By Lauren Maher, LMFT, C-IAYT:
It’s no secret that we are living in intense times. It’s only natural for us to experience feelings that overwhelm us as we manage our reactions to a global pandemic, the brutality of systemic racism, seemingly unending political strife, the ravages of climate change, and the steady drumbeat of the 24-hour news cycle. Now more than ever, we need to understand how our nervous system responds to stress and to build a practical toolkit to help us manage our various emotional states.
Our nervous system has three primary ways of coping with stress:
1) Social engagement can be a healthy strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and connected. Interacting with someone who feels safe and receptive to our needs can put the brakes on some of our stress responses. A simple touch, eye contact, and attentive listening can go a long way in soothing our nervous system.
2) When we feel the need to defend ourselves, our primal “fight or flight” response kicks into high gear. We mobilize, and our body prepares to protect itself. Our sympathetic nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Our heart beats faster, our muscles tense, and our breath quickens. All of these changes are intended to increase our strength and stamina, increase our reaction time, and enhance our focus.
3) Immobilization, sometimes called the “freeze” response, is considered to be the most primitive response to stress. It occurs when we determine (consciously or unconsciously) that social engagement and mobilization are not an option. We can freeze, dissociate, or essentially “leave” the body to protect ourselves from extreme stress or danger. Think of the animal that “plays dead” to protect itself from a predator.
In a typical day, we may move through variations of any of these three states.
We may start the day feeling calm and socially engaged as we hug our spouse and children, but minutes later can find ourselves startled, scared, and angry when someone cuts us off in traffic. Later on in the day, after we’ve calmed down from our traffic debacle, we may start “doomscrolling” through the news and social media and become overwhelmed and depressed by what we see and feel disconnected, dejected, and powerless. And on the cycles go!
So, what can we do?
Here are a few basic tools to help you work with your nervous system in moments of stress.