If you have autism and/or alexithymia, this simple exercise will teach you how to navigate your internal states like a pro.
For those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads—whether we’re analyzing data, pouring over books, or deep diving into our special interests—our bodies and our emotions can seem a murky and baffling place. We may be totally fine, and then seemingly ‘out of nowhere’ we have some kind of outburst that makes no sense.
Or people ask us how we are feeling and it’s hard to know how to answer. Some of us are more prone to this wiring due to alexithymia and/or autism, but you do not have to be neurodivergent to have this experience.
If you are one of these people, what I am about to share may be especially useful to you. It’s a way of getting more in touch with what is happening internally—specifically with your nervous system. The better in touch we are with our internal states, the greater our ability to respond rather than react to what is happening to us. The best part is, this method is particularly suitable for people who are most comfortable living in their heads—your ability to analyze, sort and arrange data will be extremely useful!
I call this method Nervous System Mapping, and I have adapted it from Polyvagal Theory, which was developed by Stephen Porges, PhD, and has been written about extensively by Deb Dana, LCSW. Let’s get started!
First, take a moment to determine which of three major nervous systems states your body is currently in:
1.) Fight or Flight—heightened sense of threat
2.) Optimal /Goldilocks Zone — Calm & Connected (Rest & Repair belongs in this zone as well)
3.) Freeze — Feeling numb/disconnected/hiding out
Now, rate the intensity of your state on a scale of 1-10. If you are feeling slightly agitated as you push to meet a deadline, you might give yourself a 6 in the Fight or Flight state. If you are lying in bed, completely incapacitated (which means realistically you would not be reading this right now), you might rate yourself as close to a 10 in the Freeze state.
Finally, decide if you need to take a step up or down to get closer to the Optimal Zone—that Goldilocks place where you are engaged with the world and feel safe in your own skin.
Another way to think of it would be if you currently could benefit from getting a little more energized or a little more relaxed. In states of agitation/stress, you will want to figure out how to figuratively “apply the brakes” a bit. For freeze/shutdown states, you will want to “push on the gas pedal” instead.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you think you have to take a big jump in either direction, so this is where having the ability to break things down into the smallest possible steps will be really helpful. So going back to the state of lying in bed, totally incapacitated, the very next step up might be simply thinking about what you might feel capable of doing when you feel ready to get out of bed. Don’t think it has to be a huge step! Your job is to start seeing the smaller steps that lie between, as chances are you have only been noticing the really big swings.
If you’re new at this, you would probably stop there. But if you wanted to keep going, the step after that might be putting some music on (from bed) that reliably puts you in a good mood and is on the energizing side. Then it might be texting someone (from bed) who is close to you to let them know how you are doing. And then after that you might actually get out of bed and do something that feels manageable—maybe have a tasty snack!
Don’t worry if this feels hard to do at first. What I really love about this exercise is that you get benefit from it even if you just do step one! The more often you can check in with your nervous system and start gaining awareness about your inner states, the less out-of-control you will feel when there are bumps in the road. Over time, you will start to recognize patterns in yourself, see where you keep getting stuck, and can start intervening sooner rather than later.
The problem when we don’t have any connection with our internal states is that we don’t notice things until they are A MAJOR PROBLEM. Those things are always much harder to come out of, so if we start noticing more sooner and can shift up or down before THE MAJOR PROBLEM hits, we’ll be in much better shape overall.
This exercise can also have a positive on our physical health. Some kinds of headaches and migraines, gut issues, and all sorts of things going on in our bodies are affected by our stress levels. It isn't so much about how stressful our lives are, but about how we respond to that stress.
One way you might try out this exercise is to set timers for random points in the day. That way, you won’t forget and it will catch you at random moments when you may not have been feeling reflective at all. Often, those are the times we could most benefit by noticing more of what is happening internally. You don’t need to spend a ton of time on it, but the more frequently you do it, the more benefit you will get from it.
And if you really want to get all nerdy with it, you could track your responses in a notebook and then look over the results in a week and see what kinds of patterns you are picking up about yourself.
If you find yourself with further questions and would benefit from more support and guidance, feel free to reach out about my Nervous System Rewiring training. We can map out your unique nervous system, identify areas of challenge and strength, and create customized protocols for the situations you find most stressful to navigate.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
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