Updated: Mar 15
Spring is emerging from the dark, cold slumber of winter. The grass is turning green, the flowers are beginning to bloom, and there is a liveliness and chatter in the forest. This is when many people feel the need to jumpstart this new season with an annual spring cleaning. It is our time to open the windows, let in the sunlight and fresh air, and purge our home of the clutter, the cobwebs, and the stagnant energy. It is also a great time to let go of what is no longer serving us and create an environment for a physical and emotional reset. This may look like setting boundaries and finally walking away from a toxic relationship; it may be prioritizing health and wellness and seeing a doctor or signing up for a gym membership; it may mean finally starting therapy to learn the tools you need for navigating these life challenges. Whether it be major life changes or small shifts in daily habits, there are so many ways that we can actively and intentionally create a life worth living.
For so many of us, we have been existing in survival mode for so long, we are rarely able to be fully present in the moment. Our stress and anxiety are at an all-time high, our sleep quality is at an all-time low, and once joyous activities require too much energy and feel dull. Survival mode is the love-hate relationship from which we cannot seem to escape. When we are overworked, highly stressed, feeding our bodies unhealthy foods, feeding our minds negative information, isolating, numbing with addictions, saying “yes” when we want to say “no”, when we are living inauthentically, (the list goes on), we have shifted our nervous system into a perpetual existence of stress. You may have heard of “fight or flight” mode, which is meant for short bursts of time in true survival situations that resets when the danger is gone. But today, our sense of “danger” is no longer a bear chasing us or an approaching enemy tribe, but a more pervasive, omnipresent sense of dis-ease that we cannot physically escape from. And unfortunately, our bodies have not evolved to differentiate between nuances of danger. We are still primed for true fight or flight, even if it is something we can’t run away from, such as something we saw on a friend’s social media page or an email from a boss about an unexpected meeting.
The added problem in this equation is that when our bodies sense danger, we are constantly releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. In the famous book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk discusses the myriad ways stress hormones affect us in both the short and long term. They wreak havoc on the body, they cause inflammation, and prime us for a host of illnesses from cardiovascular disease to autoimmune disorders to depression and anxiety (Van der Kolk, 2014). And yet, even though they cause dysfunction and illness in the body, we also become addicted to these stress hormones (LePera, 2014). Our bodies eventually adapt to the consistent release of chemicals and become dependent on them. This stressful, survival mode state becomes our new “normal”. We often do not realize this until we notice that we feel bored, restless, or crave cycles of drama, crisis, or emotional intensity to feel “alive” or “like ourselves” (LePera, 2021). Peace, calm, and stability are no longer comfortable. This may look like an obsession with checking the news cycle waiting for another tragedy; or doom scrolling on social media and comparing yourself to others; or that you prefer watching emotionally charged shows such as true crime, or the drama cycles of reality TV. Maybe you continue to interact with a person who does not respect your boundaries, or you continue to stay in an unhealthy relationship even though everyone in your life is urging you to walk away. This is why many people self-sabotage; it is the subconscious mind seeking out what it knows, because to our primitive brains, what is familiar is always safer—even if the familiar is scary, dangerous, or unhealthy (LePera, 2021).
Not enough people talk about stress becoming our comfort zone and how difficult it is to intentionally leave survival mode and shift our nervous system out of an alert state and into a restful calm state. It is hard work; it feels scary and foreign. In fact, you will have emotional withdrawal symptoms where you crave another hit of stress hormones. You will crave emotionally charged entertainment or interactions. But with time, hard work, and the proper tools, you can begin to disentangle yourself from the prison of survival mode. You will also notice that your relationships will change, and some will have to end. And probably the most difficult, is that you will learn how to be alone with yourself and your thoughts.
Just as spring is a sign of rebirth and awakening for the plants and the animals, so too can it be a time for our own spiritual/emotional awakening. This is a great time to take stock of your life and reflect on the life you have been living and how it differs from the life you want to be living. Close your eyes and envision the most beautiful life you can imagine. Maybe you realize your dreams and passions in life matter and are accessible to you. Maybe you realize you are tired of living a lie and want to show up authentically and only cultivate relationships with people who matter. You begin to question your long-held beliefs and start to understand that your thoughts aren’t “truth”. You can start upholding boundaries and be okay with disappointing others. Maybe your emotions don’t have to be in the driver’s seat. You might realize your daily habits feed the chaos and that specific changes are necessary for creating a new life. Maybe you even begin to crave stillness and silence and find glimmers of peace and contentment in the “letting go”.
The first step is building awareness and living consciously instead of on autopilot. You can use the following questions to begin the process:
Start with a simple check in:
What are my intentions?
How do I feel?
How do I want to feel?
What do I feel in my body? What is my body trying to tell me?
Who/What is standing in my way from making changes or reaching my goals?
How ready am I to make a change?
Have I sat in silence today?
What makes me feel energized, peaceful, and content?
What makes me feel tired, depleted, angry, or anxious?
What habits do I need to implement, remove, or change?
What do I need to change in my environment to foster a space of healing, creativity, and peace?
What can I let go of?
How can I unplug and disconnect from external noise?
What beliefs are no longer serving me?
Which of my beliefs and behaviors are inherited/conditioned and which are truly mine?
What are my core values?
How can I align my behavior/s with my values and desired outcome?
What is one small promise I can uphold to myself every day?
What am I most afraid of? And how can I move towards that fear?
Who can I reach out to for support or help?
Who or what do I need to set boundaries with?
What is a difficult truth I have trouble acknowledging?
What friendships/relationships do I need to nurture? And which ones do I need to separate myself from?
What am I going to do to take care of myself and prioritize my healing and well-being?
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Author: Karen McKinney, LCMHCA
Forsyth, J.P. & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free of anxiety, phobias, and worry using acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
LePera, N. (2021). How to do the work: Recognize your patterns, heal from your past, and create yourself. New York, New York, Haper Wave.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York, Penguin Books.
Disclaimer: This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.