Understanding anxiety is critical since it is essentially a state of your nervous system. In this video, we’ll explore anxiety, trauma, and burnout in your nervous system.
There’s two ways that your nervous system plays a direct role in anxiety and depression- your alerting activating system can get stuck on or stuck off. And most of the people who get stuck in these states don’t realize it, they are trapped in these cycles and just feel chronically anxious or chronically exhausted. But the good news is that when you learn to identify what is happening, you can change it.
According to polyvagal theory, there are 3 states of the nervous system.
- Safety (aka Ventral vagal, or parasympathetic)
- Activation (aka sympathetic, or FFF response) and
- Overwhelm/Shutdown (aka dorsal vagal (which, confusingly, is also parasympathetic, but it’s a more primitive state)
So, What Does a Healthy Nervous System Look Like?
You might think that if you’re healthy, you’re calm all the time, but that’s not the case. A healthy nervous system is adaptive and accurate. A person with a healthy nervous system probably spends much of their time feeling relaxed or safe, but when there is a real and immediate danger- they can respond very quickly, with a FFF response, or even a freeze response, take action and then restore their sense of safety quickly.
So a healthy nervous system has a broad range of emotions, calm, love, activation, but also joy, excitement, fun, and can get quite activated, even stressed, take action, and then it’s resilient, meaning that after a stressful event, it can return to a sense of calm pretty quickly. You’re able to relax, sleep well, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, your body can heal and repair and restore.
Now, before you begin to feel a sense of hopelessness, like this is an impossible goal- your nervous system is like a muscle, when you learn to use it in the right way, it can become healthy and strong.
Your nervous system is modifiable, it can learn, develop, change, adapt. If you’re stuck in chronic stress, it’s because your nervous system learned that, and if it learned that, it can learn the other way.
Our body also has an interesting feedback loop, our brain, probably through this part called the Insula, is constantly scanning your body to see how it’s functioning, and it uses the sensations to determine if the body is running all hunky dory or if there’s a problem. When your body is in pain, it sends messages to your brain that it’s in danger, but when your body is calm it messages to your brain to chill out. This is called a bottom up approach to nervous system regulation. When we calm our body, we calm our mind.
What Does an Anxious Nervous System Look Like?
So one form of an unhealthy nervous system is called “Sympathetically dominant” or nervous system hyperarousal, it’s when your FFF response is highly active, stuck on all the time. Anxiety makes us more sensitive to threats-When we’re anxious, we get more anxious.
You may feel like you’re on high alert all the time. You’ll have a stronger reaction to threats, it happens more quickly, and to a higher level of stress. So this means that you’re less accurate, more likely to interpret things as more dangerous than they are, more likely to see offense when none is intended, more likely to feel scared, stressed, or overwhelmed, even when you’re safe. You might also feel more agitated or irritable.
So you feel jumpy, jittery, an upset stomach or you crave carbs. Your heart and breathing is faster, you feel the need to keep moving, stay busy, or to overthink things. You may also find that you have a hard time concentrating, focusing, or remembering things.
It’s like your nervous system is stuck in the “on” position all the time, it has a hard time sleeping, relaxing, settling down, and playing. You might feel like you’re on edge all the time. You’re always on the alert, always vigilant. Usually in this mode, you’re able to get stressed out and get stuff done, but you have a hard time having fun or you feel anxious when you try to relax. So your nervous system isn’t flexible, it’s rigidly stuck in the ON position. This can be a result of trauma or chronic stress. But it can also be just a habit we fall into, caused by worrying too much or not knowing how to self-regulate.
Again, this is like a muscle, the part of your nervous system that gets activated has become very strong, but the part of your nervous system (parasympathetic) that relaxes, is weaker, so it has a harder time overriding the FFF response.
But, like a muscle, you strengthen what you exercise.
You can rewire this, through a constant process of nervous system regulation. You check in with your body, multiple times a day, multiple times an hour, remind yourself that you are safe, and then choose to consciously engage the parasympathetic response in your body, you choose to regulate your nervous system, through a slow breath, softening your gaze, or whatever your favorite grounding skill is. (We’ll talk more about this in another video).
Third State of Anxiety in the Nervous System
The third state of anxiety in the nervous system is called nervous system hypoarousal. This is when your body turns on “Shut down and conserve” mode. It’s when you’re overwhelmed. So when you’ve experienced a threat that was too big, too much, too fast, or too long, too few resources, or without support- when you’re isolated or ashamed, your body goes into shutdown mode. And again, this isn’t your body being “out to get you” you aren’t broken, this state is actually a survival response, an attempt to conserve energy, avoid antagonizing an enemy or stay hidden. This can be functional in the short term, but when you get stuck in this mode, it’s essentially a trauma response.
