How Past Experiences Shape Our Nervous System Responses

Your brain and nervous system aren’t passive receivers of information – they’re actively shaping themselves through what they learn from your experiences, relationships, and environment.

A single nerve cell (neuron) will maintain a chemical history of the events it has dealt with. Each one has approximately 5000 spines that allow it to connect with other neurons so that each neuron is in a web of feedback. Depending on what you experience, certain connections will form between individual neurons, and some will be inhibited. This web, and the way it communicates, is your unique neuromatrix.

Your history governs how you’ll respond to future stressors. It could be with anxiety, reactivity, or anger, whenever there’s a disagreement. It could be feeling helpless, freezing, or shutting down when you need to make a hard decision. It could trigger an intense fear of abandonment when you feel ignored by someone.

Although there may be alternative ways of responding to a situation, certain defensive strategies can become imprinted into the survival brain and nervous system in previous times of chronic and traumatic stress, creating connections that are hypersensitised. This may be the automatic pathway that’s taken today when you face stressors, despite the context being different. Past experience gets ingrained into the present body and nervous system.

You may become stuck in limited programming loops, inflexibly using only one or two particular defensive strategies whether they’re appropriately matched to the situation or not. Without learning another way, it’s likely to remain the path you take in the future when you meet adversity or face demands, limiting your potential and causing suffering. The key is to uncouple old bodily sensations of danger that shift you into survival mode, anxiety, and shutdown, from what you’re actually experiencing today.

Your neuromatrix and the ways your brain and nervous system have adapted to respond to adversity is not who you are. It’s simply what’s been learnt from the people in your life and the environments you have been in. What you experience today will actively influence these connections, as they’re in a state of constant change. The nervous system needs the space to first unlearn these automatic responses, and then the resources to learn something new.

In a pinhead size speck of brain tissue, electron microscopy research has revealed that there are 350 million neural connections. When it comes to the connections that are possible between different neurons, it is thought that there are more combinations possible than positively charged particles in the universe. When the past can be disentangled from the present, it’s possible to truly recover from chronic and traumatic stress and feel at home inside your body.

Instead of reacting from the past, you can live in the here and now, leaving the old danger responses behind. Once the stress activation of the past has been discharged, there’s space to access the vagus nerve and return to regulation. New experiences can be properly assessed and experienced, and the nervous system is recalibrated.

There is so much potential to change how the brain and nervous system respond to adversity. There can be room for both past traumas and a present moment full of new possibilities. There’s room for new chapters of your story.









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We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we share our work, the Arakwal of the Bundjalung, and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Always was, always will be.