done.” “My energy is scattered.” “I panicked.” “I’m overwhelmed.” “We can’t agree on anything.”

Uncertainty does that. We like predictability and control.

But when the day-to-day stressors accumulate even further with things like homeschooling, working remotely, missing paychecks, peering into the unknown future, and strained relationships with our loved ones, we get a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.  

It’s here we start feeling listless, numb, and disengaged. So if you’re surgically attached to Netflix, CNN, social media, or a bottle of wine — it’s likely you’re in the basement of the dorsal vagal network. And yes, it’s dark and dank and feels like cold mashed potatoes down there.

Ramping Up Our Stress-Resilience

If you’ve ever done an activity on your own that gives you the same felt-sense, as when you are deeply connecting with another as Liz and I did, you are self-regulating.  In other words, you are managing your visceral states effectively all on your own. You’re not stuck on any neural floor.

I know you’ve been there.

Right now with the piling on of unique stressors, we need to intentionally and deliberately ramp up those activities, environments, and routines that bring us into more emotional balance. Last month, we did not need as many methods to get us to that ventral vagal network to eat CAKE. But now in the viral whirlwind, it’s different.

When the stressors pile up, we need to pile on neural enhancers and exercises. We need a big dose of anchors that enhance our emotional and physical well-being.

Ask Yourself: What Are My Anchors?

What are your anchors or those small/daily routines that make you feel emotionally balanced and grounded? What’s worked in the past for you?

For me, it’s setting a weekly schedule, moving outdoors without fail, practicing yoga and loving-kindness meditation, mooshing together unconnected concepts, expanding my work on Zoom, and holding mocktail hours with friends near and far via video.  And my best regulator of all — a fun tall guy.

Others tell me their anchors are Weight Lifting; Reading; Painting; Baking Bread (no wonder there’s no flour in the stores); Skiing; Taking Baths; Talking with Friends; Refinishing Furniture; Their Loved Ones (most of the time); Hiking; Emotional Freedom Tapping; Helping Neighbors; Playing Boardgames; Joining Online Groups; Conversing with a Professional Helper (like me); Cooking Nutritious Meals; Getting Out of Stretchy Pants; Intentional Breathing; Planting Veggie Starts; and Tai Chi.

You Didn’t Need a List Last Month

Now, you do.  Yours will look different than other peoples because you have a different nervous system.

But go ahead and make a list of your personalized neural enhancers and anchors.  With an intentional list, you can deliberately spread those anchors throughout your day to keep yourself emotionally balanced.  And when the stressors start inching up, reach for the list as a reminder and go-to. Even set a timer as a reminder to zip a quick anchoring activity in.

Simply put, to meet the new stressors of this whirlwind, we need a bigger dose of anchors.

We’re In This Together

The best part of seeing Liz last month was realizing the endurance of our connection after many years.

And this month? That every one of us is interconnected amidst this viral whirlwind. I can say with certainty that our common humanity will allow us to endure, stay steady, and warm-hearted in this world.

Wishing you equanimity, health, and a list full of anchors.

Susie