Feeling anxious and disconnected are signs of a nervous system that’s out of balance. Something as small as a curt message from your boss can be perceived by your body as a threat. This triggers a change in your vagus nerve (a cranial nerve that runs from your brain to your abdomen).
In The Vagus Nerve Reset, somatic therapist ANNA FERGUSON offers easy tools and exercises to help train your nervous system to stop overreacting and start responding more calmly to day-to-day stressors.
In her preface to the book she shares her story …
MY STORY: A ROLLER COASTER OF EMOTIONS
When I was 10 years old, I was in a roller coaster accident that changed the course of my life. Although I was barely tall enough to reach the minimum allowable height on the measuring tape that afternoon, I was excited beyond words for my first roller coaster experience. Over the years, my two older sisters had enjoyed this thrill – while I watched from a distance. Not this time! I received the nod of approval and began to eagerly climb the stairs, my sisters and dad in tow.
I was a naturally adventurous and curious child. There was nothing I loved more than a challenge. What could be more challenging than a scary roller coaster ride? Once seated and buckled in, despite my brave face, I found myself terrified. This fear felt different from other fears that I had experienced before – made more intense by the fact that I couldn’t change my mind. Fortunately, my older sister was in the seat behind me: her presence made me feel a little more safe and calm.
The ride started off slowly, with the rhythmic sounds of the cart moving over tracks. We quickly picked upspeed as we entered the first corner. I closed my eyes tight and repeated to myself, ‘This is fun’. Even though deep down it didn’t feel that way.
After we’d swept around that first corner, I tentatively opened my eyes and turned to glimpse my dad and other sister in the cart behind. Then our cart jerked around another corner and accelerated down a dip. When I turned to face forwards again, I saw that the cart ahead of us had come to a stop. However, ours didn’t seem to be slowing down. It kept gaining speed. Next thing, we slammed directly into the cart in front. Upon impact, my body was involuntarily propelled forwards, causing the seat-belt to dig painfully into my chest.
Our cart immediately began to reverse quite rapidly for a few seconds (there was a big gap between us and Dad’s cart). It then proceeded to hurtle forwards once more. Everything happened so fast that I thought it was all planned – part of the ride. It was as if the ride had morphed into a kind of dodgem and our cart had done a run-up ready to dislodge the cart in front. We rammed into it again and this time came to a complete halt.
Upon the second impact, time stood still, as though I’d entered a dream. In this dream I was safe and nothing in the world was wrong. Faintly, I could hear howls of pain but they were a long way off. If I stayed perfectly still, then hopefully whatever scary thing was causing those howls couldn’t touch me.
‘Are you okay?’ – it was Dad’s voice; he had climbed out from the cart behind us and made his way down the roller coaster tracks. The moment his face appeared in front of me, my bubble burst open. The quiet, distant sounds in my dream suddenly changed to roaring in my ears, and with that came the terrifying realisation that I could barely breathe.
Terror gripped me. Every fibre of my being screamed to get out of there. Frantically, I tried to wriggle myself free, but my seatbelt was so tight across my chest that I couldn’t move at all. I was trapped.
Over the course of the next several hours I dipped in and out of my dream-like state. Whenever I became lucid, all around there was a hum of activity. I would find myself watching helicopters fly over, scaffolding being erected; paramedics appeared, placed an oxygen mask on my face and then disappeared. Eventually, my sister and I were extracted from the cart, strapped into stretchers and carried back down to solid ground.
Some days later, it was explained to me that it was a mechanical malfunction that had caused the cartahead of us to stop. A number of people were taken to hospital but were discharged the same day. My sister and I had sustained the worst injuries. It would be a month before I returned home.
Each day in hospital dragged: for a 10-year-old, a month feels like an eternity.
My injuries were primarily internal: a lacerated spleen, dislocated shoulder and – the most serious of all – my heart had been damaged. It had been bruised (myocardial contusion) by the impact. At first, the main concern was the potential of heart attack. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but my heart rate was – and remains – in a seriously elevated state.
After I was moved from Emergency and on to the ward, my family brought me a bag of my clothes and my most comforting and beloved possession – my red Teletubby, Po. I always had it by my side at night in bed. During the month I was in hospital I had to undergo daily tests. There was also a surgical procedure to check whether or not there was a blockage in one of the arteries of my heart. Although Po accompanied me into the operating theatre, she didn’t make it out: no one could find her. This was a devastating blow to me, and one I didn’t let go of until long after my discharge from hospital.
Each day in hospital dragged: for a 10-year-old, a month feels like an eternity. But being allowed to go home was bitter-sweet as I had to take a heart monitor with me. I felt terribly self-conscious wearing it under my school clothes. The wires weren’t easily disguised. Also, for the next eight years I had frequent hospital appointments and physical tests.
Nowadays, when I focus on the accident my recollections are both incredibly vivid and, at the same time,incredibly vague. I can visualise certain moments. But then it’s like an eraser has been rubbed over the next part of the story, creating a disjointed and confusing timeline.
