How to recognise the imbalance in our nervous system (Part 1)?

people standing and walking on stairs in mall

Do you fight? Do you flight? Do you freeze? Or maybe you do not recognise the danger any more?

We have incredible systems in our body that help us to stay in harmony and balance. We have feedback loops for hormones, we have up and down-regulation of receptors, we have redundancy in some of our organs (just in case) and we have a beautifully designed nervous system.

Out of balance

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are part of the so-called autonomic nervous system. Autonomic, means involuntary. It means we have no control over it. But is this completely true?

You will see endless examples of the need for balance in nature and in your body. Hot and cold, fast and slow, Yin and Yang. But what if we are stuck predominantly in one mode? What happens to the balance?

Regardless of the degree to which we can control our nervous system which is controversial, we can still ask questions.

Stress response in the 21st century

The sympathetic part is our fight, flight or freeze response. It is our survival friend. We should be thankful, otherwise, our ancestors would not have survived for long. When you see danger, do you run or you fight back? Or freeze and pretend to be dead? All of this is very useful if you are a wild animal or prehistoric human. But what if you live in the 21st century? What if you cannot escape from a room full of people when feeling panic, what if you cannot fight back a rude shop assistant? What if you cannot just drop and pretend to be dead before your exam?

Have you ever thought about what is happening to your body at this time of panic and anxiety?

First you release adrenaline from your adrenals (small glands on top of our kidneys), your heart beats faster, your blood sugar rises, your palms sweat, you feel the need to urinate. Then you release cortisol. And then instead of putting all the energy into action or just completely shutting down, you go into the situation and pretend you are fine. Is this energy stored in our body? Is it transformed into something? Wild animals are known to “shake off” after being chased by a predator. Science shows that shaking dancing movements help reduce anxiety. Do we have something in common with animals?

Long term consequences

Your body will take some time to clean your bloodstream from excessive levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It will try to wipe them out quickly as excessive long term rise in cortisol is not a good thing – if anyone has seen a person with Cushing syndrome they will know. But if we are in “fight or flight” all day long, stressed by everything, a the burned dinner to work deadlines? Do we also develop subclinical excessive stress hormones levels which results in excessive belly fat, frequent infections, loss of muscle mass, puffy, rounded faces, limb weakness, depression? 

Does our body have the capacity to cope with a constant flow of stress hormones?

Was it designed to do it?

Some things we have no control of, like the weather. And it is fine. Some things we can control, like how much work we take home or if we can say ‘no’. Small amounts of short term stress (called hormesis) is even beneficial for us. One of the reasons we should eat organic vegetables and fruits is that they are more likely to be ‘stressed’ by insects and parasites, allowing them to produce more health-related phytonutrients. 

But long term stress, regardless how small it is, is not our friend.

Can you forget that you are stressed?

Sometimes it feels like we forgot that we can live in a different state, where the lion which chased us is now lying next to us purring. It feels like we even forgot that we are stressed. To some of us it feels like we are not stressed as we have been living in that state for so long that we see it as the norm and just push through. But our bodies did not forget their natural flow state, where you switch smoothly between two parts of the autonomic nervous system, and arguably spend more time in rest, digest and repair mode. The effects of stress will likely show somewhere in your body. Stress cannot be numbed by a package of biscuits, half a bottle of wine, or compulsive buying. At least not for long. 

Fight, flight or freeze

But some of us shut down or developed mental health problems feeling that we somehow do not fit. There is too much to take. We are not enough. We cannot cope. So we freeze. We are lethargic, we have no energy. We don’t want to get up from the bed in the morning. We feel depressed.

Or we have an urgent need to run away from our current lives, jobs, relationships, the place where we live. We feel stuck, but our body listens to us and it is prepared to run away, it increases heart rate, blood pressure, releases sugar to the bloodstream, decreases peripheral vision for maximal focus. But we do not run anywhere. We misinterpret our body’s good intentions for another betrayal. We only feel anxiety and tension. Another panic attack.

Or we fight. We fight in our jobs. We fight in our families. We are angry at others, angry at ourselves. We are impatient and aggressive. Everyone seems to be an enemy. We do not trust anyone, not even ourselves. And we want to have everything under control, also other people. But we are not bad people, we just want to feel safe. So we fight for ourselves.

They are just different responses to the same thing.  

We need to learn to slow down, breathe, and enjoy what is already available to us. And when this annoying back pain, exacerbation of eczema or digestive problems come back can we see the possibility of the suppressed, unrecognised stress in our lives? When we feel depressed or lethargic can we pause for a moment and ask ourselves why we choose to freeze and what is so painful or uncomfortable that you cannot cope with? When we are anxious can we ask ourselves what we are trying to run away from? And when we are angry can we ask ourselves, what are we trying to protect ourselves from?

The answers may be completely obvious, or not at all.

There may be pain, discomfort, confusion or denial. Invite those feelings. There are here to protect you from something. And it is in your power to find what it is.

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