Long term stress can have real consequences to our minds and bodies. We can feel it taking hold and we know innately that it’s not good to leave stress unaddressed. The research around how a constant, heightened state of overwhelm, a.k.a. an overactive fear or stress response, affects everything from our ability to make decisions, to how it drives modern disease is itself overwhelming.
Have you ever looked at someone who appeared to have it all and thought “how do they keep it so together?” The answer is that most likely they don’t. Sooner or later ignoring the signs of distress from the nervous system have a way of catching up with us. When we’re operating from this place of survival, we lose perspective – we can’t make clear decisions, we don’t feel at peace – there’s no sense of lightness or abundance. We feel trapped and begin to lose hope. From this place of fear and lack, we lose the ability to value, honour and trust ourselves. How do I know this story so well? Because I lived it for a very long time.
Fear and overwhelm drive disease
An overactive sympathetic nervous system can change our body and brain chemistry and our behaviour, be the driver of symptoms and disease states, and keep us stuck in old survival patterns. Stress can bring on health problems that didn’t previously exist, and hamper even the most well intentioned of healing efforts. What I see in clinic is the creation of more pain, suffering and dysregulation, or if it’s more long-term, of disease.
And the more we’re in this place the more it solidifies. Overwhelm begets overwhelm, fear begets fear, stress begets stress, negativity begets negativity.
Fear, stress, overwhelm and the role of the nervous system
Firstly, we have the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It’s like our personal security system, constantly keeping everything under surveillance. The main goal of the ANS is to protect, it shapes the way we experience life, especially moment to moment – from connection to protection. The ANS is also interconnected to the higher brain systems1 that relate to the emotional and psychological aspects of human beings – this includes mood, memory and our ability (or inability) to regulate emotions.
The central ANS has three distinct aspects which each respond differently to stressful situations. When we understand the nature of the three parts, we can then begin to see why and how we react to high amounts of stress:
Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) - ventral vagal pathway
The PNS-ventral vagal pathway is responsible for maintaining homeostasis or balance. It’s the opposite of the fight or flight response that is referred to as ‘rest and digest’. This is where health lies and healing occurs - we rest and recuperate and replenish ourselves.
When the PNS is activated, it shows up in the body and mind as the ability to:
- Resist infection and build immunity
- digest, absorb and move our bowels
- relate and connect
- recognise when we are supported
- feel joy and compassion
- be playful and creative
- be present and sit in stillness and silence (without our mind chattering away)
- feel grounded
- be well resourced and resourceful
- act from our instincts and intuition.
In PNS activation, the world is welcoming, safe, comfortable and secure. We feel alive, well and filled with possibility. This is our preferred state.
Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
The SNS plays an important regulating role in pumping blood, managing heartbeat and breathing. Its place in the nervous system is vital to our ability to move through the world. When the SNS is engaged, we are in survival mode. This system brings the energy of fight and flight, activating a circuit called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis. Once activated, this axis floods us with the stress response hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is great for quick responses. Cortisol is released in response to ongoing distress. With these hormones released and pumping through the body, the goal shifts from connection to protection. The world is full of impending danger. We misread cues and scan the environment in an alarmed state. Our focus is narrow and our hearing becomes tuned to better hear threats coming. We don’t see or hear the whole scene.
How an activated SNS shows up in the body and mind:
- Increased blood pressure, heat rate and adrenaline – the foundations of getting ready to fight or flee
- increased pupil size
- stress hormones cause the release of stored sugar and fatty acids for emergency fuel2
- in fight, we feel frustration, irritation, anger/rage, out of control or dysregulated
- in flight, once we move away from a stressor, it results in rumination, worry, anxiety and even panic.
Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) dorsal vagal pathway
When we can’t regulate the fight or flight response, or when the SNS has been exhausted, we activate this PNS dorsal vagal pathway. This occurs when the intensity of the stressor becomes too much, when we are over stimulated and can’t disconnect from the mindless chatter, anxiety, fear and irritation.
This pathway is activated when we can no longer connect to our own inner quiet and presence, or the presence of others. This is called our emergency state or our ‘freeze response’. In this freeze state, the body collapses and dissociates in order to conserve energy. It’s in this state that we will experience depression, tiredness, flatness and numbness.
It’s about flexible transition, not perfection
Our ability to flexibly transition between states is a mark of wellbeing. While we idealise staying in a state of calm, a state of feeling grounded all the time, unshaken by events – this isn’t what our bodies were designed for. It’s not possible because life happens, suffering happens. So, it’s unrealistic to think it’s possible to be here all the time.
The true aim of recalibrating the nervous system is to ultimately be able to move back and forward between between the SNS and PNS. To react and respond as necessary, and then move back into a state of calm, of rest and digest – where we can make good judgment calls and decisions based on intuition and not out of fear. Our goal is to know where we are, when we’re moving out of the PNS, and to trust that when it’s over we can begin to return to regulation. From here, we can feel the power of the ventral vagal pathway at work – a sense of safety, security, comfort, a feeling of aliveness, of thriving, of creative joy.
Through all of this, as we move from fight, flight or freeze, to our rest and digest state, we can begin to remember what are we here for. For me, my purpose and what I believe is everyone’s purpose, in the words of James Hollis, is too return to the task of being who we are. That’s a difficult thing to achieve if we’re stuck in a stress and fear response – a state of suffering where the only goal is to protect and survive (at the long-term cost to our health and happiness).
Does time heal all wounds?
You know that old saying time heals all wounds… and…. in time things will get better. Well it’s only partly true - it’s what we do with that time. Think of a physical wound – you wouldn’t ignore it, you would clean it, put antiseptic on it to prevent it getting infected, dress it. There’s also a certain amount of trust that we give over to the body’s innate wisdom to heal over time. We may tend to the wound from time to time to make sure everything is healing as it should be.
The wounds and traumas in our lives are far less visible, but they require our attention nonetheless. Like the physical wounds, we must tend to our inner wounds and traumas that have lead to an overactive and vigilant nervous system with care and intention. As we work to heal the wounds of the nervous system, we learn to trust that the body knows what to do, the body also wants to heal.
Just as we feel long term stress taking hold of our minds and bodies, we can also feel the nervous system begin to reconnect to its natural balance. Just as we lost sight of our sense of trust, lightness and abundance, as we begin to do the work to recalibrate, these things come back into view. How do I know this story so well? I’m living it.
- Mulkey, S.B. & du Plessis, A.J. (2019). Autonomic nervous system development and its impact on neuropsychiatric outcome. Nature, 85:120-126.
- Rabasa, C. & Dickson, S.L. (2016). Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance. Current Opinion in Behavioural Sciences, 9(20):71-77.