Updated: Mar 25, 2022
For trauma survivors and individuals who've experienced mental health challenges, it can often feel like our nervous system is the enemy. It can become a source of furthered anxiety and seen as something that has control over their lives, rather than one that is in place to save it. Without an understanding of how and why our nervous system functions the way it does, we can find ourselves living in a consistent state of survival which not only is unsustainable, it's unbearable.
However, if we de-personalize the experience for a moment to examine why the nervous system exists, we are able to the release the shame and guilt over our intrinsic reactions to certain stimuli and focus our attention towards practices that enable us to calm our nervous system down.
There Are Actually Several Systems
While frequently referred to as "The Nervous System," modern medicine has identified six different nervous systems. The primary two are the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary functions of the body. As subsystems beneath the ANS, the two systems that are relevant within the discussion of trauma and mental health are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Simply put, the responsibility of the sympathetic nervous system is to cue the body's fight, flight or freeze response, while the parasympathetic nervous system's focus is to rest and digest.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it is because our body has perceived a threat. While this threat could be anything from a confrontation with someone at the grocery store to a fight with a romantic partner, our body reacts no differently than if we were being chased by an animal in the woods and running for our lives. Thus, our muscles tense, heart rate increases, pupils dilate, mouth waters, adrenaline rushes through us, and our stomach process pause in order for our muscles to have maximum blood flow to do whatever they need us to do to get ourselves to safety.
Given our modern society isn't one that has us running for our lives on a regular basis, this response might feel a bit exaggerated for our day to day lives, but keeping the ways our lives have evolved over thousands of years in mind, it is a brilliantly designed system for our survival.
The thing about trauma though, is that repeated activation of our sympathetic nervous system results in changes to the brain that leave an individual hyper-vigilant, unable to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system easily, and on edge, waiting for the next traumatic event to happen. This experience affects the lives of trauma survivors so much, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became a diagnosis given to help individuals and those around them conceptualize and empathize with their experience.
The complex ways in which PTSD affects those affected by it is a much larger topic for discussion, but the important takeaway as it relates to our nervous system is that the affect is so severe, it is diagnosable, but also, that it is treatable.
You don't have to be diagnosed with PTSD to know you have hyperactive sympathetic nervous system, and there are ways to help yourself.
I mention the diagnosis because it is a declaration within medicine that often legitimizes an issue to skeptics of the effects of trauma on our lives. However, by no means is any sort of professional diagnosis necessary to know or identify the effects of trauma on your own nervous system.
What You Can Do For Yourself
If you identify with the idea of having an over active sympathetic nervous system, the best strategy in your toolkit is to find ways to connect with your parasympathetic nervous system.
In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system can also be considered the feed-and-breed system.
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system results in feelings of peace, calm, euphoria, the same way you feel after eating or engaging in sexual activity. Our muscles relax, pupils restrict, heart rate decreases, and our thinking slows.
Connecting to this system, especially after the sympathetic nervous system was triggered, communicates to our body that all is well and we no longer need to be concerned with survival because we are safe.
Common ways to connect to the parasympathetic nervous system are
EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique)
Focusing only on one activity, such as painting, knitting, coloring, etc.
While the unfortunate truth of classism and access to mental health services in the United States exists, by educating ourselves and creating a toolkit of strategies to understand and calm our brains, we can become masters at our own self care.
If you enjoyed this article or found any of it's suggestions or explanations helpful, please share it with a friend, The more we share and open discussions surrounding mental health, the closer we are to destigmitizing a topic that is truly a universal experience.
Thank you for reading and as always,