Understanding the Nervous System and Trauma
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Trauma has an impact on our minds and bodies. Understanding how trauma affects our nervous system also helps us understand how to heal from it.
The Nervous System and Mental Health
In today’s modern era, many of us live in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. You may think of fight-or-flight as something that is only activated in life or death situations, which is certainly true, but for many people, the nervous system operates like there is danger when there is no immediate threat. This leads to a constant, nagging feeling that something is wrong. This could be mild, such as worrying a lot, or could be more severe, such as intense social anxiety that limits your life. Some other signs that your nervous system is in a state of fight-or-flight include racing thoughts, insomnia, panic attacks, and feeling stuck, shut-down or frozen. Some physical signs include irritable bowl syndrome and digestive issues, chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, and a weak immune system. You could also call this stress,
which is essentially what happens when the body is in a state of fight-or-flight for a prolonged period of time.
A Balanced Nervous System
When our nervous system is in a natural, resting state, we feel calm and safe, but also alert and engaged. Perhaps you can think of a moment in your life where you naturally felt present and relaxed, enjoying what you were doing in that moment without any effort or trying on your part. You just were present. Perhaps it was in nature, or doing something you enjoy, or being with a trusted friend. These moments of ease, relaxation, and engagement occur when our nervous system is in a state of “rest and digest,” which is the baseline for a balanced nervous system. However, for many people, these moments are few and far between, and it can be very difficult to be in the present moment without a lot of effort.
The good news is that there are things we can do to retrain our mind and bodies to rest in this state.
Training the Mind and Body
When our nervous systems have been in a state of fight-or-flight for an extended period, we need to teach our nervous systems how to feel relaxed and safe again, essentially how to find that state of “rest and digest.”
The good news is that every single time we access this state, even for a moment, we create a body memory, on a cellular level, that helps our nervous systems remember what is feels like to be safe.
And over time, this will help our nervous systems regulate on their own and come back to that baseline of “rest and digest,” which is the body and mind’s natural state of balance and health. You may have many more moments of “rest and digest” throughout the day than you realize. Perhaps it is the first sip of coffee in the morning, or the soft pillow under your head at the end of the day, moments when you feel appreciative and relaxed, even for a split second. But we tend to skip over these moments. The practice is to start noticing them, to savor them, and to really bring attention to what it feels like to feel safe. Over time, this will create a new normal, one where the mind and body naturally rests in a state of calm presence until we need to respond to an actual threat.