Befriending our nervous system

How stress and trauma affect our nervous system and what we can do about it

→ 5 minute read

From a nervous system point of view we either feel safe, or we don’t. When we don’t feel safe (stress response) we either go into fight-or-flight mode, or shut down (freeze).

When we feel safe (This state is called ‘Rest and digest’, the ventral vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant) we feel connected to ourselves and others, to our purpose and to our resources, we’re creative, and our body is in balance.
The fight-or-flight response (The sympathetic nervous system is more dominant) has the function to warn us of danger and keep us safe either through dealing with the situation or getting us to safety, after which it should switch off and we go back to feeling safe. When it’s chronically active we can get stuck in anger, feel stressed, anxious or unsettled.
When fight-or-flight is not an option, we immobilise or ‘check out’ (The dorsal vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant). For example not speaking up when our boundaries are crossed because of fear of the consequences. Our system goes into shutdown in order to conserve energy and protect us from psychological and physical pain. When we get stuck in this state we feel disconnected, lost and lonely. In daily life this can show up as endless scrolling, overeating, or any other behaviour that numbs our senses.

The problem of prolonged stress

Mobilisation (Fight or flight) as well as immobilisation (Freeze) are survival mechanisms that have the function to keep us safe from immediate danger after which our nervous system should go back to feeling safe. However, through traumatic events or feeling stressed or unsafe for extended periods of time, our alarm systems get thwarted and can get overly sensitive or stuck.

Our body can’t distinguish between real imminent danger or perceived danger created by our minds (For example thinking ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I will get fired’), rerunning events from the past in our mind or worrying about the future. When in tension, we disconnect from ourselves and others, and from our ability to meet life’s challenges in a creative and meaningful manner. If we stay in this state for prolonged periods of time, it wreaks havoc to both our emotional and physical health. And because our nervous system is literally shaped by the perception of our experiences (this is called neuroplasticity), difficult experiences can thwart our inner alarm systems, setting us up for hypervigilance and constant tension.

The body holds the solution

Luckily, in the same way we learned that we always have to be on the lookout for danger, we can work with our body and nervous system to process stuck emotions in order to become firmly rooted again in our innate capacity to live happily and creatively. By creating the conditions where the mind and body feel safe so we can stay connected to our inner resources whilst touching challenging situations or beliefs, a path to integration and transformation opens up.

Pathways to change

There are two main pathways to self-regulate our nervous system, top-down and bottom-up. Top-down regulation is from ‘brain to body’. Mindfulness or visualisations would fall into this category.
Bottom-up regulation is ‘body to brain’ and uses the body to calm down the mind. As about 80% of the communication of our vagus nerve is from body to brain, and our stress response is pre-verbal, meaning it happens before the cognitive mind kicks in, this is a very powerful way to send our alarm centres the message that we are safe. Mindful movement, gently tapping the body, rocking or shaking, touch, slow conscious breathing with long exhales, singing and humming, are just a few of the many ways through which we can calm and soothe our nervous system.

Doing inner work and somatic practices can help to process and release difficult emotions and memories and, over time, reshape our nervous system. Our nervous system will be better able to self regulate and it will be easier to feel safe in our bodies. This will profoundly change the perception we have of ourselves and the world we live in, and allow us to fully engage with life again.

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