Note: This article was originally published on ProHealth on January 6th, 2019.
"Stigma" is a word we frequently hear in reference to mental health. There is still a stigma around talking about depression and other mental illnesses. Sometimes, it even prevents people from accessing treatment. One reason stigma persists is because there are still some who believe people can control their depression or should be able to fix it on their own. This couldn't be farther from the truth. When we learn how the nervous system works, we start to understand that anxiety and depression are caused by dysregulation and not a lack of willpower.
More and more researchers are discovering that problems with our nervous system are the root cause of many illnesses, including mental illness and many chronic health conditions. Specifically, when our autonomic nervous system becomes dysregulated, we respond using our "fight, flight, or freeze" reflex, which has dire effects on the body and brain. When explaining how a nervous system becomes dysregulated, I often use the metaphor of the tiger in the corner of the room. If you have anxiety, it's as if you are constantly protecting yourself from the metaphorical tiger by bracing your muscles and being hypervigilant. For those with depression, it’s as if you are aware of the tiger, but know there is nothing you can do about it, so you enter into a freeze state. Neither of these responses is conscious; it's how our bodies react to perceived threats.
Any traumatic event can be a disruption to the nervous system. Some people think they have not been exposed to trauma, but once you understand the many types of trauma, you will see there are few people who escape it. For example, we inherit our nervous system from our ancestors, and with it, we inherit their trauma. This is referred to as "ancestral trauma." In addition, our nervous system acclimates to the people around us—if their nervous system is dysregulated, ours will be as well. We also may have repressed trauma or trauma that happened prior to the age of three when we start to have long-term memories. Even environmental trauma, such as exposure to certain bacteria, viruses, or chemicals, can harm our nervous systems; this is in addition to what is more traditionally referred to as trauma, like tragedies or violence. Essentially, few people can be exposed to some trauma and not experience its impact on the nervous system. Although there are some people who resilient nervous systems and bounce back quickly from these factors, many of us are greatly impacted and may not even know it's happening.
When your nervous system has been dysregulated for many years, "fight, flight, or freeze" becomes your default setting. You may feel restless and jittery even when doing low-energy activities or be so checked out that all you can do is sit on the couch and watch television. Feeling calm and present becomes foreign, so it's almost uncomfortable when it happens. Unconsciously, you start doing whatever it takes to remain in an activated state.
So, now that you know that your nervous system controls your mood, is there anything you can do about it? The answer is yes.
One way to help regulate your nervous system is to literally "get out of your head." Most people in a dysregulated state have racing thoughts and little awareness below the shoulders. You can start to feel more "embodied" by learning grounding techniques, such as feeling your feet on the earth or feeling the energy in your hands. Another way to do this is by using "body scan" meditations. These guided meditations walk you through how to feel into your body and draw your energy downward.
Another gold standard for calming the nervous system is traditional meditation. Sitting still and breathing reminds your nervous system that you are safe and can stop guarding yourself from the tiger, which is why it has gained traction in recent years as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. However, people with a dysregulated nervous system have a difficult time sitting still in silence. Start slowly and use a guided meditation (you can find many free meditations online). Using a guided meditation helps keep intrusive thoughts at bay. You can start with one minute a day and work up to ten minutes, which is about the amount of time your body needs to go from activated to calm.
Consider activities in your life that help you feel calm. If you increase the frequency and do them intentionally, these activities will help regulate your nervous system over time. Maybe you enjoy drawing or walking in nature. The more time you spend in a calm, regulated state the more it starts to feel familiar and the more you will notice when you feel outside of that state. The sooner you can recognize your nervous system is activating, the quicker you can intervene to pull yourself back to a calm, centered place.
If you have severe anxiety or depression, you may consider somatic psychotherapy, which is a type of therapy that focuses on the nervous system. In this type of therapy, a trained therapist will ask you questions about the sensations in your body in order to move stuck energy. It is effective in treating mental illness and trauma.
The most important thing to remember is that anxiety and depression are not your fault. When your nervous system isn't regulated, it's very difficult to "think or talk" your way out of it. If you have anxiety or depression, know that it can get better. If you know someone with anxiety or depression, approach them from a place of compassion. We are all truly doing the best we can within the confines of our nervous system.
"The only journey is the one within." - Rainer Maria Rilke
Treatment of complex illness if rarely linear and one of the hardest things to cope with is when you stop making progress. I wrote a blog post for the Global Lyme Alliance blog about this very issue.
You can read the full post here:
What to Do When You Hit a Plateau in Treatment
Have you reached a plateau in treatment? What did you do to reach the other side?
"There is nothing so easily remade as our definitions of ourselves." - Dinaw Mengestu
Last month I went to New Orleans for the first time. Walking around Jackson Square there was an abundance of Tarot readers, psychics, and palm readers. I’ve always wanted to have my palm read, so without a lot of thought I sat down in a red lawn chair across from a woman with dark hair and big sunglasses. She asked me to open my hands like a book and without hesitation started reading my palm.
I don’t know the tricks of the palm reading trade, but she was on point with many observations:
-I married someone who was my friend first.
-I have always been drawn to water.
-I am stubborn (I prefer the word “tenacious”).
-I am a healer by profession and own my own business.
She also had some interesting predictions:
-I will live a long and healthy life.
-2020 will be a great year for career.
-I will travel to the Bahamas within a year and Europe within two years.
-She lost me when she said I’d have three children, but “children” may not mean literal children. There are also three children who are extra special to me—my nieces and nephew.
Of course it was all in good fun, but my takeaway was that I get to choose what my life will be. I can take advice or even entertain mystical predictions from others, but ultimately my soul is in the driver's seat.
As I turn 38 today, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions. Is this where I thought I’d be at 38? Is this where I want to be? What do I want to do more of in the coming year?
This is approximately where I thought I’d be at 38 and this is where I want to be. The more important question is what I want to do more of in my 38th year.
I want to spend more time...
-basking in the present moment.
-staring at the mountains and Puget Sound.
-hiking and grounding on the earth.
-exploring nearby destinations.
-experiencing everyday life with wonder.
-feeling gratitude for my blessings.
-writing, writing, writing.
-being intentional when using the internet.
-approaching my clients with curiosity and openness.
-living in accordance with my soul.
These tenets are what I consider a life well lived. In the past I would make a list of “to dos” each birthday that valued productivity and success over how I want to feel. After a transformative year, both personally and professionally, I feel ready to accept all the gifts life has to offer and wait in wonder of what the upcoming year will bring.
"You are as young as your dreams and not as old as your calendar." - Shimon Peres
I'm Kerry and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of suffering.