Your nervous system constantly takes in sensory information and responds accordingly. When there is no perceived threat to your safety you feel calm, breathe easily and your heartbeat is slower. You may have heard the terms ‘fight or flight’; these are the stress response states of the nervous system. When the nervous system senses danger and rings the alarm like a smoke detector do you need to fight or flight to stay alive?
Sometimes fight or flight isn’t an option when what we’re faced with completely overwhelms us. When this happens we can go into a freeze state or a state of mental and/or physical immobility, like a gazelle plays dead when a hungry lion outruns it. This inability to respond or complete our natural, self-protective responses (fight or flight) can result in survival energy getting trapped in our nervous system.
Imagine your nervous system is like your hand. Notice when your hand is relaxed and open it is able to move easily and complete all kinds of tasks. Now make a tight fist and notice the energy it takes to keep the hand closed and the fingers tight, and how other parts of your body have also likely tensed with your hand such as your stomach. Your hand is not able to do as much in this position, and the tension in your body is likely uncomfortable.
Over time our nervous system can spend so much time in fight, flight or freeze these states become the default making it even hard to move into a state of rest and relaxation, even when we want to. Cumulative cycles of unreleased fight or flight energy also build up over time and can affect learning and memory, and cause health concerns such as high blood pressure, heart disease and weight gain.
So how do you know what state your nervous system is in? Symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system can include:
- Being easily startled;
- Feeling ‘numb’ emotionally and physically;
- Addiction including substances or behaviours such as gambling and shopping;
- Feeling ‘spacey’ and disconnected;
- Posttraumatic stress;
- Occupational stress;
- Relationship issues;
- Chronic pain;
Trauma is one of the biggest causes of nervous system dysregulation. Trauma does not necessarily result from the action, situation or circumstance but how we responded or were able to respond at the time. Trauma can emerge from:
- Childhood sexual, emotional or physical abuse;
- Ruptures in attachment/attunement with primary caregivers;
- Illness (i.e., medical condition, addiction or mental health concerns) in our primary caregiver(s);
- Early death or loss (i.e., incarceration) of primary caregiver(s);
- Directly witnessing the hurt or harm of others;
- Motor vehicle accidents;
- Occupational stress injuries;
- Near death experiences;
- Worksite injuries;
- Falls or near-falls;
- War and escape from war-torn countries;
- Sexual harassment;
- Sexual assault;
- Pre and perinatal (before and during birth) issues;
There was once a myth people were unable to heal from trauma. Research and the effectiveness of treatments that include the nervous system are evidence this is no longer true. When the nervous system is given the time and space to speak, and feels supported, vitality and healthy regulation emerge.