A simple example of how the autonomic nervous system can influence your daily life
(This is a humble attempt to lay out a simple map for reactionism through the nervous system but explained from within my personal experience.)
There’s something very fundamental to our existence. Yet most of the time it gets overlooked. It’s involved in everything we do, yet we know it so little. And in some cases, it overthrows us and takes over completely. If you’re in any situation that causes you some stress you can notice these different states within your body.
Especially for sensitives, dealing with our autonomic nervous system can be the key to a peaceful life. As our nervous system is more sensitive and gets easily overdosed on information. Seeing initial key responses before a complete stage sets in can potentially shift the experience. One could, for example, usually get overloaded with information if too many people are around. But there are specific key situations in which this overload becomes too much. If you would be able to listen to your body. And at the time there is a flag that hints it coming, you could take a step back. Do some breathing, and return calm. Rather than pushing and loading more upon the overloading stimulus. We can also learn to communicate what this means and what we are in need of. This way we form more healthy relationships in which we can explore these triggers in a safe way.
There are 3 stages our nervous system can gravitate towards. And it’s not black and white, it can more of a gradual process but it also can be very direct. The first stage is the calm, social engagement phase. This is the parasympathetic state but on the positive conscious chill side. The second stage is where the action happens and where we can go into fight or flight mode, this is the sympathetic stage. Here blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, adrenal secretion… The last stage is again the sympathetic response but on its negative side due to overstimulation. Heart rate increases, insulin, and endorphins increase so that the body numbs down. This is the depressed or numb stage, also the most dissociated one.
Although scientifically all of this can become hypercomplex. This explanation is not, and is set in a mundane situation. This short and simple example can make this whole process much more easy to understand.
Our responses to stress vary widely, therefore we can also not make a map for stress responses. We can only find correlation and elaborate on those. This shows that stress has nothing to do with a collective understanding of what stress can be (to a certain extent that is, there are archetypal responses). But that it can be completely subjective and abstract. Therefore we cannot really judge other peoples stress responses. Even if those responses are completely out of place to you. The context of a stress response doesn’t really matter. It’s simply a fact that stress is generated for that individual and it’s never a voluntary response.
The example is about having a conversation with someone you are struggling with. I like to use the example of someone you’re in love with because it’s such a contradicting idea (that you struggle with love). And it might not even matter, it could simply be someone you met on the street but you don’t quite resonate with. Here also, especially for sensitives, social interaction can easily come with stress responses.
The first impulse is the step of going towards someone or someone coming towards me. This can be a mild to strong stimuli, that might generate a strong charge. But let’s keep it a mild one for this example. My heart starts racing a little faster. There’s an instigation of movement within my body which I might suppress. Either running towards or running away or a mix of both. In any case, this energy is not allowed to express (in this example) cause we want to make a good impression. Pupils start to dilate, saliva increases… This is the onset of a mild sympathetic response (fight or flight).
2. First contact
Either I want to hear or I want to be heard. In both cases, this can lead to disappointment. In essence, I want to express but many times my expressions are fogged because I am getting into a sympathetic response. This first contact ramps up the sympathetic response because of expectation. And the fear of it not being met. Let’s say that I do start talking quickly because we come with a lot of energy.
3. The path towards losing control
By now, I quickly spoke and there’s a response but the response is not what I expected and it disappointed me. At this point I become sweaty, pupils are fully dilated. I’m getting pumped with adrenaline. My breathing goes faster. My body gets even more charged, there’s a mild shaking or moving of the hands. As if I want to do something. Either we start speaking our mind or we leave at this point. But we have to do something. This is full sympathetic mode, fight or flight response. But instead of fighting (we compensate) with either running away or expressing. But because I still want to be accepted by this person. I do nothing and hold all this energy in and feel it within my gut as if I have to go to pee, as if there’s something stuck in my stomach. I start to feel heavier.
4. Beyond control
Because I didn’t do anything and did not respond, the other person gets upset and starts yelling at me. At this point I become very fearful, I might doubt “I actually do not know this person well” and I fear what will come next. Although I’m sure nothing violent will happen, emotionally I’m hurt. I’m very confused as to what to do. The mind does not distinguish between what is a “real” danger or not. An emotional attack could potentially be the same as being attacked by a lion. Even with 100% certainty that there’s no direct possibility of physical violence. I become very pale as all my blood goes towards my vital organs. This is an instinctual response to protect the body from an attack. My digestions weakens as all my energy gets focused on as to how I might survive this.
5. Shut down
At his point, I can’t even hear what the other person is saying. I can’t connect the dots and I can’t be present. Neither can I move or speak. This is a full sympathetic response. I numb myself down to save myself from the overstimulation and potential dangers. With animals, if they get attacked and are caught, they play death. As that is their last resort for survival. Humans do the same, it’s within our nervous system and we do not distinguish between what is or is not a possible threat. Anything that charges our body and pushes us beyond our sympathetic limits can cause us to shut down. Become numb and not “feel” anything anymore. Here my breathing actually slows down and my pupils contract more. My fuel storage increases, as I’m preparing to conserve my energy as I cannot perform much action. My body releases endorphins that help to numb me and raise the pain threshold. At the same time, all my social skills decrease, less eye contact, less facial expression, less intonation… Because this all aids towards playing death and is needed to do so in high-stress situations.
Some of us can get stuck in these phases instrad of moving through them. And you can tell at which phase they potentially are by their behavior. It’s a good idea to look at your own behavior and what you’re actually doing. Where is your energy going towards? What are you feeling and how are you responding to others. But also how are others responding to me? Knowing that they are not only responding from a rational side but that much of the anger or sadness being expressed lay beyond their direct control.
Through this understanding, we can see, that we’re all human. If we like it or not. We are all dealing with the same nervous system and the content of others trauma is not an indication that we understand what it will do with their nervous system. Or that their expression (superficially) is really how they are feeling or that they are in control of.
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