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Processing stress in real time

Costco shopping carts in their queue to indicate stress from sensory overload

Ever get halfway through your grocery list and suddenly feel the urge to sprint out of the store? If you’re like me, you push through the urge and compensate by detesting everyone and everything that gets in your way.

For years, I considered myself to be an angry, impatient person. Then, thanks to the pandemic, I realized I’m neither angry nor impatient when I have adequate personal space and good predictability in my environment. I changed many things about my life then, such as avoiding stores and other locations during peak times at all costs.

But last weekend, I had to face Costco… on a December weekend. I’d waited too long in hopes of avoiding Thanksgiving crowds but ran out of supplies before a weeknight shopping trip could be scheduled.

It was time to put my nervous system training to the ultimate test.

On the drive to the store:

  • I practiced some breathing techniques.

  • I decompressed my vagus nerve.

  • I reset a cranial nerve or two.

  • And I did my favorite visual-system “rescue” drill.

Still, upon seeing the packed parking lot, my jaw clenched. Just get through it, my mind said – a warning sign from my inner critic that I was about to dissociate.

Once inside the store, I started to feel dizzy. Dizziness felt preferrable to the irritability, anxiety and temperature spikes that I’m accustomed to, not least because it’s easily alleviated with a few deep breaths and corrected posture. Add in a quick tongue circle and all is well.

An hour later, waiting for my oversized slice of pizza, I felt dizzy again, but this time, the temperature spike happened too. In spite of rising impatience, I focused again on breathing and stood up a little taller. Instead of reaching for my phone to distract myself, I did my quick visual rescue drill. And before long, I was ambling out of the store, pizza in hand and panic at bay.

I wasn’t irritable. I was only mildly tired. And I’d survived more than an hour inside Costco on one of its busiest days of the year.

So what was different?

  • By preparing my nervous system ahead of time, I was able to recognize dizziness for what it was instead of interpreting it as an unidentified dangerous feeling worth panicking about.

  • I treated the dizziness on the spot with awareness and simple integrative practices.

  • This gave me access to my “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) which prevented me from dissociating or going into a “flight” response.

  • I left the store with enough mental clarity to realize that my dizziness related to how much movement, color and texture my peripheral vision had been picking up.

  • This simple reinterpretation prevented me from labeling myself “angry” or “weak” and instead, seeing myself as the high-sensory person that I am and understanding why my system wanted to shut down.

  • Instead of shutting down, I soothed my nervous system in real time. And thus a new self-belief emerged: I am a person who takes care of herself.

Bet you never thought such a self-affirming experience could happen at a busy Costco, right? I certainly didn’t. But that’s the miracle of applied neurology. Once you get to know your nervous system and how to speak in its language:

  • You are able to self-soothe your stress responses in real time.

  • Your tolerance for stress increases.

  • Your negative self-talk quiets.

  • Your options expand.

Now I know how to feel safe in a busy, crowded place when I really need to go there. I don’t have to pigeonhole myself into late hours, obscure dates or minimal durations. And geez, if Costco weekends are possible for me now, what else might be possible too?

Want to learn to process stress using nervous system tools?

Take advantage of my holiday sale to book unlimited $99 sessions (1:1) with coupon code NEUROHOLIDAY2023.

Stock up on discounted sessions well into 2024 or start with a single session to take the edge off your holiday stress now! Sale ends December 26.

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