Have you tried shifting your diet, rebalancing your microbiome, detoxing, and everything else under the sun but nothing seems to work? Take a look at your nervous system. Are you living in a fearful, anxious, victim state most of the day?
In 2017, we dove into some of the nuts and bolts of the connection between cortisol (the stress hormone) and our body’s ability to heal. We learned that we prevent our body from healing itself when we don’t support a parasympathetic response of the autonomic nervous system. Over the next three months, we’re going to explore more of its complex role with autoimmune disease and its key place in the autoimmune puzzle. From my experience, you can’t heal effectively if you skip over the nervous system.
Many of my autoimmune clients feel powerless, like they have no agency in how their body is behaving. They’re fatigued, itchy, in pain, unhappy, anxious, can’t think clearly or articulate their thoughts—you name it. They conclude that because they can’t control their symptoms, their body must be broken and they may never feel normal again. Sound familiar? It is so common! In the depths of illness, we fiercely fight for our bodies to be different, and in the process, completely abandon our own power to heal.
The Trapdoor of Victim Mentality
At face value, it’s easy to see “victim mentality” as something that happens to other people—not us!. No one likes to think of themselves like Eeyore, moping around hopelessly, or that co-worker who outrageously blames the world for all his problems. Victim mentality can be sneaky and less obvious, though. It takes courage and introspection to see how it slips into our mindset and sabotages our efforts to heal.
It has been helpful for me to reframe victim mentality from a shameful character trait to a coping mechanism that we slip into when we react to the world from a place of powerlessness. We all slip into victim mentality every now and then (to be honest, I slip into it daily—but I’m learning to catch myself). I even did it this morning. I looked at my calendar and realized I had a full work day, my kids are getting out of school early, I am in charge of getting them to and from activities all while carrying the burden of preparing a warm, nourishing dinner for us all. Did I mention that my husband went pheasant hunting for the day? I felt anxious and resentful, then overwhelmed and helpless at the thought that I was in charge of it all and there just wasn’t enough time in the day. Overwhelm is a sure sign that victim mentality is lurking.
A victim mentality is when we see life as happening to us. When life happens to us, we are powerless, at the mercy of whatever life might throw at us, and can’t see that we have choice in how we respond. We are merely surviving. Most often, we feel like we are at the edge of drowning:
“Somebody help me!”
Making a Shift to Empowerment
On the other hand, empowerment is when we can see that life is happening for us (even when we don’t like it or would not have chosen the hand we have been dealt). When we are empowered we understand that in every moment, every day, we have a choice in how we respond to our reality. These choices actually determine how we show up in the world. Are we choosing to show up anxious, fearful, lonely, disconnected, angry, distrusting, insecure and small? Or are we choosing to show up connected, vulnerable, brave, trusting, honest, surrendering, powerful, confident, and loving? The way we choose to show up in illness and in life has both a powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves and a critical role in our autonomic nervous system’s impact on the healing process.
All humans have a desire to be whole, confident, powerful, trusting, honest. Yet most of us, in some form or another, have picked up some limiting beliefs over the years that we unconsciously hold onto. In fact, I’ve found that anxiety and fear nearly go hand in hand with autoimmune disease. And, it’s no wonder: anxiety and fear are super triggers for the sympathetic nervous system which keeps our bodies in a chronic stress response, causing and perpetuating disease and literally preventing the healing process from taking place.
So: our mindset dictates our body’s ability to heal. Let’s take a look at some of the emotions that go with each mindset. When overwhelmed and feeling like a victim of autoimmune disease, it’s easy to feel frustrated, anxious, fearful, lonely, and misunderstood, in addition to the slew of physical symptoms. We’re aching for the solution—really, we’re just craving the way of being that supports us. Our sympathetic autonomic nervous system response is nearly always engaged. The good news is that the opposite is also true! When we take responsibility for our role in healing we can choose the empowered mindset. Humor, confidence, optimism, abundance, wholeness, peace, trust, and connection with friends and family are all at our fingertips. Turns out, they just so happen to promote healing, too. To review:
“I am not enough”
Supports sympathetic (stress) response
“I am enough”
Supports parasympathetic (healing) response
Change Your Mind, Heal Your Body
I have a dear friend who was doing a ton of work to figure out her autoimmune disease over the past ten years. Over the last three years, it became such a focus in her life that the fear of not healing took over, causing her considerable anxiety. She was obsessed—I doubt she went an hour in the day without thinking about her disease. Her mindset wasn’t helping her get any closer to the answers. It was exacerbating them! She knew something had to change.
With some serious effort, she took ownership of her role in her autoimmune disease. Sure, she didn’t choose to have it in the first place, but we all get to decide how we respond to the hand we’re dealt. By taking a hard look at her life and actively removing the things that were perpetuating her anxiety, she estimates she was able to reduce her stress by 50%—and guess what? Suddenly she’s healing her autoimmune symptoms faster than ever! She’s even weaning herself off of medication. She learned that once she could exercise trust in her body and relax (bringing on the parasympathetic healing state) her body would actually begin to heal itself.
Many of my autoimmune clients are high achievers, holding themselves to nearly impossible standards in their work, community, and home lives. The focus of perfection, performance and fear of failure are cornerstones of victim mentality. These ways of being put something outside of ourselves in charge of success and happiness and we spend our waking hours trying to prove ourselves. My high achiever clients make leaps and bounds in healing when they begin shifting from victim to empowerment and make decisions that activate their vagus nerve via the parasympathetic nervous system. They begin to see themselves as having choice regarding how many hours they work, what expectations they put on themselves, who they get to connect with, what they say yes to and what they say no to. They see how they have chosen anxiety and fear in their pursuit to do it all and do it all well.
So, this morning, I caught my overwhelm. I reminded myself that I have a choice to show up in my day overwhelmed, anxious, and resentful, or I can remind myself that I am a connected, loving, worthy and peaceful woman. When I committed to living my day in the latter ways of being, I was present, calm, and forgiving. My “overwhelming” day gave me the opportunity to practice ways of being that I feel proud of and that I know support my body in thriving and healing. I refocused my day from all the stuff I have to manage to how I get to show up and “be” in my day. Shifting from victim to empowerment requires us to shift our focus from “acts of doing” to “ways of being.”
We have choice in every single moment in every single day. What we choose is a reflection of what we are committed to creating in life—will it be anxiety or peace? When we are clear about who we want to be and we’re empowered to choose ways of being that support healing via the parasympathetic nervous system, we are not only living our life more fully and abundantly but our body is given the support to heal.
In the comments below, please share—how does your victim story show up? What ways of being are you committed to creating in your life that will support healing and a life well lived?