Whenever we feel even the slightest bit threatened, our body enters activation mode, which is the home of our stress response; the fight-or-flight response, activated by the sympathetic system. When this happens, the vagus nerve sends SOS signals to the sympathetic nervous system making our hearts pump harder and faster; activating stress responses in our adrenal glands, increasing cortisol levels, and raising our body temperature. In this heightened state we are unable to register pain, our focus is mainly on louder and more distressing sounds, we lose our sense of smell. We even start to look physically more tense and stressed out. Our facial expressions are often fearful, sad, upset or angry.
The fight or flight response is an automatic survival mechanism which prepares the body to take the above-mentioned actions. The physical sensations generated are happening for a reason – to prepare the body to run away or fight. This process is often uncomfortable, especially when you don’t know why it is happening. Whether the stressful situation occurring is just a thought or a belief or something environmental, such as a looming work deadline or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job, a work injury, relationship issues, financial concerns and other various life changing events, it can nevertheless trigger a flow of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. Even the smallest stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscle’s tense up and the body temperature raises.
There are four responses that are often brought up when talking about trauma and its effects on our stress response: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response (appeasing people). These are the times when our survival mechanisms quick in and the brain and body automatically respond by fighting back or fleeing a situation that is alarming (or appears to be alarming) in order to assure our survival. In today’s world, it can become fairly “normal” for us to live in this stressful way. In addition with all the health issues associated with this chronic state, people who struggle with an overactive sympathetic (trauma) response, commonly experience a range of emotional and physical issues, including:
- Lack of emotional resilience.
- Inability to form meaningful, deeper connections (with self and others).
- Issues with concentration.
- Difficulty being present and/or taking in new information.
- Difficulty being still.
- Over thinking and over analysing.
- An increased level of sensitivity to food, people and places.
- Difficulty performing higher functioning cognitive tasks, such as planning for the future or being able to complete a project.
- Trouble delaying gratification and/or incredibly strict and rigid with the way they approach life.
The nervous system affects all other systems of the body. If the immune system is constantly misdirecting its inflammatory chemicals (i.e., cytokines), the body’s ability to respond to real illness is diminished. Inflammation that occurs also impacts the brain and has been identified in various forms of psychological dysfunction and mental illness, from depression and anxiety to psychosis (losing touch with reality).
There is little control as to how we enter fight/flight mode. It all happens subconsciously. Our body’s reaction to threat is instinctual and involuntarily. But we can incorporate daily activities that can better support our nervous system. If we are left stuck in this response, our immune system will continue to initiate an inflammatory reaction. As mentioned in the best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk; “as long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself, keep circulating.” Stress also effects every system of the body including the gut which is why gastrointestinal issues such as IBS, GERD, SIBO, constipation and acid reflux issues have continued to rise in our society.
Activities that support our stress response
- Breathwork – Doing breathwork engages the autonomic nervous system. It’s like doing planks for the vagus nerve. Studies have shown a link between daily breathwork practices and increased longevity. Check out the below video for a simple and time effective breathing exercise you can easily incorporate every day.
- Movement – Any activity such as running, swimming, hiking and dancing, where the body and the mind are linked in a safe way, helps us “widen the window”. Regular Yoga practice has been shown to have a diffusing effect on the body, including reducing inflammation, regulating blood pressure and supporting the vagal response.
- Play – As adults we often forget to connect with joy and play. We tend to reach for substances (alcohol or drugs) or activities that have a numbing effect (i.e. spending hours on social media, or in front of TV), which appear to be reducing stress as a way to cope. We forget how to do something just for the mere delight of doing it. Not for reaching a goal, not for being responsible or motivated or gaining anything. But simply to have fun and allow ourselves to connect to the child within us. This could be anything from playing our favorite sport to learning an instrument or singing, dancing, playing dress up, eating cake and simply losing ourselves in the moment. This joy is healing in and of itself as we shift out of fight/flight/freeze state and our mode of calm, safety and security is activated.
- Compassion – Whenever we judge ourselves, our current life circumstance and others, we suffer. Our stressful thoughts immediately activate our stress response. Having compassion means that whenever we notice the suffering in others we feel moved by it, our heart responds to their pain. When this occurs, there is a feeling of warmth, care and a desire to help the suffering person in some way. When we are compassionate, we are able to offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Whenever we feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), we are able to realise that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of being human. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain, you tell yourself: “This is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? How can I be kind to myself as I am struggling?”
- Beingness – How often do you stop and make time to be still? When we can practice making time to pay attention to our being-ness as opposed to our chronic state of doing-ness, we will begin to experience the lifeforce within us (and around us) to the fullest. If you are not sure what I am referring to, then just pay attention to a dog or a cat next time you come across one. Often there is a sense of complete presence and ease with simply being (resting, noticing, tuning inward). No matter what form our present moment takes, if we accept it, a shift happens that can transform the mental, physical and emotional suffering we may be experiencing. Spending time in a state of beingness has helped me realise how much pleasure I experience simply by listening to the sound of leaves in trees or the smell of fresh morning air and the sound of water (in all its forms).
Daily breathing exercises are crucial in order to better support your nervous system and in turn your stress response. A conscious exhale allows your body-brain to release tension and reset your nervous system. Simply breathe in to the count of three (1, 2, 3), then hold for three counts and then exhale slowly (slightly longer) and consciously to the count of three, while becoming fully present to the movement of your breath. Studies have shown that a regular breathing exercise throughout the day, returns the autonomic nervous system from an over-activated sympathetic state to a more balanced parasympathetic state. It may feel like work or effort when you first start this practice, but that is often due to the mind’s dislike of change or challenges. I can assure you that as you continue to practice regular breath work, in time you will begin to truly enjoy it.
Sarah is a Psychotherapist, Mental Health Social Worker, Art Therapist, Artist and Writer. She is also the Practice Manager at Mental Awakening.