The Flourishing Zone
I talk a lot about the Nine Needs for full human flourishing. These are the nine ingredients we need for a fulfilling and not-too-stressed life. (Many of you assessed yourself on these a few weeks ago.)
But what about flourishing in the day-to-day? It's great to pay attention to the big picture to make sure each of the ingredients is there at a whole-of-life level, but what about the experience of any given day? What about your experience right now?
Let me introduce you to the idea of the flourishing zone. That is, paying attention to and managing the state we are in right now.
You know about fight and flight right? These are responses to feeling threatened - responses from the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. They are our survival modes. When we are in them, we are surviving, not thriving. If we haven't paid attention to our Nine Needs, we'll probably find ourselves in these modes more than necessary.
However a couple of decades ago, there was a profound development in the understanding of survival modes as the role of the vagus nerve came to light. This nerve plays a role in the shut-down that happens when we freeze in response to a perceived threat (usually to our life). This research showed that the autonomic nervous system in fact has three branches, not two:
3) social engagement
If we feel a serious imminent threat (e.g. to our life), we go into shutdown - into under-arousal - the freeze responses. Here we are unable to think, talk, maybe even to move, we can feel spaced out or even faint, withdrawn, depressed, numb, unable to respond. This response comes from the oldest and deepest part of our brain: the reptilian brain.
If we perceive danger, we go into the fight/flight responses - over-arousal. Here we feel tension, maybe anger, anxiety, frustration or defensiveness. We might have emotional outbursts or become rigid and inflexible, subversive, manipulative, aggressive, harsh or controlling. Or our patterns could be in the opposite direction - avoidance, or playing the victim.
This is also the territory of self destructive behaviour, addictions, obsessions and phobias. Our body-minds are tense, on edge, reactive.
While those responses might sound extreme, we can have minor versions of them multiple times a day. The trigger could be getting stuck in traffic, a critical tone of voice from a work colleague or friend, or being excluded from a group somehow. Many of our modern day fight/flight responses are triggered by social danger rather than physical danger because for the most part, we are physically safe. But in our DNA, belonging is linked to survival.
When we are feeling safe, we move into social engagement responses. This is the zone where flourishing occurs. It's where we connect with others and have access to our full range of capabilities and personal resources, including the ability to learn.
It's also where our bodies' visceral healing processes occur - the 'rest and digest' functions of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. (This is especially important for recovery if you're an athlete.) We are out of survival mode and into flourishing mode.
All of our 'new-brain' capabilities of language, rationality and creativity are at our disposal. Our new brain is the neo-cortex - the outer layer that is distinct in humans, and most of it is involved in processing social cues.
Here our bodies are calmer, we might feel energy, joy, delight, warmth towards others, patience, curiosity, and our bodies are more at ease. We're able to learn.
In the last 20 years or so, another survival response has been identified - the 'tend and befriend' response. Historically observed more frequently in women (although this may be changing), it involves building reciprocal helpful relationships with others, which become beneficial when under threat. The building of these relationships can only happen in the flourishing zone of social engagement.
The good news is that we can increase the amount of time we spend in the flourishing zone. To do that though, we first need to be aware of which zone we're in. And for that, we need to practice mindfulness. I posted recently on the role of mindfulness in personal growth and this is a case in point.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to start this practice of noticing which zone you're in:
1) What mind activity is present? Are there narratives, mental movies, recurring thoughts? How would you describe what's going on in your mind?
2) What feeling tone is currently here? Am I generally feeling pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, or is the feeling tone neutral?
3) Within that general tone, what emotions are present? (If you'd like help identifying feelings, download our free Tool called What Am I Feeling here.)
4) How is the state of my body right now? Is there tension or tightness? If so, where? What does it feel like? Describe it.
The more quickly you can notice which zone you're in, the less likely you are to make a mess of things out of reactivity - to harm yourself, your relationships, and others.
If you find you're in the fight/flight zone, your first job is to wheel in a bucket of compassion. It's painful to be in this zone! And it's very human.
The second job is to act on that compassion by self-soothing - go for a run, have a hug, talk with a friend - figure out what works for you and do it.
Once you've soothed yourself out of the fight/flight zone, then you're able to learn from the situation and we've got some Tools to help....
If you need to get out of a downward spiral and reframe a situation you can't (or choose not to) change, you can try our Fixing the Frame workbook.
If you need to work through a difficult situation to release its emotional grip on you, try Inviting Your Demons in for a Tea Party.
If you simply need some help identifying what you're feeling, try our free Tool: What Am I Feeling?
What zone are you in now? Over the next week, see if you can use the Growth Superpowers of Curiosity and Clarity to track which zone you're in.
P.S. If you'd like to assess yourself on the Nine Needs for full human flourishing as well as the Five Growth Superpowers, and grow your way to an awesome life, try our Flourish Life Assessment.)