Recently, I attended a lifestyle medicine conference in Denver, Colorado, where the focus was on promoting healthier living. After being surrounded by like-minded individuals who shared common values, the event left me invigorated. However, one crucial question still lingered: why do people struggle to maintain healthy habits?
The answer lies in the often-overlooked realm of nervous system regulation, which was partially addressed by one of the speakers at the conference. They stated that when we’re in a stress response, it can make it impossible for us to take on new changes. This insight led me to a fascinating conversation with holistic health expert Brittany Cano, an expert in nervous system regulation, who shed light on the interconnectedness of stress and shame in influencing our health choices.
As a practitioner who works extensively with women, Brittany finds that a lot of the people she works with often prioritize others over themselves. Many women, entrenched in caregiver roles, lose sight of their own well-being. This is something I have noticed myself when specifically coaching women around their relationship with food and how they relate to their body. We’re all like a bunch of floating heads walking around, completely disconnected from the rest of our bodies. But coming back to our body and recognizing that our body, mind, and spirit have needs as well is one of the most important factors when it comes to improving our health and wellness.
Brittany’s journey to sustainable change
On the surface, most people would say Brittany was successful and happy. Yet underneath the surface, Brittany was hiding a lot of unhappiness and had a lot of unhealthy habits as well. As soon as she was introduced to coaching, her life changed.
In order to get herself out of old habit loops and make lasting changes, she had to start with processing the shame that she carried. When we’re stuck in a shame cycle, we often make poor choices. But with the support of transformational coaching, she could process a lot of those heavy emotions.
Being in a group setting allowed her to realize that everybody had shame or had things that they were carrying around with them. And so the process that she went through was very somatic, and the environment played a huge part too. She started being around people who wanted to positively change their life, who were making healthier choices. They had a community, whereas before, a lot of people in her community were doing the same unhealthy coping mechanisms that she was.
She also discovered that consistency is key. She realized that this wasn’t just working with a coach, taking a course, doing some training, and then you’re done. This is a lifestyle and a journey. If she wanted to continue on this path, she had to accept that this was her life now.
As women, it’s easy for us to get caught up in all of our responsibilities. Sometimes, we don’t necessarily notice that we’re holding on to some of these powerful–and often destructive–emotions, because they’ve just become so normal for us.
And so engaging in different modalities, including coaching, breathing, or tapping, can be a way to put you back in touch with what’s really going on.
I think about all the patients I see over and over again in the emergency department who have symptoms like abdominal pain, for example. But when all of their results come back as normal, there doesn’t seem to be room in our healthcare system to explore the possibility that these symptoms might be related to trapped emotions or being stuck in a stress response.
It’s almost become a clash of these healing modalities in the hospital system. But in reality, it’s about working together instead of one being better than the other. It’s important to honor and respect the whole system, while also sharing how important it is that people know about lifestyle medicine and that if one system’s not working, there are tons of options out there.
Nervous System Regulation
When your nervous system is regulated and you’re not in survival mode, it becomes a lot easier to make a change. If we’re stuck in a stress response or “fight or flight” mode, and we try to make a change, it’s impossible. When you are in that state, your brain is too busy focusing on survival and so you don’t have the capacity to do something new.
What then often happens is we turn to willpower and try to force ourselves through it. When that inevitably doesn’t work, it just worsens the stress response. We beat ourselves up and end up creating a bigger increase in cortisol, adrenaline, and all of the things that come with that.
And so when I am working with women around their relationship with food and body, the basis is coming back into this parasympathetic state because we simply cannot make changes otherwise. We can’t even hear our body’s signals of whether we’re truly hungry or full if we’re constantly in this “fight or flight” stress response.
How to get into parasympathetic dominance
Relax the shoulders, let the breath travel in through the nose, let the belly rise, and then let your exhale be a lot longer than the end breath. Take a few more breaths like that. You might even fill your feet on the ground. This is such a simple technique that can immediately change our state. It’s free and we can all do it. The way we breathe has such an influence on so many things: our connection with ourselves, our bodies, and the present moment.
The emotional freedom technique (EFT) is where we tap on different acupressure points to lower the body’s stress response. There are different patterns in which we can tap in, and it also releases some feel good hormones so that we start to connect the mind, the body, and the emotions. It allows us to really address whatever the thought pattern is, or the emotion, and then work through it so that we can find some resolution at the end.
I have personally been using both of these techniques and find it magical how I can regulate myself in very simple ways. All of the unhealthy coping mechanisms that I developed during my medical training are now slowly starting to go away and even friends are noticing how much more relaxed I am. Tapping has also supported me through the process of grief and allowed me to honor and process my emotions .
By prioritizing our emotional well-being, connecting with our bodies, and embracing holistic approaches, we can unlock the potential for sustainable health and happiness. The journey towards wellness is not a sprint but a lifelong exploration, and nervous system regulation stands as a powerful ally in this transformative process.