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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Coming of Age and Four Ways I'm Learning Self Regulation for Anxiety

I always used to joke that I’m a dangerous athlete not because I’m good at what I do, but because I don’t have quit in me. Pair that with a lack of self-awareness within my body for being able to tell when I’ve hit my limit, and you’ve got yourself a formidable athlete. I don’t back off. I’ll push until I pass out. I used to think it was a strength or that it was something that set me apart in my commitment to my work. The last few years my body has humbled me, and I now know better...kind of.

A few years ago I started to integrate holism into my annual goals and began choosing themes for the upcoming year. Instead of setting a goal that might change half way through if my circumstances changed, I set a theme based on my values. Circumstances change, values don’t. This way, I can have a year of action or change based on my values even if it’s not a set of goals in the same way that your typical productivity YouTuber would have you plan (specific, measurable, attainable…etc.).

Last year I had a theme of Is This Healing Me? I spent a year really tuning into my body and Spirit trying to find out what was making me feel unwell versus what felt right. I stepped back from a lot of things in the name of healing and cocooned inside myself and my home. This year I chose the theme Do It Scared. It’s become the mantra that’s gotten me back into rock climbing, into public speaking, and sometimes just leaving the house (agoraphobia is a bitch). I’ve made so many strides in my professional life this year that I really didn’t expect to be making.

As many of you know, I joined the Naqsmist Transformative Storytellers and Facilitators team this year, and even before I was a permanent member I was contracted as as a regional facilitator to host engagements for the Gender Equity Action Plan for the BC Government. We had the honour of hosting 14 engagements where we spoke to Nations and community members about reinvigorating Coming of Age Ceremonies as a way of ending lateral violence and gender based violence. It was fast-paced and impactful, and I, myself, experienced gender-based violence as a facilitator at one of the engagements I hosted. The experience set me back not because I believe what was said to me, but instead because I couldn’t stand how I didn’t stand up stronger during the incident.

In honesty, that incident paired with my setbacks in the pace of blog posts and podcasts this year really took a tole on me and I began to fill myself with self-doubt. And It’s important that I point out the intentional choice of words there. Nothing that anyone has said to me filled me with doubt, but the words said to me, or sent to me through emails and DMs, have validated things that I’ve already told myself behind closed doors. These self-doubts and this imposter syndrome doesn’t need anyone to feed it because it grows out of a shame that lives inside of me already. Even though what the participant said to and about me was wrong, it couldn’t have hurt me if the belief or concern wasn’t there inside me to begin with already. The imposter syndrome and the anxiety that threatens to overtake me on a daily basis stems from something deeper than that incident, and I think many of you can relate to that sentiment.

I don’t say any of this for a parasocial pick-me-up from my readers or listeners, but more so to solidify my human element in this space. Yes, I do big decolonial work. Yes, I make podcasts and blog posts. Yes, I speak on panels and at engagements. But I’m also a human who is struggling with identity and feeling good enough, as I’m sure a lot of you are too. But when I tell you that everything happens when it’s supposed to happen, I wish I could impart even half of the trust I have for Creator into you.

Thinking back on my theme of this year, Do It Scared, and the reality of being chosen as a regional facilitator for something as huge as the Gender Equity Action Plan with Naqsmist where the theme is Coming of Age Ceremonies…it doesn’t get more timely. If you’ve sat in on a meeting with Elders, you’ve heard the discussion around Coming of Age Ceremonies and how crucial they are to teaching our community members how to regulate stress and anxiety. If you’ve been listening, you’ve heard the talk about the Sweats, the cold plunges, the long runs, the fasts, the first night alone…

We don’t just do these things because we’re badass Indigenous Peoples (although, yeah, we’re pretty damn badass). We do these things because they teach us how to regulate our nervous systems and manage stress. Life is plenty hard, and shock and grief can kill you. Our Peoples knew this, and we trained our young people from a very young age to stand in their power. Unfortunately, during colonization a lot of us have lost our opportunities and access to Coming of Age Ceremonies and we’re left to navigate the stress of life without those graduated steps of knowing who we are and how strong we are.

Do It Scared wasn't the beginning of my Coming of Age, but it marks an important step where I’ve committed. I akin this to what I know of an old Ceremony found within several Indigenous Nations of the West Coast where our Peoples used a porcupine quill to pierce our own septum without flinching. We had the technology to use caribou bone needles or something else sharp, but the porcupine needle is barbed. Once you begin the piercing, you have no option but to continue. No matter how long it takes, you’re piercing your nose and you’re not allowed to flinch. This is Ceremony. This is regulation.

