Our Distressed Lizard Brains need Lizard Medicine, now
“You can’t attend lizard brain distress with your analytical brain. Our lizard brains need lizard medicine,” words I gently offered a patient struggling with a pendulum of acute panic and fatigue.
The exhaustion I spoke of in December has not ebbed, even with spring. And while the activation depends on our positioning and privilege, life circumstances and the direction in which you’re looking, peoples’ nervous systems are escalated right now. When I say lizard brain, I mean the most animal parts of us. When our lizard brains are activated, we are afraid for our safety and our belonging (aka safety). Fear triggers our nervous systems preparing us to fight, to run away, or to lock down in paralysis, to play dead. In this era, we are collectively moving through cycle after cycle of lizard brain activation. Many people are moving through waves of anxiety to exhaustion and paralysis.
In a podcast last summer, renown trauma researcher and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk commented that much of the world and those of northern European heritage “developed two ways of dealing with bad stuff. One of them was to drink. And so taking a pill is a respectable thing in Western culture to do, and normal people ingest stuff to make themselves feel better. Nobody feels bad about it. Other places in the world may say, that’s weird. Then the other thing that Western people are very good at is talking. We’re not very good in singing together and moving together.”
Indeed we are not very good at singing together. Thankfully, I’ve had mentors that have taught me otherwise.
Numbing and verbal processing dominate our collective response to ‘bad stuff’ or trauma, to the exclusion of more direct soothing practices that regulate our lizard brains; the things one does to soothe a child. Trauma has been addressed very differently by cultures of the global majority (Black, Indigenous and other People of Color). Many of the things I name here as lizard medicine are woven into regular ritual and practices throughout the world. These are not new. However, as we adult (intentionally used as a verb) in western industrialized nations, many lose touch with the truth that we respond to soothing just as infants do. We do and we must. When we are activated into our own lizard brains, we cannot access empathy. We are also impaired in executive functioning and decision making. And so soothing ourselves not only feels better in our body-minds, it’s also critical if we’re going to access our most creative brilliance and reach for each other in community through these dire times. The list below are of things to DO, not just to read about.
- Hum (with the exhale, repeatedly for several minutes.)
- Rock (side to side, back and forth, fast or slow, bundled with a blanket is yummy)
- Tone (hum making sound with your mouth open)
- Sing (anything that brings you joy, scat if you can’t remember lyrics)
- Self massage (rub chest center, your face, throat, lower belly)
- Sense stimulation that brings us into immediacy with the world (music, warm bath, shower or foot soak, cuddle a pet, take in potent smells like garlic, onion, cooking and eating food, play with essential oils)
- Opening to awe (In spring, this is all around everywhere in natural world, really pausing to witness the wonder of a bulb emerging from the earth, a bud opening, a blossom exploding). I often include images of the natural world in these musings. Hiking and time in our natural spaces is imperative lizard medicine for me.
- Intimate contact with the exhale with particular attention to the earth through your seat or your feet.
Reading more about this isn’t the medicine. Please, please after this reading lay down your computer or phone and try something from the list above with a spirit of curiosity. I’ve found in humming, that initially I feel the sense of vibration only in my head and jaw. Yet if I continue for about 2 minutes, humming with the exhale, the sensation slowly extends out to all parts of my body including down into the belly, the pelvis, the legs, the tips of my fingers and toes. Humming can occur beneath one’s mask while doing manual work, once on mute working from home, if you’re a parent, those few sacred moments in the bathroom to yourself. I commonly rock unconsciously when taking in difficult news (on the telephone, in reading recent news). I place a hand on my chest, rubbing and sink into the exhale if I’m feeling over stimulated/overwhlemed or tender and feeling empathy for another. All of these are ways I actively engage lizard medicine for my own lizard brain activation.
In a second session with a new patient this week, they reflected surprise that I work so much with trauma. I have been observing and working with grief and trauma in the body-mind since my years at hospice. And I keep learning. In my last year in grad school (’07), we were invited to encapsulate hopes for our healing work in a single phrase. My words then: “I want to support people to come home to their bodies and their lives.” 15 years later, my existential tag line and life aspiration remain the same. How I work has evolved over time. For the first time in 10 years, I recently asked current patients to share their reflections about my care. Those patient stories are now updated and reflected here. In case you are considering care, or considering referring someone my way, please have a look.
There are MANY influences and lineages that have contributed to my understanding of lizard medicine. With humility, gratitude and tender regard naming these include and are not limited to: my years providing grief counseling for Providence Hospice of Seattle ’00-’04 (mentored by Jane Fleming), Shodo Harada Roshi and the monastery, SIEAM, Hakomi, Insight Dialogue, Holistic Resistance, Rev angel Kyodo Williams, Resmaa Manekam & ERE.
Thank you for taking the time to read, particularly in this era of excessive screen time for many, and lizard brain over stimulation for most. I still remain a dinosaur and don’t do social media, and so I think in full sentences and sometimes they run long. Thank you for reading to the end. Please share this content on your social media platforms so the ripples may extend out into the world, to soothe the lizard brains of our broader human family. As you soothe with lizard medicine, you will be better able to experience empathy and think creatively and critically.
With abiding care rippling outward in all directions.