What is the nervous system?:
The nervous system is comprised of your brain, spinal cord, nerves, and nerve pathways. It is essentially a complex roadmap of electrical wiring that allows your body and mind to communicate. One of its most important roles is managing our fight or flight response. Once your brain recognizes a threat, your stress response is activated and adrenaline starts to rush in the body. This initiates a domino effect of chemical changes that prepare your body to face the threat. Your oxygen is directed to major muscle groups and your heart rate increases to help pump blood to your extremities. Meanwhile, your digestive system slows down to allow internal resources to be directed to your fight or flight readiness. This is an automatic body response that is genetically wired in us and is intended to be a healthy, life preserving mechanism.
There are internal and external threats:
Your nervous system not only reacts to external threats, like seeing an accident, but internal ones as well. Your internal world is comprised of sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Intense thoughts, body sensations, and emotions can all activate the nervous system to respond as if you are in real danger. For example, you may have a distressing automatic thought like, “I’m an idiot,” which creates a domino stress response that is very palpable to you. Therefore, you can be experiencing a threat response that mimics one of seeing a mountain lion in front of you when there is nothing visibly threatening present. No one around you may be aware of your strong response because they are not privy to the happenings of your internal world. This is usually why people with anxiety have a difficult time expressing to others why they may be feeling so uncomfortable.
What happens if we’re not in real danger but the alarm keeps going off?
If the nervous system does not have adequate time and space to slow down before another threat is detected that starts the same stress response, the system goes into overdrive. Think of this as leaving a pot on a very hot stovetop. Anything that you put in the pot immediately burns. You may dump out the scathed contents of the pot, but then the pot is quickly placed back on the hot stovetop waiting to burn whatever comes in next. This is what tends to happen in depression and anxiety. The pot, or brain, never gets a chance to cool down. The brain becomes hypervigilant and scans the outer and inner environment for threats more frequently. Consequently, a danger response is accelerated, which doesn’t allow enough time for the body to return to neutral and create space to learn how to experience the threat differently.This means that one can be functioning from a baseline of hyperarousal and rarely feel calm or at ease. Fortunately, one’s baseline anxiety and ability to manage stress can be modified. Due to the amazing amount of research in the field of neuroscience, we now have empirical evidence that suggests neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to change the way our brain responds to perceived threats! Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to “reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life” (medicinenet.com). Sometimes people will challenge this concept with, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,“ but research shows that with practice the brain becomes more malleable, regardless of age. You can not only learn new ways of doing something, you can master them!
Why does it feel like my brain doesn’t stop?
Now, some things make it more challenging to learn how to quiet the nervous system in today’s day and age. We now function in a world of constant electronic stimuli - phones ringing, TV’s blaring, radios thumping, and an increasing workforce presence that relies on screens. Continuous stimulation has become the norm for most, but that does not mean that our modernday nervous system has transitioned to functioning with these new overwhelming demands. It seems that multisensory overload is now accepted as normal, and our bodies and minds are suffering because of it. Many wonder why their minds feel like they’re running non-stop, and based on the last twenty years of nervous system research, it’s likely because we are functioning in a realm that creates an illusion of never ending demands.
There is a branch of the nervous system that specializes in calming the body and thereby facilitates a calming of the mind. With practice your body can be more likely to reach a healthy equilibrium and naturally return to a balanced resting state. My next post will detail some ways to encourage this parasympathetic nervous system activation and thereby a relaxed state.