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3 Simple Practices to Befriend Your Nervous System in Traumatic Times


The Trauma of Life


We all know that recent years have been very hard. None of us remains untouched. The speed of change makes our heads spin, and sometimes we feel humankind is out of control. Have you ever felt exhausted or overwhelmed by it at times? The answer is "yes" for most of us. This is a normal response because It’s difficult for our mind, body and soul to process, integrate and maintain wellbeing in such a volatile environment. And that's why it is crucial for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health to learn how to balance our nervous system so it’s not in chronic overload. We can then more effectively cope to feel the joy of life while still holding the sorrow and without plunging into the depths of despair or pessimism. The question is, how do we do it?


First, let’s acknowledge what we’ve been dealing with. Pandemics, loss of loved ones, racial injustice, gun violence, shootings in schools and supermarkets, civil and political strife, friends and family torn apart over unyielding beliefs, wars, and the effects of climate change have deeply divided our society and world. We never know what’s around the corner, except that it keeps bombarding us from all sides. Too often we are sent into shock and grief over yet another senseless tragedy. We mourn, but sometimes the hurt and pain are so overwhelming that we shut down and numb ourselves for day-to-day survival. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all been in a state of high anxiety followed by periods of “numbness” where we can’t even watch or read the news anymore. This is part of the nervous system’s healthy response mechanism, called “flight, flight or freeze,” to help us cope in the short term. But, in the long term, its unhealthy effects leave us physically and emotionally tapped out - overstressed, exhausted, and traumatized.


What can we do about it? We can’t control everything around us, but we can harness our own healing power to regulate our nervous system and forge a new path to health and wellbeing. It may seem like a small action, but its effects are HUGE. We start with ourselves, and then it ripples out into wider circles to our family, friends, communities, and beyond. That’s how lasting change can occur.


The Nervous System and Trauma

We need a brief basic understanding of our nervous system before we can befriend and harness it. We will then understand why we react the way we do to the trauma in our lives. The nervous system is divided into 2 main components: (1) The Central Nervous System (CNS – brain and spine); and (2) The Peripheral Nervous System, which consists of the Somatic Nervous System (controlling skeletal muscle movement) and the Autonomic (Automatic) Nervous System (ANS – controlling involuntary functions, such as digestion). The ANS has two branches: (1) Sympathetic Nervous System (energizes and speeds us up; involved in the “fight and flight” response); and (2) Parasympathetic Nervous System (helps “rest and digest” because it relaxes, calms and facilitates digestion; responsible for the “freeze/faint” response). We will be concentrating on the ANS, specifically the Vagus Nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body that innervates and interconnects the gut, heart, and brain. It also helps calm the sympathetic nervous system so we can “go with the flow” of life without getting stuck in “fight or flight.”


Trauma is defined as is an experience(s) we have that overwhelms our capacity to cope when we feel threatened, which can affect our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. It’s not the event or series of events that occur, but how we respond that determines if the outcome is traumatic, as well as the extent of it. It also doesn’t need to be big events, like a bombing or war, but can be “micro-events” that occur throughout our lives. From an energetic perspective, it is stuck energy that needs to be gently moved and released so we can adapt and “go with the flow” of life again.

When we experience trauma, we respond by using fight, flight or freeze/faint strategies to protect ourselves. Peter Levine, PhD, discusses the response exhibited by animals when faced with perceived danger and a threat to their safety and survival. Let’s use the example of a cheetah hunting an impala. The cheetah makes its initial attack on an impala. The impala will instinctively run furiously for its life. Adrenaline and cortisol will course through its body to mobilize the muscles for escape while energy is shunted away from the brain and digestive organs because they are not immediately needed for survival. A tremendous amount of energy is expended in the process. If the impala escapes, it will go back to doing its normal activities of eating and sleeping. All is well like nothing ever happened. The body’s excess energy was released through the physical activity of the chase, resulting in no ill effects. If the impala doesn’t escape, it can fight back. If that doesn’t work, it can freeze and pretend to be dead.


Unfortunately, humans sometimes don’t bounce right back to their normal activities after the danger has passed without ill effects. If the event(s) is perceived as too overwhelming, our brain and body continually act as if the dangerous event is still happening in the present, even though it occurred in the past. When we are in this chronic stress response, cortisol and adrenaline don’t go back to normal levels. In the long term, this can cause anxiety, depression, inflammation, digestive problems, high blood pressure, heart attacks, sleep disturbances, weight gain, impaired memory, and much more. So, why can’t humans be more like the impala and “let go” afterwards? There are many reasons, including our brain chemistry and structure. In addition, according to Dr. Levine, we get “stuck” in the fight, flight and freeze/faint response because we don’t release the built-up energy. This necessitates different self-care strategies to help us release and return to normal by regulating our nervous system back into balance.


