Why do you feel so anxious when you have to give a presentation at school? Why do you feel miserable or depressed? Why do you feel intense uncontrollable anger when your spouse disagrees with you or your child has an emotional breakdown? Why do you always end relationships as soon as they start to get “serious”? If you get easily overwhelmed or feel confused about why you feel and behave in a certain way, it can be that the stress response of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has been taking over your logical brain.
Scanning Our Environment
Your body is constantly processing information from your interactions with the world and others. As you go about your daily life, you’re picking up on social cues like facial expressions, tones of voice, and bodily movement. These interactions help shape your sense of self and teach you about who you can trust and who might be dangerous.
From the moment you are born, you are instinctively scanning your environment for signs of safety and danger. Your Autonomic Nervous System plays a vital role in scanning your environment and helping your body to respond to these signs.
Dysregulation of the Autonomic Nervous System
Your Autonomic Nervous System is in place for managing stress and regulating emotions. This can make you easily agitated, constantly on the lookout for signs of danger, or numb and disconnected from the world. Having a basic knowledge of your Autonomic Nervous System and knowing how to map your emotional state can help you better understand and manage strong emotions like anxiety, fear, panic, and anger, as well as issues like OCD and phobias, and even trauma and PTSD.
So let’s dive in!
What is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)?
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a pretty amazing and complex network of nerves that is responsible for controlling many of the functions of our body that happen involuntarily, without us even thinking about them. From regulating our heart rate and blood pressure to controlling our digestion and respiration, it plays a vital role in keeping us healthy and well.
In addition to maintaining these essential processes, the ANS also helps us scan our environment for potential dangers and interpret and respond to them.
It is made up of two main divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic branch of our Autonomic Nervous System is best known for its role in responding to dangerous or stressful situations. In these situations, your sympathetic nervous system activates to speed up your heart rate, deliver more blood to areas of your body that need more oxygen, dilate your pupils and tense your muscles to help you get out of danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system
On the other hand, the parasympathetic branch of our Autonomic Nervous System helps to promote relaxation and restore balance in the body after periods of stress or danger. It also helps run life-sustaining processes, such as digestion, during times when you feel safe and relaxed. When the parasympathetic nervous system is active, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your muscles relax.
So, how does the autonomic nervous system fit into the picture when it comes to emotional regulation?
Polyvagal Theory & the 3 States of the Autonomic Nervous System
There are different aspects of the Autonomic Nervous System referred to as the polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges.
Fight or Flight State
When confronted with a dangerous or stressful situation, the sympathetic branch nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response by releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and preparing the body to either fight or run away from danger.
If you were going to run from a hungry lion, 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.
Stress hormones can have a range of physical effects, including palpitations, rapid breathing, and trembling, which are common symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Physiologically, our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline increase and it decreases digestion, pain threshold, and immune responses.
When we find ourselves in a state of extreme stress or trauma, our body may enter a “freeze” state known as the dorsal vagal state, also referred to as our emergency state.
In this state, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our Autonomic Nervous System are simultaneously activated.
When fighting or fleeing is not possible, the parasympathetic nervous system takes control. 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.
Your heart rate and breathing slow down, and you might feel cold or numb and experience a sense of being trapped within your body. This is also called a dissociative state. Pain-killing hormones may also be released to help reduce the physical and emotional impact of the situation. It can also affect our memory, leading to difficulties in recalling all or part of the experience.
Rest and Digest
When our body is in a state of “rest and digest,” also known as a ventral vagal state, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the state where we feel safe and at homeostasis, and we feel grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, and compassionate.
It’s a state of social engagement, where we are connected to ourselves and the world around us. Our body’s physiological processes, such as digestion, immunity, circulation, and ability to connect with others, are all improved when we are in this state.
Physiologically, digestion, resistance to infection, circulation, immune responses, and our ability to connect are improved.
ANS & Toxic Stress Caused by Trauma
The stress response of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is meant to help us survive traumatic or stressful situations and return to Ventral Vagus, or homeostasis, once the danger has passed.
Traumatic events can change the way your nervous system functions
However, traumatic events can change the way your nervous system functions, keeping it in a constant state of fear and defense. The body’s natural stress response, including the “fight or flight” and “freeze” responses, can become permanently triggered, even in the absence of a threatening stimulus.
Adrenal System Dysfunction and Fatigue
When we experience stress, our adrenal system kicks into gear and releases hormones that help us stay alert and reactive. The problem is, the adrenal system can’t tell what’s a regular case of nerves or what’s a real impending disaster.
This can lead to an overreaction to stress, which can cause symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It can also lead to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. It can also make you easily agitated, constantly on the lookout for signs of danger, or numb and disconnected from the world.
Effects of Childhood Trauma on Our Nervous System
Adverse Childhood Experiences such as violence, abuse, neglect, and growing up with family members that have mental health or substance abuse issues can cause toxic stress that can change brain development and affect how your body responds to stress.
Inability to feel safe
When your nervous system is in self-protection mode, it can be difficult to feel safe, connect with others, or heal from physical and mental wounds. This can compound your suffering and make it harder to recover from trauma.
State of Shut Down and Dissociation
When we experience significant trauma as a child, we feel completely powerless to defend ourselves. The experience becomes too much for us to cope with and our brain shuts down, enabling us to dissociate from the experience; it protects us physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
However, dissociation can alter our perceptions of reality, time may appear to slow down and we might experience complete separation, where we are an observer or watching the events unfold in a film.
Feelings of Guild, Shame, and Regret
Feelings of guilt, shame, and regret are common for trauma survivors who are trapped in the freeze response. It is especially prevalent for survivors of childhood abuse or sexual violence as they may ask themselves why they did not fight back or why they did not run, or they may feel that they have somehow attracted this to them.
the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) plays a crucial role in regulating emotions and managing stress. Our ANS helps us to scan our environment and respond to potential danger. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are responsible for the “fight or flight” response, “freeze” response, and “rest and digest” state. Dysregulation of the ANS can lead to issues like anxiety, fear, panic, OCD, phobias, and trauma. By understanding how the ANS works and mapping our emotional state, we can better manage strong emotions and improve our overall well-being.