How to Eat CAKE Without Washing Dishes

by Susie Amundson

Last week I felt weary.

Maybe it was the gazillionth meal I had cooked in 4 months. Or masking up for the 2-week grocery load. Or those re-appearing dirty dishes. [Really people, those dishes?]

Our colorful palate of life has gone a bit muted out here. Conversational topics in the kitchen [is there another room?] where my Tall Beloved and I drone on about various topics are bordering on mundane. [And I dearly love our grandsons and basketball.]

A rip-roaring party on our deck now looks like a couple chairs for visitors with an 8-foot span from our chairs. The southwest day breeze ensures the aerosols are sprinkled away from each other. And it’s completed with sanitized coffee cups or beer bottles – depending upon what time you arrive. Let us know so we can sterilize your chair.

But mostly, I think my weariness is generated from staying away from the friends I love. Not hugging them, or my trusted colleagues, my intentional clients, or some random and endearing community member I bump into in town. It’s the leaning in with the beloveds I miss. My heart misses them all.

And I itch for my free and easy life.

It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking of where we go in our nervous systems when we have restrictions. When our physical and embodied safety is threatened and we need to distance from our beloveds. When we need to stay controlled. When we need to heighten our vigilance of boundaries and interactions. When we are contained solo in an office or a home.

Let’s talk about our autonomic nervous system – the bedrock of our lived experiences.

As a Mammal, You Thrive and Survive There

The mammalian autonomic nervous system has three neural networks stacked in a hierarchy.

Where we know our best selves is hanging out in its top neural zone where we have heart-face activation as in pleasing activation. Here we eat CAKE – we are Calm, Alert, Kindred, and Engaged. Here we feel safe and relationally engaged. Think of the last time you leaned in with a trusted colleague, a dear friend, a laughing child, or a delicious book in a comfy chair. This is your ventral vagal network activated. Mammals thrive here with trusted relationships and safety.  In your top floor or ventral vagal network, your clear, generous, and discerning brain fully comes online.

When a threat jumps into your life ranging from the unmasked 30-year-old at the grocery story to getting in an argument with your neighbor about her barking dogs to a caustic text from your boss, we descend into a different neural network. The sympathetic zone (upper chest) urges us to take action demonstrated by a rapid heartbeat and quick breaths.

With your boss’ text, your energy heightens, you feel stunned and angry, and start composing and ruminating about your reply for the next 5 hours or 5 days. Here in this sympathetic zone, your cortisol and adrenaline fire you up. Here you feel lively if not miserable.

And your thinking brain goes a bit dim in the sympathetic zone.

When the Load is Heavier

If those inflamed texts from your boss increase with intensity and frequency, the acrimonious load can start weighing you down. And when life stressors (the unmasked, those barking dogs, the sarcastic text to name a few) start burdening you more than your resources for staying up in the top neural zone or even in the fired up one, we descend to the lowest neural zone.

It’s called our dorsal vagal network activated below our diaphragm. If you’ve felt emotionally sucker-punched in the gut, known dread or helplessness in your stomach, or wanted to curl up for hours and binge on anything – welcome to the basement of your neural networks.

It’s in this dorsal vagal network where we conserve energy, shutdown. And it occurs when the load and weight of stressors particularly ones that restrain us, contain us, and immobilize us hold our freedoms down. It’s meant to help us survive even in tough times. Here our brain goes offline. Numb.

For me, I felt weary last week – the load of the restrictions was a bit too much for my resources. It’s OK if I land in the neural basement now and then; I just don’t want to root myself down there.

It’s Not Just Me

I see and hear others trying to get out of the neural basement during this pandemic. Let’s face it, not many nervous systems prize social and physical restrictions. Many people feel depressed or closed off right now.

Some refuse to wear a confining face covering. Others won’t stay home and be socially disconnected. Folks roam side-by-side in national parks, beaches, and bars – all in efforts to stay relationally engaged and move out of the lower two neural networks.

The neural basement is dark, scary, and lonely. And as mammals, we don’t like the embodied experience of being covered, disconnected, or constrained.

I get it. I hear the plates jumping out of the cupboard right now. 

Moving Out of the Neural Basement

As long as I’m in the neural basement, my inner and outer story will sound a lot like whingeing about my poor life and the sad decline of the world. Because whatever your neural state, you narrative will emerge from it.

So as the pandemic lives on longer than we might want, how do you continue to tap into your best self even when fatigue sets in? How do you move up the stairs to the top neural floor to engage that clear, generous, and discerning brain?

It’s Different For All of Us

Our nervous systems are unique and so you need to tailor your path. The Pie of Wellbeing chart illustrates some wise steps you can use to gain more embodied safety and relational connection during this time. Don’t be afraid to tap the “refresh” button often.

All humans long to spend more time in the top floor of our nervous systems, where we are Calm, Alert, Kindred, and Engaged. Where we eat CAKE.

And mercifully, this CAKE doesn’t require washing a bowl or pan.

Wishing you warm-heartedness, wholeness, and wisdom. We can do this.

Susie