By Jackie Dobrinska
Asheville summers are an extravaganza of outdoor experiences—hiking, biking, tubing and al fresco dining adventures. While fun is always at hand, have you ever felt disconnected from it, like you were somehow emotionally locked out? This can be a natural response to chronic stress and trauma, which affect up to 20 percent of people. If you are one of them, knowing how to manage the nervous system is key.
“The nervous system constantly fluctuates between activation and depression based on the rhythms of life,” says Michael Hurd, an Asheville area therapist in his final year of Somatic Experience training. “Health is about learning to swing between manageable extremes.”
Unfortunately, chronic stress or unprocessed trauma can put us over the edges. The brain is hijacked and the autonomic nervous system takes over.
If you remember from high school biology class, the autonomic nervous system works without conscious control and has two branches. The sympathetic part is the ‘gas,’ which engages when we need to activate—for example waking up in the morning. It also kicks in as ‘fight-or-flight’ when we perceive a threat. If the threat is chronic, the gas stays on and we end up feeling high-strung, hyper-vigilant or hair-triggered.
“To relax an activated nervous system, practice focused breathing, guided relaxation and use essential oils like vetiver and herbs like holy basil, lemon balm and milky oats,” says Beth Bluth, local holistic wellness coach.
On the other edge is the parasympathetic nervous system response. It helps slow down the system after activation, digest food and fall asleep at night. As the ‘brakes,’ it responds to chronic threats with the lesser-known ‘freeze’ or possum response. Anyone who has ever self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, binged on TV or comfort food or otherwise shut down to life has experienced a modern day freeze response.
Since freeze is harder to snap out of, tools like relaxation are counterproductive here. Instead, gentle activation is needed—jumping jacks, a short walk, pressing the feet into the floor or orientating to the surroundings by silently naming objects in the room.
Hurd also recommends curiosity and social engagement. “Curiosity overrides the parts of the brain that regulate anxiety and fear. Supportive friends reflect that you are okay by their words, tone and facial expressions.”
In a society that values activity, many respond to the freeze response with shame. Hurd reminds us that we don’t have conscious control over how we respond to threats. “We do whatever has worked in the past.”
To reconnect to the flow of life, work toward congruency with the situation at hand. Relax the system if you find yourself jumping to anger or running away from safe situations; gently activate it if you find yourself shutting down.
Jackie Dobrinska is a wellness coach. For upcoming programs visit asimplevibrantlife.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 828.337.2737.