Today, I’m talking to you about the nervous system, how does it work in general terms, how is it related to stress and how can you learn to soothe it?
3 different states
Our nervous system has 3 different states that could look like a high beam:
The green light is the ventral vagal state: we feel calm, connected, joy, creativity, happiness. If we face a stressful event, we then move on to the
Orange light: the sympathetic nervous system, in this state we are mobilizing energy, this can result in tensions throughout the body. We may want to move, run away or go towards our stress. If things get worse, then we go down
Red light or the dorsal vagal state, it immobilizes our nervous system. It slows us down completely, we feel our energy go completely down, feeling disconnected and closed off.
When our nervous system is balanced and healthy, we can mobilize our energy according to our needs but we are not obliged by this stage to fight or flee. You feel the energy and the focus but then you go back to normal.
After experiencing chronic or traumatic stress, sometimes the ventral vagal branch can struggle to reduce the state of our physiology to normal. When we mobilize this energy in our system and step out of our comfort zone instead of having this combination of mobilizing energy and feeling safe (green and amber light), we can go straight into the Fight or Flee zone for an extended period of time. We feel anxious, angry, reactive, we find it hard to stop doing things and being because we don’t have the belly to support us. We then return to our primitive nervous system: the dorsal vagal branch of the vagus nerve.
This can then reduce our nervous system too much. When this happens, we can feel completely flat, a sense of disconnection, of closure because it immobilizes us and brings us into a state of conservation of our energy.
It can then be difficult to get out of this state.
Get out of your comfort zone
We must learn to increase and decrease our energy in the vagus nerve area to have a flexible and adaptable nervous system.
To get out of our comfort zone that our current situation (or fire) has become, we must:
– release our vagal brake
– manage our energy production to be just the right amount
– be physiologically effective in combining energy and rapid recovery.
We can learn to channel control and focus and bring our scattered energy to learn how to perform well under pressure.
When we are at the red light stage, to use the analogy, and we feel drained or flat: the idea is that we can train ourselves to manage our energy and manage our recovery in order to reduce the signals of risk and find more security and control.
The sources of influence of the nervous system
To understand and work with your nervous system, it helps to know that it can be influenced by:
• Biological or physiological environment such as injuries, hormones, immune system,…
• External environment: where you live, work, money, relationships, your community, life events.
• Internal environment: thoughts, belief systems, internal narrative, language.
The current state of our nervous system depends on the signals it receives from inside our body and what is happening outside of us. You don’t choose to go through different states of your nervous system – it happens outside of consciousness.
Often, as a result of trauma or chronic stress, our bodies receive signals of risk that aren’t always there. We can help our body find safety, especially in difficult times.
When the risk indices are lower than the safety indices: we are in a safe and comfortable zone. When the risk indices are greater than the safety indices, we move first into the mobilized area and into fight or flight.
When the risk indexes are much higher than the safety indexes, we can enter our stop and collapse immobilization zone.
Your nervous system in contact with a stressed person
When we are around someone who is experiencing high levels of stress activation, they are taken out of their social engagement system into the sympathetic nervous system state and their vagus nerve is inhibited.
Speech-related muscles change and their voice becomes monotonous. There is a loss of expression on their face when they communicate and this can signal to the survival part of our brain that something is wrong.
Their gestures and body language excite mirror neurons in the resonance circuits of our brain and signals are sent through our body that make us feel anxious, reactive or that we need to get away from that person. We lose feelings of calm and well-being as the vagal brake is inhibited, our heart rate increases, and cortisol is released. We move from connection to protection.
When someone is in the sympathetic state of his nervous system, the muscles of his middle ear change and he does not hear the sound of our voice either. This makes it difficult to listen in times of conflict and argument, and it can lead to a lack of reciprocity (the back and forth of communication) and attunement (the feeling of being truly seen and heard. by another).
If the connection in a relationship doesn’t seem secure, the sympathetic nervous system can cause reactions like interrupting, criticizing, blaming, arguing, and demanding attention. It could also lead to shutdown responses such as obstruction, silence, isolation, distancing, or withdrawal.
It is only when we return to our system of social engagement and communication is optimized that we find reciprocity and attunement. We experience a sense of calm and ease through the engagement of the vagus nerve which re-regulates our nervous system.
Healthy relationships with strong reciprocity help reshape the nervous system. The back and forth of communication and the giving and receiving of care creates a connection and co-regulation that shapes your nervous system so that you feel a sense of security and belonging when you are going through a difficult time. . Your physical and psychological health can improve (or be affected) by the people around you.
The impact of chronic stress
Chronic and traumatic stress can impact how the vagus nerve and at that time vagal cut regulates your physiology. Various syndromes can then set in (irritable bowel, chronic painful migraines, fibromyalgia, cardiac arrhythmia, etc.). These symptoms can therefore be seen as alerts trying to get our attention to tell us that our nervous system needs support and tools to help us recover from stress.
The good news is that you can reshape how your nervous system works following chronic and traumatic stress to use vagal pause again with the help of self-regulation exercises. You will learn to re-engage and fully recover from this stress activation and you will also develop an inner resilience that will help you deal with pressure.