This can happen if you experience a huge tragedy, or simply if you’re worn down by chronic stress.
In a huge event, shutting down is the last survival response.
With chronic stress, you just get depleted. Stress uses up energy, resources, nutrients, you spend a lot of time running and not enough time repairing and healing and resting. So your body gets worn down.
And whether it’s a short intense event, or a chronic stress, nervous system hypoarousal can look like burnout or depression. You may feel sluggish, tired, frozen, numb. You might have slow heart rate, breathing, low energy, low metabolism, low motivation.
(I mean, why try if everything is awful)
You might have a hard time feeling pleasure or excitement,
There are cognitive symptoms too- hypoarousal impairs creativity, “brain fog” slows thinking, seems to impair memory and concentration, and contributes to poorer problem solving, difficulty initiating and completing tasks and procrastination- Does that sound like burnout to you?
Does it sound like depression to you?
It’s crazy to me that no one is talking about the nervous system aspect of these conditions.
Chronic stress leads to the physical symptoms of hypoarousal.
If you’re in this “Stuck OFF” state, you may also experience social withdrawal, decreased sexual desire, and a lack of interest in hobbies or activities that you used to enjoy. Sometimes this looks like quick bursts of energy or exertion or panicky action and then collapsing into exhaustion. Symptoms of chronic fatigue mirror this as well.
Again, just because you may be experiencing this, doesn’t mean it’s permanent- you can retrain your nervous system. Treatment for this requires three steps- self-care to restore physical resources (sleep, nutrition, rest, exercise, medical treatment and support) and Activation- getting moving.You have to move through the polyvagal ladder, through activation to return to calm. And lastly, creating a sustainable approach to solving problems. So finding a way to face and solve problems so that they don’t become overwhelming all the time for you. Whether that’s sticking to a budget, setting boundaries with people or learning to actively accept what you cannot change, you can learn to return to a sense of safety.
So I’ve mentioned trauma a couple times in this video, and throughout the course. What does trauma have to do with this?
Trauma, or at least my understanding of trauma, is your brain and body’s deep learning system. When you experience an extremely painful or dangerous or threatening event, or a chronic stressor for years, anything that overwhelms your ability to respond. Trauma is your nervous system’s subconscious way to record those circumstances, and create quick reactions.
So if you’re a soldier at war, and on a clear day, you’re driving a humvee, you can smell the exhaust, you see a backpack on the side of the road, and it turns out the backpack was a bomb. Your nervous system pairs “clear sky, smell of exhaust, and backpack” with “Threat to my survival” and suddenly, without realizing it at home, when you smell exhaust, or have a bright clear sky, or see a backpack laying on the ground, your nervous system kicks on that threat response system without you even realizing it. And your nervous system may go into the sympathetic response or the shutdown response for no apparent reason at all. And suddenly you’re panicky or angry or depressed but you don’t know why. So that trauma response is a stored response in your nervous system.
Or if you’re a child in an abusive home, you know when your mom comes home cranky from work, that’s a time to keep your head down, to hide or withdraw. If that happens enough, over and over as a child, if that hide and shutdown response gets really ingrained, you may develop a response as an adult at work to avoid every form of confrontation, but you don’t even realize you’re doing it, it’s deep subconscious learning.
One way of understanding trauma is to see it as a deep and subconscious form of learning that your nervous system does to keep you safe from threats, but unfortunately, these defense mechanisms can cause a lot of harm.
So what do we do about this?
We can’t just treat anxiety or trauma in our head, in our thoughts, we have to treat it in our body, in our nervous system.
So the first step is Becoming aware.
I’m going to make a wild guess right now that you don’t know what anxiety is actually like in your nervous system and in your body. Because you’re either constantly trying to distract yourself from uncomfortable sensations or you’re constantly intellectualizing about it. Or simply because you’ve never been taught to notice what’s going on in your body. So the first step is to become more aware of the state of your nervous system, one word for this is interoception.
Use the workbook to explore what anxiety feels like in your nervous system and what the shutdown response feels like. In this section of the course we are going to take a deeper look at how to regulate your nervous system, how to turn on the parasympathetic response, and what to do with anxious sensations. If you would like to learn more of the basics of how your nervous system works, how to understand the FFF response and the parasympathetic response and some really essential grounding techniques, please take my free course (Grounding Skills for Stress, Anxiety and Trauma) I’ll link that below.
You really can learn to identify these states of anxiety and trauma in your nervous system, and learn how to regulate your nervous system, so that you can become healthier, overcome anxiety and trauma, and become more flexible, able to relax, feel more joy, be more playful, and allow your body to heal.
This video is Day 20 of my Online course Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days, if you’d like to take the entire course, click the link below.