Rewiring your nervous system for peace instead of panic

Collaborator: Alexie Foster
Published: 04/10/2023, 4:00 PM

This article discusses various types of traumas and their causations. If you are a trauma survivor, we encourage you to take the necessary steps for your emotional safety prior to or after reading this article. This may include seeking comfort from a friend or family member, calling the Crisis Line at 988, or texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741. 

(NATIONAL) Our bodies and minds are designed to survive. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution demanded it. We learned how to make fire, take down creatures that were ten times our size, and protect ourselves and our families in the wild. 

Experts estimate 30 to 43 percent of prehistoric humans died before they were 15 years old. Even as recent as the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, human life expectancy was only 30 to 40 years. 

Today, it’s double that. It’s safe to say, the average American no longer needs to exist in survival mode. 

According to the National Safety Council, the top ten most common ways to die in 2020 included only one unnatural cause, and that was preventable injury. Heart disease and cancer were the top causes.

Despite these facts, six percent of Americans live with repeated triggering of survival mode caused by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Nearly 5 percent will experience a panic disorder at some point in their lives.

These disorders are just two of many that can result from experiencing traumatic events.

The National Institute of Mental Health says about one half of all U.S. adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. Other disorders that result from experiencing trauma include anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue or pain, Fibromyalgia, personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, poor memory, strained relationships and trust, dissociative/identity disorder, or depersonalization/derealization disorder.

For people dealing with the mental health conditions resulting from trauma (and their loved ones), it’s important to understand the human body and ways we can work with it instead of against it. 

Oftentimes, we don’t know how to prevent trauma from resulting in major or long-term issues. The old adage ‘time heals all wounds’ is not remotely true when it comes to trauma. Simply letting time pass does not resolve it. Healing requires an active approach.

When we experience a traumatic event, our nervous system gets activated, sending a stress response throughout the body. The nervous system is comprised of two parts- the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the part that gets activated during times of distress, alerting the body to what it perceives to be life or death danger. This is what we need to spring into action to avoid a car wreck on the road, or to stop our kid from running into oncoming traffic. These are actual potential life or death situations. 

Unfortunately, the brain sometimes perceives a life-or-death situation that isn’t one. Sometimes we go into fight or flight mode over the vague “Can we talk?” text or an email from a boss. The brain perceives these events as life or death and thus they feel that way, but they’re not.

This is particularly true if we have experienced chronic, or repeated, trauma. The body has grown accustomed to survival mode and begins to default to that operating system, even during ordinary circumstances. 

We also have the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of calming the body system down and recovering from a stressful event. The good news is we are able to intentionally activate our parasympathetic nervous system when we find ourselves in distress over something that isn’t life or death, or after we’ve survived a truly potential life or death situation. 

Related story: Understanding childhood trauma as an adult

Our bodies will actually practice self-soothing activities to activate the parasympathetic nervous system without even thinking about it. Some examples of this include deep breathing, wringing hands, pacing, rubbing your chest, rubbing your temples, and rubbing your neck and shoulders. Cultivating awareness of what works to calm yourself from stress and then intentionally practicing it is an effective way to deactivate survival mode. 

There’s a part of your brain called the Insula (directly connected to the limbic system) that assists in regulating emotions and handling stressful situations. This part of the brain acts like a muscle, and we can exercise it to strengthen it. The stronger our Insula is, the easier it is to handle stressful events. When it’s weakened or overloaded, it becomes more difficult to regulate emotions and handle these events. 

One way to strengthen the Insula is to build a grounding practice, a series of exercises that help you return to your body and back to your center. These are what are referred to as “bottom-up” activities. They direct your focus on being in your body and rely on your senses versus your thoughts and mental processing. Examples of bottom-up activities include but are not limited to deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, sensory activities, and mindfulness exercises.

If you recognize a pattern of survival mode activation in your life and want to change it, you can also try joining a Somatic Processing Group, like the Release The Stress Group Coaching Program. This virtual group training guides you through an active approach to healing from trauma by helping you build a grounding practice that works for you. It will also assist you in strengthening your Insula so you’re better able to regulate emotions and handle stressful situations. Sign up to be notified of the next enrollment period here.

This story is the third story in a three-part trauma education publication, as part of VNN’s 2023 FATE Learning Series: Trauma Informed Business Development. Alexie Foster will be a guest speaker at the 2023 FATE in-person event in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on April 20, 2023. Don’t want to wait for FATE for trauma tips? Request access to Alexie’s free grounding series. To register for free tickets to the 2023 FATE in-person event or take part in the series online, visit the FATE webpage


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