I’ve had a journey this year learning my limits, pushing past them, pulling back, standing my ground. The person I see in the mirror, though still suffering from anxiety, has a different pulse. They have a different stare and a different set to their jaw. I’m not stronger, just more weathered. I’m not braver, just more willing to make mistakes. I owe it solely to surrendering to timing and trusting in Ceremony.

Throughout this journey there have been a few tools I’ve used on and off for regulation that I thought I might gather here for you. If they speak to you or nudge at you, I urge you to experiment with them.

1. Cold plunges

No one likes cold plunges, but there are at least two practical survival reasons why our Ancestors did them. First, I want to give you a quick science lesson (like 2 sentences, don’t go anywhere):

When you submerge in cold Water, your blood vessels in your arms and legs constrict so your blood directs to your core. For a body that hasn’t been conditioned to handle cold Water over time, that immediate constriction of blood vessels can shock the body. For some, the shock can even lead to heart attacks.

There’s also a cold Water reflex wherein a person will take a huge gasp of air when they hit cold Water. It was the cause of so many drownings in Europe throughout history as people attempted to fill their pails at the cold rivers. Many slipped and fell into the shallow part they stood near, gasping as they hit the cold Water.

So transport yourself back in time, or even just to a lake trip in the fall, and your canoe tips into ice cold Yukon Water, or glacier fed lake Water. Our Ancestors trained their bodies to hit that freezing cold Water and be ready to act. We didn’t gasp and inhale Water. We didn’t panic or go into shock. We focused and dealt with the situation.

I've been using ice baths on and off since 2014 to help my body deal with inflammation, and let me tell you that it sucks just as much now as it did then. As of late, I’ve been using cold plunges in the ocean with our kids to train them for their Coming of Age piercings. We go to the beach and do three dunks, then they keep playing and dunking because they don’t care about the cold Water like I do. The cold Water has taught me to breathe slower, relax my muscles and take my time even when I want to get out more than anything. It replicates how I feel during an anxiety attack, and I can feel the tightness creep into my neck and shoulders. I have to consciously force my body to let go. I start to breathe in the top of my lungs and I have to force the belly breaths.

I'll be the first to tell you that they're no fun, but I'll also be the first to tell you that they play a crucial role in my body's healing journey.

2. Smudges and Medicines

I don’t even need to get into this, do I? Who am I kidding, I will!

Part of why we smudge is of course the spiritual aspect of Medicine. Each Nation will have their own Medicines and their own smudge, but something that isn’t talked about enough is just the sensory experience of Medicine floating through the air. Sometimes I’ll be working at my desk, overwhelmed, and the smell of Sage will hit me out of nowhere.

My smudge kit sits next me on a shelf within reach for daily use, but one teaching I was gifted was to never sweep the burned Medicine out of the bowl, only tap. Because of this, my smudge bowl has a strong Sage patina that’s built up over the years and I’m grateful for this. Like I said, timing is everything. Each time I think I can’t keep going, the Sage wafts across my desk and calls me to a burn. Sometimes even just the smell of the bowl is enough that day.

Our Ancestors used aromatics and beautiful sensations to ground us and bring us back into the moment. Sometimes I do this with essential oils if I’m out and about or if my asthma is particularly bad. Most often, though, I use Sage for that extra strong smoke. But I will say, if my Sweetgrass burned longer and stronger, that’s the smell that really brings me home to Liard.

3. Cardio Zone Work

To some people, this regulation technique might seem very random, but I promise you that Indigenous Peoples have a long and rich history of using physical exercise intentionally. We ran, all the time. We swam, all the time. Being strong and capable is integral to self sovereignty and that includes being physically strong. We have always known that the health of our body is intricately linked to the health of our mind, heart and Spirit.

For my journey learning self regulation, I've been getting back into zone cardio. After having Covid last August, my lungs have suffered with bouts of severe asthma. It seems to be relatively regulated right now with a steady dose of steroids and a very strict home cleaning routine. Because my asthma has felt like it's getting better, I've felt more confident to try harder cardio again.

Actually, this form of regulation is twofold for me.

First, there is the obvious fitness element of heart rate zone training. My body has gotten used to pushing harder for longer, and that has given me better oxygen overall. That's nice!

I also have the beautiful experience of using intentionally difficult but controlled situations to build familiarity with struggle. Just like exposure therapy, using hard workouts gives my mind and body proof that I can and have done extremely hard things. It helps me build confidence with higher heart rates and makes it easier to tell myself that the increased heart rate due to anxiety is actually familiar and exciting because I've done it before.

