Dear Dr. Norquist:
I was in a minor car accident last month. There were no injuries, so I consider myself very fortunate. I was going through an intersection, when another car ran a red light, and rammed into the passenger side of my car. Although I wasn’t hurt (and neither was the other driver, luckily) my nerves have been on edge ever since. I’m having trouble sleeping, and eating (my stomach is always tense). Clearly the accident was somewhat minor but I’m not yet back to normal. What should I do to feel normal and sleep normally again?
Dr. Norquist responds:
Your body has not yet processed the car accident. It was most likely experienced as a threat to your survival by the reptilian brain, the part of your brain that processes basic survival instincts (such as fight, flight, freeze and fear). Your body is still in a heightened state of arousal, physiologically stuck in the fight or flight response. Hence, you feel like your nerves are on edge, you have trouble settling down enough to fall into a restful sleep, and your stomach is tense.
The language of the reptilian brain is sensation. It does not register words, or emotions. Calming and re-setting the reptilian brain requires allowing yourself to tune in to the language of your sensations. Sensations are experiences. Common examples of sensations include: cold/warm, twitchy, hard/soft, relaxed, flowing, dizzy, prickly, clammy, tense, empty, stuck, dull, butterflies, etc. We tend to overlook the information our sensations are conveying, focusing instead on thoughts and feelings. Learning how to tune into your body’s sensations will enhance your ability to calm your body down after a fearful or threatening experience.
To develop this skill, it would be useful for you to take quiet, unhurried time out to focus in on your body’s sensations. Start by taking a few deep breaths and allowing a wave of relaxation to spread down your body, from head to toe. See yourself discharging extra energy and tension through the soles of your feet, deep into the Earth. Notice how grounding and relieving this feels. Now notice the support you receive from the chair or couch you are sitting on. Relax into that support and breathe a sigh of relief. Notice also the support the floor provides for your feet. Feel your breath becoming deeper and fuller, as your abdomen and chest expand, bringing you enhanced feelings of relaxation with each slow deep breath. Spend some time enjoying the physiological sensations of relaxation as you soak in the support you are experiencing from the chair, the floor and your breath. Now notice any other sensations that may arise – whatever they are (tension, butterflies, spreading warmth, sharp pain or whatever). Allow these sensations to be, just observing them as they arise and change, while remaining aware of the support of the chair and the floor. Repeat this exercise regularly. In so doing, you will become more cognizant of your body’s sensations and learn how to settle into a more relaxed physiological state. This will increase your ability to bring your body out of a state of heightened arousal.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns.Ó 2016 Chaitanya Counseling Services