Working with the Overwhelmed Nervous System
I often hear people say, “I am just overwhelmed.” For most of us, overwhelm is about stress and is a normal part of life. However, chronic stress can lead to a variety of uncomfortable signs and symptoms. Sometimes stress is from a traumatic event. There are a variety of ways you can recover your health and your life from unhealthy patterns related to life’s stresses.
The Body’s Natural Response
People respond to stress in different ways depending on character type and a dominant pattern in the body. For some people, the first response is “fight-or-flight,” or a sympathetic nervous system response when the body gears up for danger. Blood flows to the arms and legs in preparation for action, digestion slows or stops, adrenaline and other stress hormones like cortisol pump through the body. Your heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid. These natural physiological responses provide a quick burst of energy for survival, heighten memory, and lower sensitivity to pain. This “stress response” can help you remain alert, perform well, stay focused, and give you extra strength to perform a task. If this is your method of responding to stress, it can be described as responding with your foot on the gas pedal. Out of balance, this can mean you are in overdrive, often agitated, angry, and easily irritated when things don’t go right.
Other people respond to stress by withdrawing. For these people, energy can drain from their system or they can procrastinate, leading to delay and fear. This passive response is when the parasympathetic part of the nervous system is dominant. In the parasympathetic response, the blood flows toward the organs, relaxation takes place, people normally rest, and digestive enzymes are released. Some people just sleep. It can be a normal part of the nervous system function. In fact, activation of a healthy nervous system rolls up and down between sympathetic and parasympathetic functions (see figure). As a stress response, however, it can feel like an extreme dive in energy. For some people, this function is so common it feels normal and can be described as living with your foot on the brake. You just shut down.
A third response, called “freeze,” is a combination of the first two approaches and can be very difficult for the nervous system. You feel shut down and “frozen,” unable to complete the task at hand, but inside you feel agitated, your thoughts are reeling, and you feel like you can’t do anything. In this response, the foot is on the brake and the gas at the same time.
Causes of Stress
Stress is something that puts too much pressure or demand on you and your nervous system, and that is different for everyone. Not all stresses are negative; some are positive like a new job, getting married, changing careers, moving to a new home. The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory ranks the top ten most stressful events as:
There are also internal stressors. These can include:
For most of us, patterned responses to stress are normal parts of a healthy nervous system. Once the stress has abated, we will go back to homeostasis or balance. Markers of a balanced nervous system are when activation is low, with these hallmarks:
If the stress is chronic and therefore the response is on all the time, the different styles can look like this:
Symptoms of Sympathetic Response (Fight or Flight)
Symptoms of Parasympathetic Response (Shut Down, Dissociate)
For the Freeze Response, it can be a combination of these two.
When Trauma Enters the Picture
I substitute “overwhelm” for the word “trauma” in my work with people. It helps them understand better what is actually happening to their nervous system. Trauma can be defined as any overwhelming event that causes physical or emotional wounding. It can be a one-time event or it can be a prolonged experience. The healthy nervous system response to life where we have times of alertness and times of relaxation is called regulation. When trauma enters the picture, the nervous system becomes dysregulated, meaning the person cannot return to their normal homeostasis. The rolling fluctuations will get bigger and bigger without resources and the person will remain with symptoms unabated and stuck “on.”
The nervous system does not distinguish between physical and emotional trauma. Nothing sends nervous function into overdrive better than pain. Sometimes an overwhelming event can happen early in life and so people grow up with one pattern stuck on, so overwhelm becomes normalized. Adults will then begin to exhibit health problems as the body cannot tolerate the pattern’s effects. Examples of early life trauma include:
Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
From Understanding Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects by Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal (http://www.helpguide.org)
Recovery From and Treatment of Overwhelm!
There are many ways to help manage stress and its effects. The first step is to become aware of the pattern by recognizing the symptoms, and then to choose a pathway so that your life is in your hands and not managed by the pattern. Learn how to relax and connect with others. Create a support system so you can let off steam and not feel so alone. Find outlets and professionals so you can learn important techniques or get treatments. But there are some stress management techniques you can practice, and best of all, they are inexpensive or free:
Each one of these activities or techniques has excellent research or evidence that it improves stress coping mechanisms in the body. Other important approaches include:
There are many ways to help address the symptoms of stress, but the first step is awareness. The good news is that addressing your pattern will help build resilience and health, and many of the tools you need to do this are already available to you.