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Welcome to Your Nervous System: Incorporating Stress Responses to Understand Your Mental Health

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

I heard this statement about a year ago, and it resonated with me so much that I continue to reflect on it today: Our nervous system is wired for two things, to help protect us and to help us heal, and often those two functions can work against each other. I wish I could give credit to the individual who described this, because I wasn't the one to come up with it.

When Our Nervous System Protects

Our nervous system does a lot for us. Its functions are beyond what I myself can describe here. But I can write about this: our nervous system protects us, and it is often very good at what it does. So good that if we are not aware, it can overdo its job, acting through behaviors that happen at an unconscious level. And this is where we come in, to learn and understand our nervous system and how it impacts us, and help guide our nervous system so that it can still do its job without overdoing it. So where do we start?

This is a series I am writing that will be delivered in six parts, starting here with the introduction. It will follow in the next few months to describe our five basic stress responses that our nervous system delivers to protect, survive, and conserve our bodies and energy. They are the fight, flight, freeze, faint, and fawn responses. You might have heard of them, and if you're curious to learn more, stay tuned.

I'm sure you've heard of an adrenaline rush. I remember having it first described to me in the sixth grade. Essentially how it works is your senses, (sight, smell, auditory, touch, intuitive) clue you in that something is wrong. I'm sure you've had similar experiences, walking on a hike or walkway and suddenly you detect movement next to you, seeing a long skinny figure near the path you're walking. Suddenly your body goes tense and you may experience a surge of energy, possibly fear. As you begin to react, maybe moving away or freezing, gasping to catch your own attention, you then realize it's a snake. You see it's moving away from you, realizing it also doesn't want to be anywhere near you, either. But it takes a few seconds to realize this, and once you do, your heart-rate comes back down and you then continue hiking. Here's the thing, unless you have a love and fascination for snakes, you were doing what biologically you needed to do: to protect yourself. You needed to become alert to knowing that something dangerous was nearby, something that could be dangerous, and then you needed to take action in whatever capacity to keep yourself safe.

So here's where the nervous system becomes too good at what it does. That fear of what is unsafe extends beyond snakes, bears, lions, tornadoes, fires, and gunshots. It perceives anything that can be a threat, including every-day experiences. What about those times you were driving to work, a normal everyday experience, except this particular day you have someone almost hit you. You blast your horn at the other driver, frustrated that they weren't paying attention. But traffic keeps going and so do you as you have to get to work. You feel tense and your blood pressure seems to be slightly elevated. But you notice you're a little late and so you shuffle to your desk to begin answering all the messages left for you over the weekend. Not having any time, you simply go about your day, your mind transitioned into work mode, but your body still carrying the threat from the morning, what you perceive as a minor traffic inconvenience.

That's what we tend to do, dismiss everyday stresses, because in the scheme of things, they do seem relatively minor. But unless you take heed, tuning into your mind and body's responses from the accumulated bombarding of small or real threats around us, our nervous system might get overloaded and begin to feel out of control.

But our nervous systems don't just react to the threats it perceives around us. It is also responding to the threats that were real from our pasts. Some of us have lived in safe, comfortable lives for the most part, while others of us have lived in more dangerous neighborhoods and families. Some of us have not had safe and peaceful home environments or schools. And some of us have not received love in our early childhoods, which in a sense is threat to safety if no one might take care of you as an infant. So while our nervous system was reacting to the threats when we were younger, unless we've done our own healing work, our nervous system is going to continue to respond to many perceived threats, even if we consciously see them as no big deal now. This build up of responses trains our nervous system to respond to many threats, creating anxiety, depression, panic, emotional outbursts, and negative thought processes. Inevitably we become frustrated and ask why we or so frustrated, anxious, depressed, or why we don't sleep as well. We then go to our doctors or mental health providers, not knowing what else to do for 'our nerves.'

While you can be frustrated all you want with your nervous system, I guarantee that getting frustrated with it really won't help it. In fact, it may add more stress for your nervous system to react to, which I don't think is what you want.

Here's something to try rather than become frustrated with yourself: 1) notice the emotional state. 2) become curious to your emotional state or physical responses. 3) attune to the response and let it know it has your attention. 4) simply breathe it out and let yourself that whatever it is your body is responding to, it's over, you're in your car or you're at your home now, and you can now relax.

I know that this advice comes in a simplified manner. Putting it into practice is where you will need to do your part. Simply alerting yourself to noticing an emotional state allows you to observe it and take control of it rather than having your emotions and stress manage your responses. Stopping and asking yourself curiously what your responding to allows you to have some perspective and manage what alerted your stress response. Attuning to the response helps to calm it down by giving it your authentic attention. Breathing helps your stress response begin to regulate itself. In fact, slowing down our breathing is known as the only thing that can calm the stress response after it's been hijacked by stress.

Here are some of the many ways that our nervous system acts:

  • Increase our heart rate

  • Slow our digestion

  • Cause nausea

  • Create a mood shift

  • Startle

  • Withdraw

  • Tense up

  • Zone out

  • Slow or increase breathing

  • Sweat

  • Shut down

Knowing that your nervous system is constantly observing for threats, you allow yourself to better attune to your own wellness, your own body's mental and physical needs. Not doing so, your nervous system is guaranteed to be constantly hijacked. Your stress response is doing the only thing it knows how to do: alert you and keep you safe by putting you into action. Since you're the one with the cognitive abilities, it requires you to let it know whether there's a real and perceived threat or that all may actually be well.

Through this series, we'll take a look at some categories that have been identified to better describe our stress responses, fight, flight, freeze, faint, and fawn. Rather than pigeon-holing these symptoms, they're more of a way to guide an understanding our confusing behaviors and symptoms and how they are inevitably keeping us safe.

Here's Where You Begin

Understanding your body and its nervous system is an important component to understanding your own mental health. This is where I invite you to get to know your own responses, and rather than getting frustrated with them, use them as an opportunity to understand how your body is really doing its best to protect you, because until your body knows any different, it's simply going to keep doing what it knows how to do.

1) Understand your responses, 2) let your body know you appreciate what it does, but really, the danger is over now, and 3) direct your body into new responses. Your mental health will thank you and your body will get to learn and add to what it already knows so far. And you'll feel empowered as your body breaks out of overused patterns and adds new ones into its collection of responses.

Stay tuned to this series of flight, fight, freeze, faint, and fawn continue to be posted every two to four weeks.

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