There is a nifty little system working right below your conscious awareness whose sole purpose is to keep you alive while you go about your life. How wonderful is that? It's the complex and important role of your autonomic nervous system. This system, which regulates your bodily functions, is also your primary protective mechanism as it controls your fight-or-flight response, or said differently, your stress responses.
By paying attention to and tracking your emotions and body sensations, you can slowly become aware of the activation of your protective mechanism and therefore take the necessary steps to take care of yourself and come back into balance.
The Stress Responses
The three most well-known nervous system defence mechanisms against stress are:
- Inhibition and immobilisation (freeze)
In reality, there are also more subtle responses:
- Please and soothe (fawn)
- Collapse and submit
- Attach and cry for help
Following stressful or traumatic situations, our nervous system protects itself by implementing one of these responses. You can probably remember a time when you unconsciously adopted one of these strategies. Congratulations, your protection system works wonderfully!
The downside of this mechanism is that if our nervous system can't regulate and replenish itself, we can get "stuck" in these states and this can impact the quality of our lives: difficulty sleeping or irritated bowels when we are hyperaroused, for example, or on the other end of the spectrum, feeling lethargic and isolated when our physiology stays stuck in hypoarousal.
Engaging in a moment of connection with friends, cooking ourselves a healthy, nourishing meal, or sticking to our health regimen can become increasingly challenging when our nervous system is in full-on protective mode. To come back into balance, it is necessary to first reconnect to our body and restore a sense of safety.
Danger Versus Safety
Neuroception is the subconscious sense that constantly scans our environment to identify stressors (dangers and threats) and safety cues. This sense informs our nervous system by scanning our inner world, our external environment, and our relational environment to define if we are in danger or safe. Our brain then receives this information and builds a story to make sense of it. As you can imagine, these stories are not always accurate, which is another reason why working directly at the level of the nervous system is important. The more connected we are to our body sensations, the lesser the risk our brain misinterprets the cues it receives.
According to Janae Elisabeth, researcher and neurodiversity advocate, some frequent cues of danger and safety include:
- Internal danger cues: pain, negative inner dialogue
- Internal security cues: pleasure, positive internal dialogue
- External danger cues: systemic oppression, extreme weather, housing insecurity
- External safety cues: physical autonomy, equal rights, food security
- Relational dangers cues: gaslighting, loneliness, humiliation
- Relational safety cues: acceptance, emotional validation, reciprocity
Our neuroception is also activated in response to situations and dynamics that have a familiar flavour from the past. Meaning, a small event today can awaken a stressful or traumatic situation from the past that will activate our nervous system. The latter will therefore react more intensely than "necessary".
The Autonomic Ladder
The three main stress responses can also be represented as a symbolic ladder, as coined by clinician, consultant, author and speaker Deb Dana**:
Rung 3: Safe and socially engaged (Friend)
Rung 2: Fight or flight
Rung 1: Freeze
When our neuroception detects a danger or a threat, our protection mechanism activates, and our physiology slides down this ladder. Depending on the stressor, and how long we are exposed to what we perceive as a threat or a danger, we will slide down the autonomic ladder more or less quickly (and low). This is all done subconsciously. We cannot reason our nervous system to avoid the slide, nor can we reason our nervous system to go up the ladder.
Climbing back up the ladder, one rung at a time, requires completing the stress cycle and regulating ourselves (by self-regulation or co-regulation).
The good news is that our nervous system is flexible, so if we learn to work our way up, little by little, our capacity to experience and evacuate stress increases. Little by little, the stress triggers loosen their grip. Little by little, the traumatic memories imprinted in our body are released.
As we become conscious of the triggers that cause us to slide down the ladder and start recognising the tools, practices and people that help us move up the ladder, we become more and more equipped to anchor into embodied safety.
Regulation And Practising Safety
You probably already have resources you use daily or weekly to handle stress. Movement and sport, for example, are perfect to complete the stress cycle, so is creating art, connecting with your loved ones or petting your cat.
However, dealing with the stressors and completing the stress cycle is sometimes not enough. Oftentimes, we need to go beyond handling or managing stress: we need to process and integrate current and past stressful events to increase our capacity to be with intense sensations (whether deemed positive or negative) to promote long-lasting health and well-being. To do so, we need to become acquainted with our inner landscape and cultivate a sense of safety within.
Befriending your nervous system requires you to become familiar with its language: emotions, feelings, sensations, and internal dialogue. Using the RAIN method, a mindfulness technique developed by meditation teacher, psychologist and author Tara Brach is a great start to learning this new language.
This exercise has been adapted specifically to work with the nervous system by Australian physiotherapist Jessica Maguire and is an easy to implement self-regulation tool.
RAIN stands for recognise, allow, investigate and nurture:
Recognise: start with sensation, what do you sense in your body?
Allow: no pretending, a sincere "this is how it is going right now" without judgement.
Investigate: what am I believing? What does this place/this part of me/my nervous system need?
Nurture: give this place/part of you what it needs.
To move further into growing your regulation toolbox, I invite you to reflect on whom, what, where and when you feel anchored into safety. This practice will highlight the resources you can use to self and co-regulate when you sense that you have moved down the autonomic ladder:
Who makes me feel safe and welcome (it can also be a pet or a plant, for example)?
What activities or actions nourish me or bring me a sense of connection?
Where – what physical places in my environment and my world bring me safety cues?
When have I felt anchored into safety?
Finally, a potent practice you can use to process stress and cultivate your well-being is to connect with your breath, as described in this article by fellow TAKINOA contributor Simone Fuhrmann.
Working in collective intelligence with your nervous system is empowering. The more familiar you become with your nervous system, the more you begin to recognise your triggers and responses, and the more you can learn to regulate yourself and change the narrative of your life.
Over the next few days, when you don't feel "fully yourself", if you are feeling upset, irritated or if your energy is low, take the time to connect to your nervous system to find out which protective response is activated and apply the RAIN method to resource yourself. Take it slow, and enjoy the ride. Happy practice!
**Deb Dana, Polyvagal exercises for safety and connection, 50 client-centered practices, 2020