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Stress: It’s Not in Your Head, it’s in Your Nervous System

By Melody Walford on Friday July 28th, 2017

Traumatic Memory and How to Heal it

Have you ever been told when you’re stressed to stop worrying and just relax? That it’s all in your head? It would be nice if it were that simple. But it’s not.

Physiology research shows that the stress response memory lives in your nervous system. Take for example exposure to a stressful event. One in which you felt helpless, hopeless, and lacked control. In this case your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is engaged. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling unconscious bodily actions like breathing. To be more specific, it was the sympathetic branch (fight or flight) of the ANS that kicked in while you were strained. In addition, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the midbrain began firing. In which a signal from your hypothalamus sends a hormonal message to your pituitary gland that stimulates to your adrenal glands.

To activate this fight or flight response, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released from your adrenal glands. They help our body suddenly mobilize to flee danger. According to Peter A. Levine, trauma expert in the field of psychotherapy, trauma occurs when this biological process is overwhelmed and a person is unable to release and process the stressful event. It is possible to avoid a traumatic response by discharging the energy generated. For example, shaking, crying, and screaming can allow the individual to physically process the stress.

Stress is in the nervous systemStress is not all in your head.

However, if the stress response is not processed, it remains in the tissues of the body. When a subsequent stressful event that does not pose a serious threat occurs, the traumatic memory is recalled. A large amount of stress hormones are released. Blood rushes to extremities, pupils dilate, muscle tone increases presenting as tension, breathing rate increases, the heartbeats faster, and sweating occurs. Hence, the nervous system responds as if this small incident is life threatening.

This biological response is clearly beyond the ability to rationally control. You can’t think your way out of it. Chronic stress leads to dissociation or immobility, a state of sympathetic charge and hormonal release, which is health damaging. The brainstem (the primitive part of the brain) governs emotional experience and biological response. When the brainstem is activated by the fight or flight response, it trumps the more developed front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. It is therefore not possible to be in the primitive state of fight or flight and also to think rationally and critically (as the prefrontal cortex would have us do).

Levine elaborates:

The question is: how can humans become unstuck from immobility? Moving out of this frozen state can be a fiercely energetic experience. Without a rational brain animals don’t give it a second thought, they just do it. When humans begin to move out of the immobility response, however, we are often frightened by the intensity of our own energy and latent aggression, and we brace ourselves against the power of the sensations. This bracing prevents complete discharge of energy necessary to restore normal functioning.

The stress respsonseUnprocessed stress is stored in the body as traumatic memory.

Unprocessed stress becomes traumatic memory that lies dormant in the body. A present day trigger can cause the stored memory to resurface. Understanding what is happening inside our body and brain, gives us compassion. Learning why our body responds the way it does, leads to awareness and empowerment. It moves us out of being isolated, fearful, victims. By caring for our bodies and understanding their self-protective responses, we can release shame.

When we comprehend the physiologic process that is trying to keep us safe, from an old memory or trauma, we can replace inner judgement with kindness. Self-love becomes possible. It may not be serving us in the present but in the past it did. In fact, this same response helped us survive.

The work is then to re-train the body. This can be done by invoking practices such as felt sense oriented meditation, deep breathing, vocal toning, spontaneous movement and dance, yoga, listening to soothing music, spending time in nature, running, or hiking. Or simply receiving a hug from a loved one, which releases oxytocin, a natural hormone produced by the pituitary gland that promotes bonding and connection.

Practices to release stressPractices such as yoga and time in nature help to release stored trauma. Image: Christopher Pouget

These are tools to deactivate the sympathetic response and activate the opposing parasympathetic response, called the rest and digest mechanism. The goal is to feel safe. To regulate breathing, slow the heartbeat, and circulate blood back to the vital organs

These powerful practices change our physiology and affect our mood. The next time someone suggests it’s all in your head, you will have a different response. This knowledge empowers us to heal past wounds. Through acknowledging the power trauma plays in your life and understanding the mechanisms by which healing occurs, you can create a more embodied, joyful life.

 

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Mary
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Mary

This so defined me… I have felt such immobilization… thanks for
Educating me and giving Hope

Patty
Guest
Patty

I fully understand and can relate. My problem is my spinal cord is not receiving signals to and from my body due to closure from scar tissue buildup. I damaged my cord in hangman’s break. My cord was cut arc-2 and my cord is wrapped around c4, and c7. My pain is from the inability to pass signals through so when no response is sent my body goes into overdrive trying to get help. That is the short version of one of my problems. My question is what Can I do to help myself?

Herchen
Guest
Herchen

hi, I don’t know your age, but I had accumulative injuries that impacted my autonomic nervous system, therefore sleep, impulse control, joint pain and since I started doing Kinstretch, which gives more rotation to the nervous system than even yoga does, I have 80% less pain. Yeah, Kinstretch.

jule
Guest
jule

hey I actually dont really know what to tellu but I was robbed several times, knife at my throat. and one of my closest friend beeing shot.what helped me to cope with this was to think about all the people that are even worse of. ihave the ability to talk about what happened but I think im privileged.most people don’t get that chance. just think about the majority of people not beeing so lucky as u are and thank god for every day u wake up still beeing alive. beeing able to breathe and walk that is all u need.

Rob
Guest
Rob

You could try chiropractic care

Jiri p.l.
Guest
Jiri p.l.

It’$ not so simply in daily stress!

Jiri p.l.
Guest
Jiri p.l.

Than,do you think? Thus YOU are alone.Not independent. Everything aside is automatically not your allien.And so really is!
Deep,deep frozen Kick.
Shame Of humanity “only play”, but pay!

Gonga
Guest
Gonga

This is a very interesting article and very true. Please share and practice.

Jane
Guest
Jane

Aaaa hhaaa…I freeze with fear…this describes me every day…but knowing tjis will help me be aware of what and why tjis is happening to me,.so I can work tnrough it differently and to heal.

Tyrone
Guest
Tyrone

I struggle with this bigtime! I have survived a pedestrian accident as a kid and motorcycle accident as a teen. Without medical treatment i, would have died both times. I have osteo arthritis and soft tissue in 2 places in my spine and I have had brain surgery.

I have a very elevated stress response which affects my ohysical and mental health. I have come to the conclusion several years ago that this was more than just a mental response!

Teresa Winfrey
Guest
Teresa Winfrey

I understand exactly where homecoming from I’ve been in more sevenal accidents through out my life time and a lot of trauma.i thank god every day .MY first one when I was a small child that’s when thinks a lot of this started for started for me .God bless you. Thank for sharing

Amy J
Guest
Amy J

I am in the beginning stages of what you went through. I was hit by a bus as a pedestrian.

James
Guest
James

This explains a lot about trigger and response.

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