It’s Just Activation. Molehills, not Mountains.

So there I was – vibrating at the front of the room like a nervous mouse… except that I wasn’t nervous at all. Sometimes your body just does stuff. Here’s why and how to put it into perspective.

Sometimes in our desire to understand experiences by labelling them or naming them or otherwise putting them into boxes, we actually distort them and make them into something different or bigger than they actually are.

When it comes to emotions like guilt, shame, nervousness, sadness, excitement, joy, contentment… it’s beneficial to have language around those feelings so that we can differentiate one from another. Anxiety and excitement run on the same pathways and can feel emotionally and physically very much the same – sometimes teasing those apart and renaming the experience is helpful when we need to reframe something into a positive context.

While there is value in that and it’s definitely a practice that I use and add for homework to many of my clients, sometimes we can get too much in our head about it. I’ll give you an example.

I was recently out of town at a workshop. I was excited for many reasons to be there… it was a mini road trip I got to take on my own, I got 2 nights away all to myself, I got the opportunity to meet new people from all over the continent and I got to do it in one of my favourite cities. Everything about this was positive and all roads had led to making this work out for me to attend despite roadblocks that should have prevented it. I love it when a plan falls in place!

So in that workshop there were opportunities to share as we worked through the material. Exercises we did with partners and in groups. And as much of an introvert as I am – these things are always positive and enjoyable for me. I don’t feel insecure or uncomfortable around new people. I mingle easily and I generally feel comfortable. At one point I was volunteered to share one of my exercises in front of the room. I’m used to being in front of people and feel really comfortable in that. I was a dancer, a presenter, a journalist that interviewed strangers and celebrities, and I give talks, trainings, and presentations now. This isn’t something that throws me – I actually really enjoy it.

However… in this instance… though I felt calm and collected mentally and relaxed, emotionally. My body upon making it up to the front started to shake. It caught me off guard because this never happens. That in itself is activating – something different. But there I was holding paper and a mic vibrating in front of 25 people that I felt comfortable in front of I felt completely bewildered by my body’s reaction. Was it anxiety? I didn’t feel the least bit. My body was experiencing a response as initiated by my nervous system that had nothing to do with my emotional/mental or cognitive states or input.  Here’s why.

Sometimes… it’s just activation. Sometimes our nervous system has a response separate and irrelevant from our conscious thoughts and emotions. Baffling for any control freaks out there I know! I’m one of them. Activation from what? Could be any number of things but here are three common ones.

1. Physiological imbalance: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stimulated, Sick? I was slightly over caffeinated, I was tired, I might have been hungry and dehydrated and I had really bad headache that day. I had also taken Tylenol for the headache which I never do and so my body was dealing with a new substance. These factors alone can cause activation (and in some people trigger anxiety as well). They physiologically take you out of a state of regulation in your nervous system and the nervous system responds based on primal needs and a level of heightened awareness to scan for survival (perceived or real).

2. What else is going on your life: Another factor can be what else is going on in your life at the time. Often we think of activation as cause and effect in the moment – but lots times your cup is filled from other areas of your life and the spillover happens in a strange moment.

For mine – this was certainly the case. Travelling and making arrangements to leave my kids and dog and the schedule that never ends at home is always stressful. The trip was a short turn around so there wasn’t enough time for my system to really let down and relax. The drive down was smooth but I had to pass by the turn off to where I spent time with my best friend who died suddenly 3 years ago in a motorcycle accident – and every time I pass Snohomish I bawl my face off because I miss him so much.

So I had the perfect storm that while I managed it easily mentally and emotionally, my nervous system is not fooled. It is experiencing and mitigating multiple levels of overwhelm all the time. Like many, the big events are managed and one small thing is the tipping point for some sort of noticeable symptoms. Being in a new place and standing in front of new people to talk about myself (versus talking about psychology) unexpectedly was enough to tip the scale and have my nervous system elicit a response. Shaking is one way that the nervous system will get rid of extra pent up energy – it happens in animals after stressful events all the time.

3. Other people: We template off of other people’s nervous systems. We call this attunement that really connects to others through this structure called the right oribitofrontal cortex where we can pick up and resonate with states from another person – add in some funky mirror neurons that help with this too. This is an essential part of SRT because my clients use my grounded nervous system to template off of while we work on some of the overwhelming elements of their lives. Inside of session I hold the space in a very conscious way. Outside of my sessions I noticeably sense or feel other people’s energy but don’t have the same level of managing mine because it’s a more relaxed context when I’m not working. But in that room – I’m with 24 other people, many with high energy. The level of activation or the excited energy of any of the people around me or of the speaker himself at the front of the room, if I hadn’t properly contained, grounded, insulated my own space, could easily cause activation in my system that would express itself differently in my body than in someone else’s.

So when you consider these three factors that can fire up or fuel activation in our nervous system that we might experience as anxiety, excitement, physical expressions of energy like shaking, twitching, fidgeting, etc., it helps contextualize the experience. Otherwise, what would the common reflection be on this? Embarrassment? Shame? Confusion? Likely. I could have quickly and easily defaulted to those states after being so visibly shaken in front of an audience. Not that they would have viewed me with anything other than compassion but any empathy would have been misguided and was not necessary. I wasn’t upset. I was activated. It was just activation – in this case from all 3 of the above contributing factors.

Why is this important? Because we’re good at blowing things up into being bigger than we are and wanting meaning from it and in lots of cases, scenarios and symptoms, that’s counterproductive. Sometimes we don’t need to do an internal seek and find for emotions or psychoanalyze our perception of the events of our lives or make things mean more than they need to. Sometimes we’re just dehydrated, headachy, tired, excited, and have a full life and are vibrating with a bunch of other people’s energy on top of it and nothing more.

Give language and labels where it’s helpful. But also have the freedom to use this one. Sometimes it’s just activation. Your nervous system trumps the other systems and will do what it needs to do. The best thing to do is call it out… it’s just activation, and it will pass – your body knows what it needs to do to let that out. Ride the wave. Ditch the shame. You’re just human that’s all. Like me.