Get to know your nervous system
As a ‘bottom-up’ therapist, I spend a lot of time working with people’s nervous system. That might sound a bit odd but I think it’s important I spend a blog explaining why this is so important, especially when working with trauma.
Our body reacts, and then our mind does the thinking. This is why we might startle in fright when we see a hosepipe lying in the long grass on a summer afternoon (living in Australia) before we register that it’s a hosepipe, as opposed to a snake. That’s because the part of the brain that develops earliest in life is the brain stem – the part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us safe. The higher brain regions – the limbic system (responsible for attachment and emotional development) and the cortical brain (responsible for thinking, learning and inhibiting) don’t work so well if the lower part of the brain isn’t working very well, or is busy keeping us safe and well, or under real or perceived threat.
The nervous system is made up of all the nerve cells in your body. It is through the nervous system that we communicate with the outside world and, at the same time, many mechanisms inside our body are controlled. The nervous system has two parts, called the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system due to their location in the body. The central nervous system (CNS) includes the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. All of the other nerves in the body are part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). There are voluntary parts of the nervous system – responsible for controlling all the things we can consciously influence such as moving parts of our body, and involuntary parts – things that happen reflexively such as breathing and our heart beating. It is constantly active, and receives signals from the brain, passing them on to the body. It can also send signals in the other direction – from the body to the brain – providing your brain with information about how full your bladder is or how quickly your heart is beating, for example. The involuntary nervous system can react quickly to changes, for example if we’re hot we start to sweat in order to cool down.
The involuntary nervous system is made up of three parts:
- The sympathetic nervous system – responsible for ‘fight / flight’ activities
- The parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for ‘rest & digest’ activities
- The enteric (gastrointestinal) nervous system – responsible for our bowel motility
If you’ve ever studied high school science these are probably the foundational sorts of things you covered in biology. Our appreciation of things in the psychotherapy/counselling world got a bit more interesting when Dr Stephen Porges released his research around what is called ‘Polyvagal Theory’. The vagus nerve (means wandering nerve in Latin) is one of the longest nerves in the body and originates in the brainstem and innervates muscles of the throat, circulation, respiration, digestion and elimination. It is a major constituent of the parasympathetic nervous system, and about 80% of its fibres are sensory which means the feedback is critical for homeostasis – that thing that humans do to keep us on an even keel.
Breaking down the three nervous system states:
- First, our “fight and flight” response is our survival strategy, a response from the sympathetic nervous system. If you were going to run from tiger, for example, you want this response to save your life. When we have a fight response, we can have anger, rage, irritation, and frustration. If we are having a flight response, we can have anxiety, worry, fear, and panic. Physiologically, our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline increase, and it decreases digestion, pain threshold, and immune responses.
- Second, we have a “freeze” state, our dorsal vagal state, which is our most primitive pattern, and this is also referred to as our emergency state. This means that we are completely shut down, we can feel hopeless and feel like there’s no way out. We tend to feel depressed, conserve energy, dissociate, feel overwhelmed, and feel like we can’t move forward. Physiologically, our fuel storage and insulin activity increases and our pain thresholds increase.
- Lastly, our “rest and digest” is a response of the parasympathetic system, also known as a ventral vagal state. It is our state of safety and homeostasis. If we are in our ventral vagal state, we are grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, and compassionate. This is the state of social engagement, where we are connected to ourselves and the world. Physiologically, digestion, resistance to infection, circulation, immune responses, and our ability to connect is improved.
When we work from a bottom-up perspective we work with an appreciation that our nervous system is driving all of the processes that ultimately get encoded as the unhelpful or maladaptive behaviours and thoughts that are so often the focus of therapy.
If you’d like to experience bottom-up therapy, we have a team of relationship therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing – please reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org / 03 9077 8194.