Book an intro call

Stress and safety: why slowing down can feel unsafe

May 05, 2024

My brain was operating at 20% capacity this week. I had the brain flu, or at least that's what I'm calling it. For 5+ days, all I could do was rest while I waited for the body aches, pounding headaches, fever dreams, and incapacitating brain fog to pass. 

Rationally, we know that getting sick and having to let go of a mountain of to-do's doesn't mean the world is ending. But try telling our nervous system that. 

Why slowing down can feel unsafe
When we get sick and have no choice but to tuck up for the no-fun kind of "Netflix and chill," our body goes into shutdown mode. We're conserving energy and minimizing output to allow ourselves to heal. This forced slowdown can feel really, really uncomfortable. It can actually feel unsafe, and here's why.

If you've experienced your fair share of stressful events or even trauma throughout your life, you may have gotten really good at coping by overworking, overdoing and overachieving at every turn (relatable!).

While this response may serve us well by getting us good grades, promotions, and praise from a society that loves do-ers, it is helpful to recognize that it may also be a self-protection response. This is our nervous system's natural response to evade a perceived threat by kicking us into a fight-or-flight response, which is great, but not when we get stuck in that state.  

When we get sick and find ourselves immobilized, unable to flee, our body goes, "Uh oh, we're stuck." And naturally, it can feel pretty darn uncomfortable when we don't have access to the coping mechanism we're used to. There is a ton of energy that wants to move and mobilize with nowhere to go. 

Completing the self-protection response 
The next time you feel that icky discomfort from slowing down or resting, here are a few steps you can take to help the self-protection response move through:

1. Acknowledge it 
Name the experience of feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, restless, or whatever comes to mind to describe it.

2. Normalize it 
Remind your brain and nervous system that this is a natural self-protection response intended to keep you safe. Even in the absence of a real threat, the nervous system is doing its job. This is normal. 

3. Notice it 
Where do you feel it in your body? How do you notice it through sensations, emotions, behaviour, etc.? Go slow and back off if you're noticing too much. 

4. Ask it what it wants to do 
We may feel a call to do something when we experience strong emotions, sensations, or energy in the body from a self-protection response. This could involve allowing the body to express itself by moving, shaking, or placing a hand on an area of greater sensation. Sometimes, even the act of noticing can soften the response and allow it to move through.

Your embodied leadership takeaway
If you're new to connecting safety and old patterns with slowing down, go slow and be patient with yourself. Especially if this is a pattern you've lived with for a long period of time, it can take time to unravel.

Wherever you are with exploring your relationship with slowing down, remember that with awareness comes choice and with choice comes change. And that's a good place to start. 


Subscribe to Awarely's newsletter to join our mission to impact real workplace change (oh, and get cool resources and invites to community events). 

Sign me up