That feeling of confusion, of not having continuity and resolution, was ultimately what scared me themost, especially as a ten-year-old. It buried itself deep into my bones. So that every day I would carry the weight of feeling that I no longer made sense and that any control I’d had over myself and the world around me had been shattered. Once those feelings arrived, they made themselves at home without consent.
My mind was in total opposition, however, pretending and maintaining that there was absolutely nothing wrong, the experience hadn’t impacted me and that I didn’t need any sort of ‘special’ treatment. There was a constant battle being waged inside of me: my body versus my mind.
Slowly, a numbness crept through me and took over, dimming the physical, emotional and psychological pain of the whole experience and creating a steely exterior that protected me from myself. As well as from the enquiries and expressions of concern from those around me. This protective bubble was impenetrable for the most part; it was only during sleep that I was unable to maintain my guard. Over and over again I would wake gasping for air, visited by overwhelming feelings of being trapped and wanting to get up and run away from the whole experience.
As time passed, my sense of helplessness and frustration grew. I viewed myself as strong, so why did I keep feeling pain or thinking dark thoughts? Things I considered that weak people did. The list of frustrations was never-ending and it included: the frequent hospital appointments, having to wear medical devices that didn’t fit in the pockets of my school trousers and having to answer questions about my state. At first, the frustration was directed at myself, but eventually it spilled over to being agitated and annoyed at everyone else – why were they making a big deal out of this? Why wouldn’t they treat me normally?
The after-effects of my physical injuries annoyed me too. Thanks to the permanent damage my heart had sustained, it was a struggle to keep up with any increase in energy expenditure. Even simple things like coughing or sneezing would raise my heart rate to over 200 beats per minute (a healthy heart rate for a 10-year-old is 60–100). Tiredness shadowed me. I couldn’t make it through a whole day of school, I couldn’t play sports and I couldn’t be the energetic kid I’d been before the accident.
It wasn’t long before I was fed up with being ‘the kid who’d been in a roller coaster accident’ and felt trapped by the person I’d become. What I wanted to do was reach back into the past to revive the former version of me. But I didn’t know where to even start. On that day back in spring, I’d gone from being energetic, outgoing and adventurous to exhausted, sullen and hyper-reactive.
The term or concept of ‘mental health’ was not something I had ever really thought about prior to the accident and I was unprepared for the struggles I went through. When I went to dark places in my mind, I didn’t understand. Nor did I know how to control my emotions. I didn’t even have access to the language needed to communicate clearly how I was feeling. As a consequence, I became scared of myself and the world around me. All I could do was try to reinforce that protective fortress I’d built as a defence. If I could hide my true feelings or emotions, that made me feel safer.
Statistically, the chance of being injured in a roller coaster accident is only 1 in 24 million, so it’s shocking that it happened to me. What is more shocking, however, is how widespread experiences of trauma have become. A recent survey found that a staggering 70 per cent of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetimes. That amounts to roughly 223.4 million people – about one in three Americans.
For decades, the term ‘trauma’ has conjured up images of war, violence and terrifying natural disasters,all of which can be incredibly traumatic experiences that impact many people. Consequently, for most of my adolescence to young adulthood, I never considered that what I had experienced was traumatic. I hadn’t been to war, I hadn’t experienced violence and I hadn’t been through a natural disaster. To me, a roller coaster accident didn’t ‘qualify’. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I was exposed to an expanded idea of trauma and identified that, yes, I had experienced it.
More than 10 years after my accident, I gradually began to feel as though I made sense in the world. My feelings of disconnect; the dark, persistent thought patterns; the suffocating long nights of insomnia; and the fragmentation of who I thought I was and who I showed up as, all finally began to make sense. I became ravenous for knowledge and information, which led me to my bachelor degree in Applied Science (Psychology). A spring-board that I used to leap into a Graduate Diploma of Counselling. But it wasn’t enough – I felt as though I was only touching one side of a multidimensional problem. I went on to become a certified clinical anxiety treatment professional, health and nutrition coach, breath work teacher and integrative somatic trauma therapist. The term ‘somatic’ originates from the Greek word soma, meaning ‘body’, and essentially refers to anything relating to – or affecting – the body.
Bringing together all of these science-based modalities, practices, theories and resources that I immersed myself in was an organic process out of which I created a truly integrative and holistic new therapeutic approach for anxiety, stress and trauma. I used this new-found knowledge to gradually understand myself and, over time, bring myself back into my body and reclaim my mental health. Along the way, I insatiably built up my knowledge base, which is now my passion to share.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Ferguson (@annatheanxietycoach) is a leading Australian mental health expert and anxiety therapist. She has built an engaged community of 250k followers on Instagram, sharing practical, holistic mind-body tools and breaking down barriers and stigma around mental health. She works as a counsellor, speaker and author. Anna provides valuable resources for those who struggle with anxiety, and is striving to change the conversation around mental health.