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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