We live in a world that often overstimulates and overwhelms us. Throughout our day we take in sensory information through our communication with others, what we read and see on our phones, and what we hear, see, and smell out in the world. Our nervous system is constantly taking that sensory information and translating it for us, assessing our world for danger. These signals can include an accelerated heart rate, faster breathing or holding your breath, muscle tension, and /or irritability. This is also known as the fight or flight response. Your body is preparing for danger and reserving energy for body functions that will enhance chances of survival. We are primarily in primitive brain mode: high level thinking and choice making most likely will not happen. Past experiences, especially traumatic ones, can cause danger signals in our bodies when we are not in immediate danger.
Imagine this, back in our history as humans our primitive brain (hind brain and medulla) would take information from our environment and if there was a lion it would tell us, “There’s a lion!” Adrenaline is released, our heart beats faster, our breath quickens, and our muscles tense to either fight or flee. Today, our brain has no idea when there is not a lion. We receive the signal “There’s a lion!” even when we are not in mortal danger. Much of the time we can assess a situation and realize we are not about to be eaten, however, when we have chronic stress and/or unhealed trauma, our nervous system is stuck in the “on” position. This means we are always feeling on edge, tense, and ready to run even if we do not realize it.
Even when we are stuck “on” we can learn how to understand the signals our nervous system is giving us and practice ways to pause the fight or flight reaction. Because our nervous system reacts unconsciously, recognizing the signals and regulating our reactions takes practice. Here are some common signals to look for:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Rapid breathing or holding of breath
- Clenched fists
- Tense muscles
- Dilated pupils
While practicing consistent self-care strategies such as yoga, meditation, and exercise enable us to build greater resilience, starting a self-care routine can be overwhelming. We are also not always able to break away from what activated our nervous system and must manage our reaction in the moment. Each strategy below takes intention and commitment to practice and should not be used as a replacement for therapy.
These strategies can be practiced at any time making it easier to use them when needed most:
- Three slow, deep breaths – letting your exhale be longer than your inhale gives your brain enough time to realize you are not in immediate danger
- Wet noodle – voluntarily relaxing your muscles from head to toe while counting to ten
- 5 senses grounding activity – 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste to help ground you in the present
- Sensory objects – worry stones, fidgets, stress ball, etc. that you can use as an anchor or energy diffuser.
- Stretching – taking small movements to loosen the tension in our bodies
- Connect with people – communicating with someone with whom we feel safe
We also must pay attention when our nervous system moves too far in the other direction when we become overwhelmed. This is often called the freeze or faint mode.
Here are some common signals to look for:
- Slower heart rate
- Fatigued muscles
- Low blood pressure
- Pulling away from others
- Loosening of bowels
- Not able to move
- Feel powerless or hopeless
When we experience shutdown, it is important to connect ourselves back to the present and find ways to begin building enough energy to feel safe and balanced.
The following strategies can help bring you out of shutdown:
- Standing up – sometimes moving our body is enough to motivate us to do something else
- Notice your breath – connecting to your breath can connect you back to the here and now
- Body scan – focusing on the sensations in our body can help us connect to ourselves and our current experience
Learning how to understand our nervous system brings us closer to experiencing balance and building resilience. When we practice connecting to our bodies and our environment, we become more compassionate with ourselves and others and feel safer in our world. We can face challenges a little easier and begin to eliminate chronic stress. It is also important to recognize when we need the extra help of a mental health professional to give support and get us started on a path to healing.
Written by: Shakira Eakins, LCSW