State – Not Story.

For someone obsessed with words, this is not an easy concept to drill into practice. This motto relates to polyvagal theory – and it’s the idea that when we are in heightened state (in our sympathetic nervous system), the story we are telling ourselves is not important. In fact, it’s so unimportant and unreliable, we should actively ignore it. Our job is to identify what state we are in, recognize that we are in fight/flight and then help ourselves get our parasympathetic nervous system back online. 

For someone who gets herself very wrapped up in having to understand WHY I feel anxious, it’s a difficult, yet freeing, concept. State – not story. The WHY doesn’t matter, at least for the moment. The only job I have is to have the ‘aha’ moment of noticing I’m spinning, and then to help myself come to a safe stop. Not by analyzing or talking myself out of it, but by doing those state shifting tactics (see State Shifting post for more details). No matter what stories are going on, I need to put is all aside and focus on breathing, self soothing, audible sighing, putting ice on my face – anything I can do to activate my vagus nerve and help myself with what I need most – to re-engage my parasympathetic nervous system. 

For me, I know this is a huge piece of the puzzle that’s been hiding under the box. My mind is obsessed with having to know WHY in those stressful moments – having to make up a story. And without my attachment to that, it eliminates so much of my suffering. Especially if I stop wasting my time with it, and instead can move on to truly helping myself down regulate. My state shifting techniques are important to practice so I have a lot of tools in my toolbox (and can locate them when stressed), but the practice of “STATE – NOT Story” is perhaps even more vital to my wellbeing. Reducing the time between noticing when a screw is loose and grabbing the tool to fix it (instead of getting caught in how it happened)- I’m going to feel a lot more secure. Even if the only tool I can remember and master is breathing, it’s the “state- not story” practice that will be most impactful. You don’t need a million tools, but you do need to go to your toolbox. 

Letting go of the WHY or coming up with a story when I’m in those states has been a challenge, but it’s not the only challenge here. Another part of “State – not story”, relates to when we already have a story. Part of my issue is around wanting to know and being preoccupied making a story – but the other part is when I already “KNOW” a story. 

When we are in our sympathetic nervous system, any story we have playing will feel absolutely true to us. Perhaps it’s a story about how someone did us wrong (maybe even blame of why you are currently feeling stressed/angry/etc), or maybe it’s a story about how we feel or what’s wrong with us (or a situation). The point here is that if you are in a heightened state, regardless of how true or how much it actually makes sense, we will believe the story to be true. It will feel so true we won’t be able to hear legitimate evidence against it. And the more we invest in the story, the more sense we will feel it makes (using everything we think of to work to prove our story). And it seems, there’s really nothing much we can do about it – at that point. This isn’t just in relation to ourselves – this means your child’s story or your partner’s story will all be so real to them that there’s really no point trying to reason or argue or “help them see the bigger picture” or explain your side. You will get nowhere with others or yourselves, until the storyteller is back on solid parasympathetic nervous system ground. 

As scary and frustrating as that it, if we remember to not give our stories too much weight when we know we are flipped, it can help massively. Telling yourself over and over, “Sate – not story”. When we are in fight/flight, it is not the time to evaluate or engage in the story. Again, our only job needs to be helping ourselves (or others) get back to the land of safety and calm. Only then will we even have the capacity to think and feel clearly about our stories. 

When I first arrived in Costa Rica, after a very long and stressful day of travelling, I burst into tears. The story was that I should never have come, that I was an idiot for doing this, that I hate it here, and that I want to be home. Thankfully, knowing that travel is a huge trigger for shifting my state, I knew I was flipped. And even though that story felt so real to me, I also knew I was in a state that I couldn’t evaluate whether it was true or not. I worked on dis-engaging from the story, and focused on helping myself down regulate. People would message me asking about the place, and I set it aside, knowing I wasn’t in the right state to actually answer. It was sad and frustrating to feel like that, but knowing “State – not story” helped me focus on what was important (state shifting) and not get overwhelmed and stuck in the story. And, as you can imagine, once I was back in a calm state, I absolutely loved it here and am so grateful to have made the journey. 

Check in with yourself, get good at checking your state before anything else. And if you find that you’re in fight/flight or freeze, go grab your toolbox.