Throughout history, many theories have tried to explain the complex issue of mental health, from an excess of yellow bile to witchcraft to mental illness being a moral price paid for the sins of one’s ancestors.
The discourse around mental health has come a long way; most now understand that poor mental wellbeing can happen to anyone. We also know that many physical, emotional, environmental, and political factors can protect or harm how we navigate the world and our minds.
Recently, there has been increasing attention on the role of the nervous system, trauma, and early experiences on how we feel and behave in the present day.
We know that trauma responses are not reserved for those with the most shocking or harrowing life experiences. Smaller ‘micro traumas’ can rewire our neurology, causing challenges in relationships with ourselves and others.
Michal Klein, a registered psychologist, explained that our nervous system is hardwired to respond to potential threats.
This is a normal and essential part of our evolutionary neurology. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous responses impact our hypothalamus, the part of our brain responsible for regulating hormones relevant to mood, appetite, libido, and alertness.
The hypothalamus can also activate a stress response (fight or flight) or encourage relaxation (rest and digest).
When someone’s nervous system is ‘activated’, the central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord communicates with the peripheral nervous system in the limbs and organs.
These messages tell the body, ‘Look out! You’re under attack!” faster than you can even acknowledge them, triggering an immediate response, such as yanking your hand away from a flame or stepping out of oncoming traffic.
“The same goes for meeting deadlines, getting to work on time, or finding polite words for a difficult customer,” said Klein.
“Experiencing stress and activation in our nervous systems in these moments is really helpful and adaptive for dealing with challenges, which is why we evolved with them.”
Unfortunately, this normal neurological process can become dysfunctional, sending the nervous system into overdrive and sometimes causing severe mental, physical, and socio-emotional health challenges.
Fight, flight, freeze, fawn: how the nervous system helps us handle stress
Klein said that persistent challenges in our environment, like a stressful job, dysfunctional or unsafe relationships or parenting challenges, can dysregulate the nervous system, creating a near-constant influx of the stress hormone cortisol.
In states of chronic stress, the parasympathetic nervous system cannot return the body and mind to a safe and relaxed state.
“If the nervous system is constantly overwhelmed, it finds a new ‘normal,’” said Klein.
She explained that the brain can reset its baseline to a much higher stress level than we can cope with long-term. In these instances, people may feel exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed, distracted, or irritable.
“This is what we might think of as an overactive fight/flight state that has developed to help you respond to the extreme, ongoing challenges in your life,” she said.
Chronically stressful life circumstances tell the brain you are unsafe, disrupting critical biological processes. Klein explained that sometimes, the threat to our safety isn’t a saber-tooth tiger or anything external but rather the way we talk to ourselves.
“Your nervous system can perceive internal self-criticism as a real threat to the body, and we can experience a fight/flight response even when we are silently ‘shit-talking’ ourselves,” she said.
The same can happen when constantly criticised by a boss, friend, or toxic family member, creating an overactive stress response to prime the body for what it has learned is a chronic state of being under attack.
How to tell if trauma is impacting your nervous system
In our fast-paced, stress-inducing modern world, it makes sense that many people are feeling the impacts of an overly stimulated nervous system.
When less complex animals respond to stress, like a predator, the response is intense but straightforward and relatively swift: they run away, rest and recover, then move on with their day.
The recovery process becomes murky when the stressors are more insidious, persistent, and have nuances. Klein explained that, unfortunately, nervous system issues like anxiety, depression, and dysregulation are on the rise, particularly for young adults, women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, Indigenous Australians, men living in rural or remote communities, and neurodivergent folks.
Childhood trauma, panic disorders, eating disorders, and prolonged exposure to stress can also contribute to a dysfunctional and overwhelmed nervous system.
These experiences can sometimes occur so early in life that we may not have conscious memories of them. In these cases, people may struggle to understand their experience of high stress or be unaware that their nervous system is struggling to cope.
Some of the potential warning signs of a dysregulated nervous system include repeated bouts of illness, crashing or burning out at the end of a challenging project, persistent gut issues, irritableness or anger, poor hunger or fullness cues, libido challenges, and feeling indecisive or confused about decisions and goal-setting.
“Chronic perfectionism and workaholism can also be a sign that we are trying desperately to cope with our inner critic saying ‘nothing is good enough’,” said Klein. “This alone can be a drain on the nervous system.”
Feeling emotionally numb or saying yes when we want to say no can indicate the ‘fawn response’, signifying disruption to the nervous system.
“How we feel about a choice or decision we’ve made, our tastes, and preferences all become dimmer and less tangible when we habitually avoid tuning into our feelings,” said Klein.
“Emotions provide powerful data on our needs and limits, but if we constantly shut these down or don’t attend to them to satisfy other people around us, these can show up in subtle difficulties, like panic in social situations, gastrointestinal issues, migraines or chronic exhaustion, numbness, and dissociation.”
Releasing stored trauma: How to heal your nervous system
While the impact of trauma, stress, and high expectations on our nervous system is serious, there is also some good news, and it’s related to neuroplasticity. With time, patience, compassion, and support, many of us can learn new ways of thinking, relating to ourselves, and responding to stress.
“We are all born with a ‘window of tolerance’ – a degree to which we can cope and function well with discomfort or stress before we become dysregulated and overwhelmed,” said Klein.
“Trauma and prolonged stress narrow this window, but we can ‘widen it’ through regularly practising skills that help us get back inside our stable, present awareness.”
Klein suggests paying gentle attention to the messages your nervous system sends you through mindful self-inquiry and relaxation. Ask yourself what you are feeling and where it shows up in the body, and consciously attempt to release a small amount of physical tension.
Sharing your experience with a safe person, like a trusted friend or mental health professional, helps activate the brain’s language centre, which helps soothe the nervous system. This function helps explain why storytelling and sharing with others can heal many with traumatic histories.
“The most overwhelming thing for many people in chronic stressful situations is that they feel isolated, alone, and unsure of whether they have the ‘right’ to feel the way they are feeling,” said Klein.
Some people also benefit from soothing physical touch, like a massage or a hug from a loved one, or having a good cry to trigger the body to release endorphins.
Spending time lovingly nurturing our inner selves and needs is an important antidote to a world that constantly tells us we aren’t doing enough.
Getting off the hamster wheel of chasing perfection and success and acknowledging our actual needs and feelings is a challenging but rewarding first step to finding more balance and healing our nervous systems.
This will allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the present moment and lead a life of meaning, pleasure, and purpose.