When you lose control of the wheel…
Uncle Ug, your long lost caveman uncle, lived a pretty interesting life. He lived on the Steppes of Mongolia where he and his clan roamed, hunted and gathered. Life, for the most part, was pretty cruisy but it could also be unpredictable. There were times when food was in abundance, everybody got along and all his needs were met. But, there were also times where neighbouring tribes moved in and war broke out. There were hungry sabre tooth tigers looking for a meal, angry warthogs, and times when food was scarce and weather conditions harsh.
Ug’s body and mind had to be able to respond to this changing environment. Ever since single cellular organisms emerged from the oceans onto land, and over millions of years of evolution, these single celled organisms eventually formed the modern form of humans we associate ourselves with. A part of this evolution, which I want to explore in this blog post, was the development of the nervous system.
Our nervous system is a complex beast! There are multiple divisions that control our bodies. We have the central nervous system made up of the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system that extends out from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. Part of this peripheral nervous system includes the somatic nervous system that we can control to move our muscles, and then there’s the enteric nervous system that services the gastrointestinal system. Within the peripheral nervous system is a department that operates without conscious control, the autonomic nervous system, and it controls pretty much everything that we take for granted like our heart rate and blood pressure, digestion and our body temperature. It is also put in charge of the very important job of keeping us safe.
Uncle Ug’s nervous system constantly scanned his environment, receiving information through all his senses alerting him to a sense of safety or danger, preparing him for fight, flight, or freeze. At any moment, Ug’s body had to respond in a fraction of a second to ensure survival and it’s almost like the body took that job off our “conscious plates” to make sure we didn’t hesitate or make an inaccurate judgement. Probably a very wise move!
These states – safety, fight, flight or freeze – all play crucial roles in getting us through our modern, daily lives. Back in Ug’s day all four of these states were possible. Combinations of these states were also a possibility. He and his clan-mates felt reassured and safe when everything was easy, food was abundant and times peaceful. But when “Toothy” the Sabre Tooth Tiger came to town, things changed very quickly. The “mobilize” responses of fight and flight kick in, gearing the body up by releasing powerful hormones that charge the body up ready to be quick, powerful and sharp as a tack. BUT, if Toothy got the upper hand, and trapped us so we couldn’t escape, the “immobilise” response kicked in… Freeze.
In each of these responses, total, full body, major physiological changes occur. Changes that impact every cell of the body in powerful ways. Now, fast forward to modern day and our autonomic nervous system still continues to use each and every one of these states, albeit in different ways. Sure, we don’t have Toothy stalking us anymore, but we have sabre tooth tigers in disguise. The bank manager, the husband, wife, kids… The workload, the workplace dynamic, our bank balance… All seem like tigers and all stimulate our primitive survival responses.
Sometimes these tigers aren’t even in the present moment, but they may as well be. Sometimes the tigers are in our minds and our memories. Adverse childhood experiences, traumas such as divorce, sexual, physical and emotional abuse. It could be shock traumas such as an accident, a single assault, a medical intervention or a natural disaster such as a fire. Even simply the dynamic in the childhood home, if unstable or unsafe, continues to haunt us decades down the track in the form of belief systems we can’t drop, making the life we experience stressful. It’s almost as if we carry the tigers around with us, altering our perception of the world we live in.
“We don’t react to what happens to us. We react to our perception of what happens to us” – Dr. Gabor Mate
And this is where the problem can lie. If our perception of the world is a volatile or unsafe place, then our autonomic nervous system will do what it is designed to do, and up-regulate the body to protect itself leading to a stress response of fight or flight that it simply won’t let go of. Why would it? The world is volatile and unsafe… it needs to be ready for survival.
When the nervous system loses its ability to regulate its survival states, it cannot come back down to a healthy baseline, and becomes dys-regulated. The wrong responses launched at inappropriate times, an exaggerated response, the inability to calm the response down even when the stressor is gone, and maybe a dominant fight, flight or freeze response all leading to major negative impacts on our physical, mental and emotional health.
Ideally, we want our autonomic nervous system to be flexible and able to launch and quench our survival responses in a fluid, balance and healthy way. But this is not the reality for many individuals. The good news is we can train ourselves to regain control, flexibility and mastery over our autonomic nervous system and enhance our ability to Self-regulate our survival responses. This is really good news!!
So how? Here’s a few tips.
