One of my favorite things to share with clients is the way our nervous system impacts our perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. It happens in an instant. We can go from being present and connected, to acting without thinking.
I like to think of the nervous system as our body’s hidden executable files. When your body or brain is triggered, the program launches, and it’s out of your hands. The really amazing thing to me is that it happens on a completely unconscious level.
Our nervous system has two major parts, and they play different, but important roles.
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system controls our “Fight or Flight” response. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate might go up, your hands and feet might get cold as blood moves to your core so your heart can pump more efficiently, and you might get tunnel vision (among other things).
When your nervous system is activated by a perceived or anticipated threat, all of a sudden you are flooded with adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones and neurotransmitters that may leave you feeling excited, fearful, or angry. You did not make a choice to feel that way. The sympathetic program is running, and creating those chemical reactions.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system controls things like rest, recovery, and digestion. It is also responsible for the other side of the “Fight or Flight” response, which is referred to as “Freeze, Fall, Feign Death.” If you are facing an immediate threat, and do not have time to prepare to fight or flee, this system tends to take over. If your parasympathetic system is activated, you are more likely to be flooded with chemicals that have you feeling numb or frozen.
Many people talk about the shame of inaction when they have been in scary, challenging, abusive, and traumatic situations. From my perspective, and the perspective of biology, inaction was the action. Your brain perceived a threat so real, and so dangerous, that the best option was to freeze, fall, or feign death to survive. And if you’re reading this, you did survive.
When we are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state, it becomes difficult to reason, think clearly, form memories, and we become totally self-focused, to the point where it is hard to connect with or understand other people. Sometimes when we experience traumatic events, or even consistent levels of stress, our nervous systems can wire toward a more sympathetic or parasympathetic way of being. That can contribute to things like daily symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Can you think of instances where your nervous system took over? Do you think you’re wired more toward sympathetic or parasympathetic response in your day-to-day life? If you’re curious to include consideration of your nervous system and neurobiology in your therapy process, reach out to schedule today.