Befriending Your Nervous System is an Antidote to Stress
Befriending and understanding the unique responses of your nervous system is a powerful antidote to the dysregulation that can arise from chronic or traumatic stress. Not being able to understand the responses of your nervous system can create its own inputs to the survival brain, which increase fear and amplify dysregulation.
Feeling anxious and destabilised can escalate into panic when you’re scared of what’s happening and don’t understand these sensations. The brain perceives this as a very real threat, so it increases stress arousal.
Unexplained and ongoing pain that you can’t see, increases the threat of pain and can increase the amount of pain experienced. Studies show the more information a patient has about a surgical procedure - even knowing that pain after surgery is normal - the smaller amount of pain relief required, and the shorter the length of stay in the hospital.
A sense of doom, spaciness, fogginess, apathy and helplessness can take you down into the story that there’s something wrong with you. Ongoing shame and self-blame can perpetuate this physiological state. Recognising these feelings, thoughts and lack of energy as a sign that you’ve been under too much stress for too long (rather than a sign that you’re weak), can change how long it takes for you to recover from burnout or shut down.
A Framework for Understanding your Nervous System
A powerful framework to help you understand your nervous system is recognising how it can be influenced by:
Bottom-Up factors: biological or physiological things like vagal tone, injury, hormones, the immune system, or your gut.
Outside-In factors: work, money, relationships, your community, or life events.
Top-Down factors: thoughts, belief systems, internal narratives, language: “I’m a mess/weak” or “my back is broken”.
When you recognise and bring compassion to your own unique nervous system responses and understand how they fit into a framework, shame can dissolve. You see them as patterns shaped by your past or by what’s been going on in your life. Anyone could experience dysregulation with too much adversity, no matter how resilient they seem.
Rather than seeing yourself as too emotional, reactive, or needy, you see that your internal surveillance system has become sensitised to cues of danger, because of being under chronic or traumatic stress. This may have resulted in pain, prolonged anxiety and even burnout. Less shame and self-blame can bring regulation. Knowledge and understanding combined with resources to help you shift out of dysregulation are what lead to reduced stress arousal.
These feelings and behaviours came about in service of your survival from what happened in your past. Your nervous system gets retuned towards hyper- or hypoarousal when there’s too much stress, or the stress goes on for too long.
It may be time to recalibrate your nervous system back to its set point so that you can come back to the state where you feel a sense of ease, inner security, and trust. Knowledge is power and understanding how your brain and nervous system work is what can lead to re-regulation and put you back in the driver’s seat.
What Bottom-Up factors may be influencing your nervous system right now? (e.g., pain, sleep, gut health, inflammation)
What Outside-In factors could be contributing to it? (e.g., your relationships, work pressure, community factors)
What Top-Down factors could be playing a part in dysregulation or pain? (Consider any beliefs you may have about yourself.)