Each of us have an autonomic nervous system and we all have different capacity to regulate our states. Some people are very good at this and others can struggle as we have discussed. Our nervous systems have the ability to attune and mirror those we spend time with and this influences the state of our nervous system. This is called “co-regulation” and it is one of the most powerful ways to train your autonomic nervous system to regulate. But beware!!! It can work in both directions. Our nervous systems can attune to the stressed out, angry, hypervigilant stimulus of somebody in a stress response or, it could attune to the nervous system of a calm, happy and regulated individual in the relaxation response. The point I’m trying to make is, the people we spend time with, the dynamic in this space and the ability of these individuals to regulate themselves impacts our own nervous system. So, surround yourself with people and environments that impact you and your nervous system in positive, calm, happy and balanced way.
The respiratory system of the body is an interesting one. It is one of the only systems in your body that is under both unconscious AND conscious control. Left to its own devices, it will breath itself typically at a rate of somewhere between 15-25 breaths a minute depending on how stressed we are. Now, for optimal health we should be breathing around 5-6 breaths a minute – that’s a big difference!!
How can we achieve this? I recommend consciously focusing on slowing your breathing rate down to calm your nervous system and improve oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. This can be done as a formal practice of breathwork where you dedicate 10-20 minutes to breath slowly in for 5 seconds and out for 5-8 seconds. Don’t pause at the top or bottom of the breath just transition from in to out seamlessly. This will take your breath rate down to 5-6 breaths a minute. An important point is to only breathe through the nose if you can.
So, slowing the breath down and breathing through the nose is the name of the game! You can also do this in the car whilst driving, doing the dishes, gardening, working… anywhere and anytime. Start focussing on doing this until it becomes your default way of breathing. This style of breathwork will train your nervous system to calm down by toning your para-sympathetic nervous system, the one that takes you out of fight and flight i.e. stress, and will ensure optimal oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream which will convey a multitude of health benefits.
Meditation is a very powerful medicine! I mean it, it’s medicine. If you could bottle all the amazing health benefits of a consistent daily practice such as meditation, there wouldn’t be a single person on the planet that wouldn’t line up to buy it. Its that good! The great thing is, this medicine, once learnt, is FREE! You can give yourself a daily dose, and in heavy times, you can hook yourself up for an IV of it and drip feed yourself meditation all day long if need be!
When we meditate, we are essentially doing the opposite of stress. We are engaging in the full body major physiological event called the “relaxation response” that I mentioned earlier. But instead of the response being highly detrimental to the body, like the fight or flight response when it won’t turn off, this response is highly beneficial. It’s the medicine we’re talking about!
Meditation may not make you enlightened overnight, but the widespread physiological benefits occur the moment you close your eyes – there’s no waiting around or delayed onset. As with any health practice, the key is daily repetition as the benefits compound and increase in their intensity and health providing properties
Spend time in nature
Nature-medicine really can’t be beaten. The rhythm of nature, the calming sounds, the feel of the wind on your face, the sand between your toes… this is co-regulation of a different kind. The environment we find ourselves in, whether that be the stressed-out office or the calming space of a little nook near a stream, influences our nervous system just as much as the people we spend time with. Choose and create your environments wisely and actively choose to get out into nature with people who you love and can regulate themselves healthily and get a double whammy of co-regulation!! Other ideas… maybe make time just for yourself and the trees!! Create a safe and clam space in your home. Bring calming elements into your work space. It all helps!
The survival responses we’ve talked about, namely the fight or flight, are activating responses. These are both full body, major physiological events. Now what do you think happens if all those hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammatory chemicals and more don’t get burnt up running from or fighting Toothy? They persist in the body, don’t they? And this is one of the main issues with chronic long-term persistent stress is that this “stress chemistry” interferes with our biology helping to create disease and dysfunction. Movement in any form such as yoga, exercise, dancing or shaking, helps “burn up” this chemistry of stress so it doesn’t play mischief with you and your health. The lesson here – spend time with people that can regulate doing fun things that involve moving your body.
My hope is that this blog has shown you how your nervous system can work for and against you, and when we perceive it’s working against us, that it is really, in fact, still just trying to keep us safe – it’s loving you the only way it knows how. When our nervous system is dys-regulated, we have the power to learn how to Self-regulate our autonomic nervous system using some of the tips above and the help of some trained professionals to bring more flexibility and balance to lives.
To further solidify your knowledge around this very important topic I encourage you to watch the short video on autonomic nervous system regulation below. I see this issue of dys-regulation daily in my practice and the concepts covered in this article and the video below is so important to understand.
If you need some help to learn these skills please reach out to me. You can book a free 30-minute phone appointment with me where we can discuss what is going on for you and how I may be able to help.