Monthly Archives: July 2010

How not to panic- The Automatic Nervous System 102

This post includes another page of our hypothetical owner’s manual for our amazing body. It will also provide information about why the limbic system and most specifically the amygdala- the smoke detector of our brains- can cause us to live trapped in anxiety: Even when nothing is wrong. Which is most frustrating, to be anxious or freaked out without a cause, it is probably better to be a rebel without a cause.  What usually follows  is that we then manufacture a reason for our anxiety, which is usually the person(s) or events in our lives at that current moment-perhaps why we can act the nastiest to those we live with. The brain is a great meaning making machine and though research has shown that we often do things without a conscious reason, the brain always attempts to make sense of the circumstances and will make up a reason for our behavior if needed.

The limbic system is a part of the emotional brain as previously discussed. It deals in emotion, memory and attachment. It is NOT the rational frontal lobe, it is called the emotional brain for a reason. When we live in a safe environment with little stress and no trauma or anxiety (where is such a place) our nervous systems are regulated and working as they should. We feel relaxed and prepared for whatever comes our way. However, when a new event occurs our automatic nervous system (ANS), beyond our awareness and in microseconds, scans our environment to determine if we are still safe. This process occurs mostly in the limbic system-the emotional brain. If the event contains danger our bodies immediately go into the well-known fight or flight mode. If we get away or fight our way out of danger, we have a period of high energy or activation but eventually we settle back down into our relaxed place. This is best case scenario and the reason wild animals don’t get “traumatized” though many have to run for their lives from predators on a regular basis. Their nervous systems are working well.

Now we know that human beings share 99% the same DNA as mammals, so in dangerous times our bodies act just like the mammals, we run, fight or freeze (yes a lessor known but at times vital choice in danger and one we will flesh out in later posts). Because we humans have the extra brain power, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), however, we often get traumatized by one scary event instead of shaking it off like the intrepid gazelle who runs from predators daily. This is due to the meaning our PFC makes of the scary event and the impact it has on our worldview. The emotional brain lays down memory tracks of any emotional event, like a computer file, it is always there and can’t be deleted. This is especially true of frightening or damaging events. The amygdala is the part of the limbic system that gets activated in these events and it sends out the Danger signal to the ANS which then goes into the Fight/Flight/Freeze mode. If the person whose body sends out this signal does not successfully resolve the event or does not get enough support after the trauma is over, their ANS will stay stuck in Danger mode. The parasympathetic system, the calm down branch of the ANS, does not turn on. So the person stays stuck in fear, anxiety and activation, basically the amygdala keeps sending out a danger signal and the body does not shut it back off.

This is why all therapists will stress self-care, that 3 legged stool, because taking care of our body and providing for our own needs, is an important part of helping to re-regulate the ANS so that the body can calm back down and work as it is intended to. It will take more than just self-care to process a traumatic event, but it is what anyone can do to help themselves on a daily basis. For most people, some form of outside support will be needed to allow the body to go back to normal NS functioning. Emotional and physical support have been shown to be critical for overcoming trauma and stress.

The next post we will continue to explore the amazing human body and discuss how to help the amygdala calm down and how to begin to evict the anxiety that many of us have lived with needlessly for years.

Take very good care

Wanda Brothers-Real Life Solutions-TRT

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Automatic Nervous System (ANS) 101

Happy Thursday everyone. As promised, below you will find the first blog installment of how your ANS works. Lack of understanding about the automatic nature of most of our body’s responses can cause confusion and often lots of anxiety. In order to feel good and live with joy and vitality your ANS must be regulated and in good working order.

The ANS controls many body processes and hums along outside of our conscious awareness most of the time. Some of the more important processes include; digestion, elimination, heart rate, breathing, and preparation for danger and/or survival. This last automatic process is usually where the excess anxiety begins to creep in. Sometimes the ANS broadcasts a danger signal when there really isn’t any danger or does not stop sending the signal after the danger is over. This is one way our Nervous systems get dis-regulated.

Because our ANS signals to our body that we are in danger our heart rate increases, our breath shortens and we feel anxious, tense and jittery. I have some clients who live like this 24/7. As you can imagine, this is very hard on the body and causes eventual physical, relational, and emotional problems in the long run.

In order to understand why the body/ANS may signal danger when there is none it helps to understand how our brains work. To simplify matters we will split the brain into 3 main parts, listed in the order which they develop as we grow into adulthood. The first is the primitive brain, the brain stem, controlling most automatic processes. The second is the limbic system or the emotional brain, this area includes memory and attachment processes. The third and last to fully develop is our pre-frontal cortex, our rational brain; this part of the brain helps us function well in society and can work as a brake to help reign in the emotional and primitive brain.

To put it in a nutshell, when we have way too much anxiety our emotional and primitive brains are running the show and they are not rational in any shape or form. Our rational brain is shut down and we are often even briefly in survival mode which can cause us to have an visceral reaction that believes it’s either me or you that will survive.  This is why people sometimes say the most terrible things to their loved ones when fearful or anxious. Anxiety often causes tremendous anger as well because we hate being helpless.

Stay tuned for the next installment to learn more about the amygdala, the “smoke detector” of the brain and how to use your rational brain to help with your anxiety and how this helps to re-regulate your nervous system.

Remember the 3 legged stool of self-care. The way we treat ourselves on an every day basis impacts the way we feel.

Take good care, Wanda Brothers