The higher intensity cardio also helps me build confidence in my lungs during challenging times. My lungs have pushed through intense spin classes. I know I can handle anxiety.

Secondly, I've already said that I struggle with quitting or letting up. Part of it stems from my upbringing and not being given the option to quit. Part of it stems from hockey coaches that live in my mind long past the point where I need to catch a breakaway. Finally, there is a component of hand-me-down shame from my Indigenous family wherein we have always valued hard work, but now have to work twice as hard to prove we aren’t lazy and deserving of colonization.

I struggle to back off because I was shown at a young age that laziness and quitters are bad. That the "lazy Indians" lived on the other side of the highway. We dressed our best for school, we worked hard on the golf course my Dad's family built from scratch, and we always went above and beyond what was expected of us. Even in my Grandma’s later stages of dementia, the only acceptable answer to where her family members were at more lucid moments was, “they’re at work.” Any other answer would upset her, but hard work was always expected and accepted.

As I said, Indigenous Peoples have always valued hard work. We had no choice because our lives involved Land stewardship, which is in itself very hard work. But the infiltration of colonial rhetoric and stereotypes of “lazy Indians" makes it easy for any Indigenous individual to fall prey to the shame now associated with having to rest. We hold ourselves to a standard that’s unhealthy and unsustainable in order to curb the judgement that we’ve inherited and now perpetuate amongst ourselves.

So my journey with cardio zone training has been tricky. I struggle with hypoglycemia and can seizure if my blood sugar isn't managed properly. There have been times where I've been in a spin class and the instructor asks if we can push harder. Without checking in with my body, I just do it. I've come close to blacking out a few times this month and had to purchase emergency gatorade and candy.

For me, regulation has opened up to not only include the heart rate training and anxiety aspect that is already so Traditional. It's also become about learning when to put my foot on the breaks, even when I want to use the gas.

Who knew that decolonizing would look like a spin class...?

4. Somatosensory Awareness Work

The somatosensory network is part of our nervous system. It's made up of the structures in the brain and body that give us our body awareness of touch, temperature, pain and body position. That sounds complex, and it is, but the easiest way to understand your somatosensory network and what it does is to notice, right now, what you're sitting on. Is it a hard chair? Are you in bed? How does it feel? Warm and cozy, or cold and stiff? Are your legs crossed or straight? Where are your arms? Congratulations! You just did a quick body scan using your somatosensory network.

Very often we forget that we are living within physical bodies that share a direct link to our minds. The mind and the body aren't separate, and our minds have a beautiful network of nerves and nervous structures throughout the body that we can use to ground ourselves and experience the present moment as our body is experiencing it instead of just what we’re seeing or hearing. What a holistic experience!

Actually, you've probably already done this without realizing it. If you've fidgeted with anything, a fringe on a pillow or blanket, a squish toy, a straw, etc. you've used your physical experience to calm or anchor your mind. Some of us even self-soothe by playing with our jewelry or our hair. We can harness the same effect, more powerfully, if we use somatosensory awareness intentionally. I encourage everyone to learn bodily awareness, and do some research, but I have a few tools and techniques I use to harness my somatosensory system for regulation:

  • Carry things to touch when you need to be brought back to the moment. This can be fidget toys, rocks, beadwork, jewelry, etc. Be aware of what you’re touching and observe it. Notice characteristics about it. Do you feel roughness? Smoothness? Are there ridges?

  • Do a body scan. I ask these questions: Where are my limbs? What am I sitting on and how does it feel? What parts of my body are touching the objects around me? Are there areas of my body that are hot or cold? How do I feel? How deep is my breath?

  • Observing what each emotional feeling physically feels like. I perform a body scan when I have a strong feeling. What does my stomach feel like when I’m happy or sad? What is my posture like when I’m feeling mad? If my body could speak English, what would it be telling me right now?

Learning to identify how my body feels and what my body is telling me is a big part of my self regulation journey. Like most people, I've been taught to ignore my body and feelings, so putting together what my body is telling me with what my mind can articulate is a hard skill to learn. But it's important to learn, and I've committed to learning it.

These practices have changed the way that I approach my anxiety, my struggles and my ability to regulate myself in times of stress. They have helped me build awareness within myself, and are part of a journey I’m on to build confidence in the power I hold. I guess you could even look at them as some cool "Indigenous self-regulation tips" for anyone struggling with anxiety.

If you have any other strategies that you’ve been using to either teach your nervous system regulation, or to help regulate yourself when you’re stressed, please feel free to share and let us know!




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