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Am I on Autopilot?

Have you ever wondered why you just can't seem to calm yourself down when life gets busy or perhaps it's just little things seem to set you off? Or maybe you are one who burns both ends of the candle and have lived that way for years, and now your body can no longer manage it.

What is it that’s going on inside of us that is causing this overwhelm in our systems? Well, it's the nervous system on overdrive (much like our own lives). Let me tell you what I have learned. I'll be brief and basic. I'm not a scientist or a doctor and I don't play one on TV either. I had heard about the fight and flight response and the rest and digest side of our nervous system, but that had been the basic understanding I had for many years. Understanding it in more detail has helped me see how I need to get a better handle on my own stress so that I don't allow more wear and tear on this old body.

Our Nervous System as a Stress Barometer

When we look at this barometer, we can see the different responses of our nervous system. These are all part our autonomic nervous system, meaning automatic, where it happens without us thinking about it or making it happen. That's a good thing and a bad thing. Good, in that when a speeding car comes at us, our brain automatically puts our body into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or the stress response (orange and red zone) and we jump out of the way. It's bad, in that we are also unaware that our brain and body sees other things as threats; things like our deadlines, our financial worries, our arguments with loved ones, etc. and moves us out of the rest and digest of our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS -green zone) and higher up the chart. The longer we stay and the higher we go into the sympathetic nervous system, you can see the more discomfort our body, emotional and mental self feels. What I didn't know, is that there is another response we can have. That is the Freeze response you see in the blue zone. What is fascinating is that this too is part of our parasympathetic nervous system. Oh yeah, this body of ours is amazing!

To explain this response, I need to back up a bit. This theory is based on Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory. Poly meaning many, and vagal for the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves that wanders from the brain and innervates into the organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen. It allows the brain to monitor and receive information about the body’s different functions. There are two branches of the vagus nerve, the dorsal side and the ventral side. The ventral side is what we are already familiar with. It's the rest and digest response of the parasympathetic nervous system. The dorsal side of the vagus nerve also is part of the PSNS, but it causes a primitive response when the system goes into overwhelm or freeze state. Here we may become more dissociative, numb out, flood with emotions, or even experience severe depression. Having this second PSNS response gives us another way to survive when our fight or flight response is just not enough. But…the key is to just visit, not live in the freeze response long term.

Looking ahead I want to explore how we should flow up and down this chart. Understand that no place on here is bad per se because we need all the options to survive. How do we find a way to visit the red and blue when needed but be able to slide back to the green safety zone to be balanced and healthy? How can we use TRE and other healing modalities to help us come back down safely, even if we’ve been living in the blue and red/orange zones for years?

For now, look at this stress barometer and consider:

  • Am I aware of where I am on the chart at any given time?

  • What or who makes me go to the red?

  • What helps me come to the green zone?

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