We need to feel safe in order to heal.
I recently took a vacation to a little town in Mexico called Puebla. I’d never been there before, and as we walked the streets looking for a cafe con leche, I kept tripping on the uneven sidewalks, unable to take my eyes off the colourful architecture and tiny storefronts selling religious statues we would later see crammed into ornate Catholic churches. One of my favourite things about traveling is how easy it is to be present with what’s happening, examining the new sights, sounds, and tastes of a new place. Back at home, my mind tends to spin constantly, worrying about the future, making plans, checking emails and racing against the clock. Being in a new place is a helpful reminder to live in the now.
Travelling can also be stressful, however (just like life), and is full of moments where you might miss the bus, can’t find your hotel, or you look everywhere and just can’t get your hands on that cafe con leche. I was able to observe my nervous system flipping back and forth between the stressed out sympathetic state and the fully present, relaxed parasympathetic state.
A healthy nervous system is able to spend time in both of those zones, easily switching from fight-or-flight when we are facing a challenge to rest-and-digest when we return to safety. If you’ve got a virus in your system, for example, and you’re in the sympathetic state, adrenaline keeps you focused on what’s in front of you and will suppress any symptoms like coughing or a runny nose so you can run away from the lions. When you’re out of danger and the system calms down, the parasympathetic system tell the immune system it can deal with the virus now.
I sometimes think of the parasympathetic state as having my internal lab open. If we’re stressed, the lab stays closed. This is, incidentally, why we so often get sick the second we go on vacation—we’ve actually been sick for ages, but the body has been suppressing symptoms until the danger has passed. That’s one of the reasons sustained stress (including trauma) can cause all kinds of health problems: the lab never opens. We need to feel safe in order to heal.
While I was away, I became even more aware of how often I sit in the sympathetic zone with all my labs closed. Even when nothing particularly stressful is happening, I’m projecting myself forward to future stress, preventing my body from fully relaxing. So it occurred to me that when I am in a relaxed state, I should let myself be there and take the medicine of that moment, bolstering my ability to recover the next time stress arises.
It’s a wonderful practice to do this with pleasurable moments—to fully let ourselves have the small moments of everyday sweetness that arise in our lives. But perhaps it’s just as important to let ourselves have those boring old moments of neutrality when nothing in particular is happening and no lions are chasing after us. Rather than filling that neutrality with the lions of our minds, perhaps we can relax into relative safety and let our labs open while they have the chance.
Moment medicine is a practice like anything else. When we slow down and notice when something sweet is happening, we’re likelier to notice and enjoy the next moment of sweetness that comes up. Before we know it, our days are filled with small joys that we actually remember. Similarly, letting ourselves enjoy the relative safety that we are lucky enough to have in our everyday lives helps teach the nervous system to use those boring moments of safety to heal, protect, and prepare for the inevitable challenges of life. So take a breath, relax your belly, and take your moment medicine.