Scary and upsetting events are bound to happen in our lives. However, after an extraordinary event your mind and body learn new ways to react. You are meant for survival and we have biological structures to help predicting potentially dangerous situations based on our past.
The brain structure looks like an almond. It is designed to remember life-threatening events. It creates patterns for highly charged emotional memories- positive and negative memories. The amygdala will set off an alarm there is a reminder of a life-threatening event. It sends signals to your survival brains which reacts without you even thinking about it. It is designed to happen very quickly so you can escape from the threat. Many times when something scary happens we remember the physical sensations of an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and tight muscles. The amygdala controls the fight, flight or freeze reaction.
Those reminders could be sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or emotions. These triggers create a memory capsule of sorts. The amygdala can even set off an alarm if there is no present threat. It has learned from past events that you would benefit from being notified when presented with this trigger in your environment. It’s important to learn how to read your nervous system’s reactions to know when to react and when not to react.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The nervous system is made up of our brain, spine, and nerves. Nerves spread throughout our bodies and serve as the road for messages to travel on. For example, you touch a hot stove and the signal that the stove is hot and can burn you travels up through a nerve to your brain. Your brain then interprets this information from your environment and sends a message back down the nerve. That message from the brain is “get your hand off the stove!” You then remove your hand from the stove. This happens in an instant and without needing to think about it.
A special branch of the nervous system is our fight or flight system, or the autonomic nervous system. This system is deigned to help us survive and alert us to potential threats. There are two branches of this system, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic branches. Each branch has it’s own role. The sympathetic branch prepares us to fight the threat, run away, or freeze. It is preparing you for action. Our bodies react in preparation to address the threat.
Sympathetic, or the fight or flight system’s physical changes:
- Increased breathing rate
- Increased heart rate
- Pupils dilate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased sweating
- Increased stress hormones
- Increased muscle tension
- Decreased digestion
- Decreased saliva production
On the flip side, is the parasympathetic branch. This is known as the rest and digest branch. This part of our system takes over when we are not facing a threat and we are relaxed. This is the state in which we sleep, play, and enjoy life.
Our bodies react in preparation to address the threat.
Parasympathetic, or the rest and digest system’s physical changes:
- Decreased breathing rate
- Decreased heart rate
- Pupils constrict
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased sweating
- Decreased stress hormones
- Relaxed muscles
- Increased digestion
- Increased saliva production
Learning to Read Your Nervous System
Now that we know the amygdala sets off a chain reaction of events to make changes to our physical and mental state, let’s determine how to read the nervous system. You already know how to do this in other ways. If you are hot, you seek shade under a tree. If you are cold, you put on a sweater. You have already paid attention to tracking your nervous system. We are now going to apply that to your stress reaction. You’ll learn when experiencing distress, you can navigate your internal experience and choose how to react. You’ll learn to “take your temperature” and choose a more pleasant or neutral sensation.
First, we start by tracking then nervous system and describing our sensations. Pay attention to your mouth right now. How would you describe the sensation? Is it dry, cool, rough, tight? Simply describe the experience. Below is a table of sensory words to help you learn to describe your sensation.
Below are words to describe common stress reactions. You may experience these when you are experiencing stress or when you are reminded about something upsetting that has happened in the past.
|Constricted breathing||Deeper breath||Shaking|
|Rapid heartbeat||Steady heartbeat||Trembling|
|Tense muscles||Relaxed muscles||Burping, yawning|
|Numbness heat||Calm||Vibration, tingling|
Now that you are able to effectively describe your reactions and sensations, let’s direct that to learning how to stay in your zone. The “resilient zone” is a state of well-being in mind, body and spirit. When we are in our zone we feel like we can handle the minor stressors of everyday life. Sure, things can be annoying, but it doesn’t set us off our game. You can experience sadness and disappointment, but you aren’t swept away with sorrow.
Those big stressors or traumatic events will often knock you out of your zone. When you’re stuck in the high zone, you may experience edginess, irritability, mania, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, anger outbursts and pain. On the flip side, if you’re stuck in your low zone, you may experience depression, sadness, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, and numbness. Either one of these states are not meant to be experienced for long periods of time. Staying out of our zone for a long time will result in an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, insomnia and other sleeping issues, obesity, high blood pressure, and mental health disorders.
It’s important to state taking charge of your health by increasing your self care. Check out our guide on how therapists engage in self care. You can even learn to manage your stress the way mentally healthy people do. If you have difficulty managing your stress or think you might be suffering with post traumatic stress disorder, reach out to our trusted therapists for counseling in Wilmington, NC. LMV Counseling specializes in the treatment of PTSD and stress. We can help guide you through finding ways to track your sensations and learn to cope with the reactions.