Our brains are programmed to prioritize survival over and above everything else, providing us with an incredible capacity to protect ourselves. When our brains sense mortal danger, or even severe emotional or physical pain that could be too much for us to handle, they send a signal to our bodies to go into defense mode. Basically, they do what they need to do to keep us alive.
As I was driving home the other night, a car came speeding out of an alleyway as I was passing by. Had I not honked, cueing the rapidly approaching driver to brake suddenly, the driver’s side of my car would have likely been jackknifed. My body reacted to this life threatening experience in a very logical way, in exactly the same way that our bodies react to virtually all scary experiences. As a sudden shot of adrenaline ran through my bloodstream, my heart rate increased, my muscles tensed, the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end, my pupils undoubtedly dilated, and my breathing sped up. Within less than a second, I went into what is commonly known as “fight or flight” mode, a state of high alert during which physiological processes that are not necessary for immediate survival, such as digestion, are temporarily shut down.
My brain hit the “on” switch on my sympathetic nervous system, and I was in survival mode.
Within less than another second, I was back into “rest and digest” mode; as the adrenaline stopped pumping, my parasympathetic nervous system was back in the driver’s seat, slowing down my heart rate, allowing my muscles to relax, and slowing my breathing to its normal rhythm. Once my brain confirmed that I was safe, I felt a tingling sensation of relief from head to toe and was able to reflect on what had just happened. But in the second or so during which my safety was in jeopardy, I didn’t feel anything but a sense of intense vigilance, a sort of hyper-focus.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic (“fight of flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) sub-systems. Both can be activated simultaneously, but one of them is generally in the driver’s seat. Unlike the consciously controlled central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system reacts to internal and external stimuli without our conscious input. This sort of “auto-pilot” setup works quite well for the most part, allowing our brains to focus on tasks besides the control of internal organs or instinctive responses to danger.
The trouble comes in when trauma is so intense, overwhelming, or sustained that our “fight or flight” response gets stuck in the “on” position, overriding our body’s need to “rest and digest.”
This can be caused by chronic job or relationship stress, loss of a loved one, being the victim of a violent crime, unresolved childhood trauma, or feeling constantly overwhelmed by the fast pace of life. In your brain’s attempt to protect you, your body may suffer from a variety of physical and psychological symptoms stemming from an overactive sympathetic nervous system and underactive parasympathetic counterpart. Imagine a milder yet constant version of the hyper vigilant state that I experienced as I honked my car’s horn and prepared for a collision.
Sustained over long periods of time, such a state can lead to anxiety, depression, learning issues, chronic exhaustion, insomnia, aches and pains, an inability to absorb nutrients from food, overweight, poor blood sugar regulation, and ultimately serious illnesses like diabetes.
If you suspect that your sympathetic nervous system is hogging the driver’s seat, what can you do?
Basically, you must look for a way to get the parasympathetic nervous system back in the driver’s seat, with the sympathetic nervous system kicking in only when appropriate in the present moment, like when you are actually in danger.
Removing unnecessary stressors from our lives and incorporating calming activities is one of the keys to achieving this type of balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system. Checking in with our bodies to see what’s happening with our heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension can tell us who is in the driver’s seat at any given moment. In turn, this awareness gives us clues as to which activities initiate a stress response and which initiate a calming response.
Some of us, and I venture to say the majority of us, continue to hold onto traumatic experiences that no longer threaten us, but because we couldn’t manage them at the time they occurred, we have never fully moved on. More and more research shows that we hold onto these experiences in our bodies, in our cell tissue, in the way we hold our muscles, in our posture, in the way we react to benign stimuli.
Our bodies quite literally hold onto the past.
While engaging in calming activities is certainly helpful for many people who carry trauma in their bodies, sometimes it is helpful, and even necessary, to do more. Talk therapy is one place to start and can be extremely healing on psychological and/or emotional levels. However, as psychotherapist Babette Rothschild points out in her seminal work, The Body Remembers, “Emotions, though interpreted and named by the mind, are integrally an experience of the body.”
Bodywork and energy work can help release even decades-old trauma on important physical and emotional levels. Indeed more and more psychologists are referring patients to massage therapists and Reiki practitioners as a complement to traditional talk therapy.