The Window of Tolerance

Daniel Seigel, MD, coined the phrase “window of tolerance,” which uses the Vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight/flight” response. The term describes the optimal zone of “arousal” for a person to function in everyday life. When we are operating within this zone or window, we can use our resources to manage and cope with events and emotions without becoming overwhelmed. We want to "widen" our window of tolerance to be in this harmonized zone as much as possible. If we’re outside our window of tolerance, we become dysregulated and either go into a sympathetic hyper-arousal chaotic state or a vagal hypo-arousal numb, disconnected and dissociated state. The key is to balance both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to cope and “go with the flow” of life again. This is very similar to the concept of yin and yang in Chinese medicine. Yin is analogous to the parasympathetic/Vagus nerve, which slows us down. The sympathetic nervous system can be considered yang, which speeds us up. We need a balance of both yin and yang to have harmony.

Balancing and Befriending Our Nervous System

Now we can understand why it is vital to regulate the nervous system, especially in times of higher stress. We are all living in stressful times, so it’s important for everyone. There are various Internal and external resources to bring us back into the “window of tolerance,” rather than stay stuck in fight, flight or freeze. My book, Somatic Energy Medicine, provides instruction on practices to bring the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems back into balance. Here we will review some simple practices you can do at work or home without bringing attention to yourself


Breathe


Yes, it’s as simple as breathing. That means these exercises won’t take a lot of time because we breathe automatically anyhow! Inhalation stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds us up, especially if we feel tired or numb. Exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system/Vagus nerve, which slows us down and has a calming effect. Consult with your medical professional before doing breath exercises if you have high/low blood pressure or any heart conditions.

Longer Exhalations– If you feel restless, angry, or overstimulated.

1. Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your legs uncrossed to ground you to the earth’s energy. You can keep your eyes opened or closed, whichever you prefer.

2. Inhale with your mouth closed while silently counting to yourself “one, two, three.” Let your chest and lower belly expand.

3. Then exhale with your mouth open silently counting to yourself, “one, two, three, four, five, six.” Let your chest and lower belly contract or go inward.

Notice what this experience is like for you? Do you feel calmer or less restless?

If you have difficulty breathing through your nose, then it’s okay to keep your mouth open.


Longer Inhalations – If you feel tired, listless, or disconnected.

1. Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your legs uncrossed to ground you to the earth’s energy. You can keep your eyes opened or closed, whichever you prefer.

2. Inhale with your mouth closed while silently counting to yourself “one, two, three, four, five, six.” Let your chest and lower belly expand.

3. Then exhale with your mouth open silently counting to yourself, “one, two, three.” Let your chest and lower belly contract.

Notice what this experience is like for you. Do you feel more energized or awake?


Harmonize the Emotions


Worry FAST!

The following exercise is a Jin Shin Jyutsu

(gentle touch) self-care practice using your fingers.

Harmonizing your emotions is critical for balancing the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Try it at work, when you’re with family or friends, or when you’re out shopping. Whenever you want to calm an emotion, just hold your fingers!


You can use the phrase, “WORRY FAST,” to help you remember what to do.

The acronym “FAST” is for Fear, Anger, Sadness, and “Try Tos“ (i.e., too much effort and stress). You can hold each finger for at least 2 minutes or longer, or you can just hold the finger(s) corresponding to a particular emotion. In the eastern healing traditions, each emotion is attributed to a particular organ in your body. So, when you hold your fingers, you’re also helping the organ associated with it. Here are the instructions:


1. Worry – Hold left thumb with the right hand by wrapping the fingers of your right hand around the left thumb

2. Fear - Hold the left index with your right hand

3. Anger – Hold your left middle finger with your right hand.

4. Sadness – Hold your left ring finger with your right hand.

5. Try Tos (stress, effort) - Hold your left little finger with your right hand.

6. Optional – Place your right thumb in the middle of your left palm and the right fingers holding the backside of the hand. This is the total harmonizer for all emotions and organs.

You can also reverse it and hold the right-hand fingers with your left hand, whichever you feel called to do. Sometimes, you may even want to do the fingers on both hands.


Somatic Energy Medicine contains more nervous system balancing techniques based on my experience as a nurse and integrative natural healing practitioner. These practices allow us to still experiencing the joys while living with the sorrows. Sign up for my newsletter to get updates on the book's publication date and visit my blog for additional simple practices for mind-body health.


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