by Emily Conboy, MS, LPCC The Anchored Therapist
Contrary to popular belief, our emotions don’t live in the brain – they live in the body, in our nervous systems. When we’re under stress, our systems get activated in an attempt to manage the threat and keep us safe. This is a primitive system that acts very fast and works outside of our conscious awareness and causes one or more of the “4 F” reactions – Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn. For example, let’s say that there’s a rope on the sidewalk in front of you. Your threat response system (the Limbic System) activates immediately to get you out of the way of danger (that’s a snake, run!!). The information takes a bit longer to move towards conscious awareness (the Prefrontal Cortex is the area that is responsible for thinking, reasoning, and other higher order executive functions). In this scenario, when this part of the brain comes “online,” it can recognize that there is no threat present (oh, that’s just a rope, no danger here). But you can see why our systems work like this – if we had to wait to figure out if it’s a snake or a rope, we could be dead. This system kept our early ancestors as safe as possible in very hostile conditions – conditions that most of us don’t face today.
Sustained stress, traumatic events, and how chaotic the world can seem right now all may cause overactivation and dysregulation of the nervous system, leading to the many issues that bring clients into therapy. Traditionally, therapy approaches, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attempted to use techniques like “thought stopping” and “reframing” to try to outthink one’s emotions. But how is that possible if emotions start as sensations, or feelings, in the body before they even reach our minds and prefrontal cortexes? Exactly, it’s really not! Using somatic nervous system techniques, or body- based techniques like the “4 Ms,” to calm a dysregulated nervous system is the key to healing and managing difficulties such as depression, anxiety, anger, addictions, eating issues, dissociation, and concentration issues, among others. The key, however, is to use these techniques every single day. As you’ll learn, even very small amounts of somatic (body) work daily helps to calm you down and keep your nervous system in a regulated state.
So, what are these 4 Fs you speak about?
The Fight response, at its worst, shows up as anger, explosiveness, controlling, entitlement, and bullying behaviors. Flight appears as fears, anxiety and panic attacks, uncontrolled worry, micromanagement, obsessive thinking, addictions, and disordered eating patterns. It can also show up in clumsiness, shakiness, jumpy thoughts, and disengagement from emotions. The Freeze response occurs when the threat responsesystem senses the most overwhelming threat of all (even if it isn’t threatening in real life). It can manifest as dissociation, hiding, camouflaging, isolation, doom scrolling on social media, and excessive avoidant behaviors (mindless binge-watching, overeating, gaming for hours). The Fawn response, which was the newest to be recognized, shows up as people-pleasing, codependency, loss of self, being a doormat, having a loud Inner Critic or even enslavement.
Ok, so what can I do to calm and regulate my dysregulated system when one or more of the 4 F responses are activated? Use the 4 Ms! In conjunction with colleagues, I developed this approach to nervous system regulation and have seen that it is very effective.
The first is Mindfulness. What does mindfulness look like? Mindfulness keeps you in the present moment versus beating yourself up for past mistakes or excessive worrying about the future. Breathwork is one great method for staying mindful. Box breathing, or slowly breathing 4 counts in through the nose, holding at the top for 4 counts, exhaling for 4 counts, and holding at the bottom for 4 counts, is one method. Alternatively, you can try lengthening your exhale, or inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 6-8 counts, which is called Resonance Breathing. The inhale activates the sympathetic nervous system response, which gives you energy, while the exhale activates the parasympathetic response, which is the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. The Breathing App is a great tool to help guide you through your deep breathing, and even a minute or two per day has significant benefits. Regular meditation can also help you stay anchored in your body. In fact, a psychologist for whom I have a great deal of respect once told me, “If there is a silver bullet in therapy and healing, it’s mindfulness meditation.” Having incorporated it into my daily routine, I can attest to its restorative powers, and you don’t have to be a monk in a monastery on a mountain sitting still for hours to reap its benefits – you can do it for just a few minutes per day. There are many sources available for guided meditation – the FitBit app, HeadSpace app, Calm app, and YouTube have lots of short and longer meditation sessions to choose from. Other ways to incorporate mindfulness include being in nature and using grounding exercises. For example, ask yourself what do I see, hear, smell, taste, touch right now? How does my body feel, what’s going on inside of me that I notice in the moment? Again, I can’t stress enough that only a couple minutes per day can really help for nervous system regulation.
The second M is using a Mantra. What is a mantra? According to chopra.com (a great resource), “In our westernized, modern-day spiritual practices the word “mantra” has become as mainstream as “intention.” But the two are quite different. The word mantra can be broken down into two parts: “man,” which means mind, and “tra,” which means transport or vehicle. In other words, a mantra is an instrument of the mind—a powerful sound or vibration that you can use to enter a deep state of meditation.” It can be a great way to stay grounded, such as when you are experiencing the panicky Flight response or are checked out because of the Freeze response. Your mantra can be personal to you, or you can change it each time. One that may be helpful is “I am here, I am safe.” Or you could tell yourself “I’ve got this. I have strength and courage.” Or “I can do hard things.” Whatever works for you.
The third M stands for Movement, which helps discharge the adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that are released when the system becomes dysregulated. This can be as small as wiggling your fingers and toes (maybe if you are with other people and don’t want anyone to know you’re doing the 4 Ms) to as big as shaking your whole body (this has been shown to give you an energy boost and reset your nervous system). You can do jumping jacks, bounce up and down, go for a walk or run, throw on some music and dance, or whatever exercise you enjoy. Maybe it’s the “power pose,” which involves raising your arms above your head, widening your stance, and really leaning into the empowering feelings that this pose can activate. Yoga is also a great way to incorporate mindful movement into your routine and has been shown in multiple studies to have powerful healing effects – again, you can do just a few minutes per day and see benefits. You can also do some restorative poses before bed to calm down your system. Whatever the movement is can be entirely up to you.
The fourth M stands for ME. What do *I* need right now? Is it a hug? A call or text to a friend? A glass of water, a good meal, a night away, someone to help with day-to-day challenges? Focusing on yourself and what your body is saying to you, through the sensations and emotions you feel, is incredibly important. It may look like setting boundaries, which is very important for the healing process. It is time to focus less on pleasing others and turning that energy inwards to take care of yourself. Maybe you say “No” (a complete sentence!) when asked to do something you don’t feel like doing (you are allowed to do that whenever you want). Maybe you decline to take on a new task or ask someone to stop treating you a certain way. I will be addressing boundaries in a much more detailed way in a future article. Whatever it is, just asking yourself what you need and checking in with your body can have amazing results.
There you have it! I recommend that you begin to incorporate this work in your day-to- day life to make it a habit and so that you’re not trying to figure it out while your nervous system is dysregulated. When this happens, complex thought is not possible because the prefrontal cortex is offline and the threat response system is sailing the ship. One way to turn this into a habit is to deliberately run through the 4 Ms five times a day for 30 days. Set an alarm on your phone and quickly run through each M every time it goes off, no matter what you’re doing or where you are. This allows it to bake into your system over time and in different contexts, which can help make it a habit even faster. You can heal too!