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

    • I’ve had incredible breakthroughs in patients with anxiety depression etc through chiropractic adjustments because of the direct effect on the autonomic nervous system and the increase in parasympathetics after an adjustment. It’s true that even emotional trauma gets stored physically and sometimes you need help to break that.

  1. 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?

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

    • 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

  4. I feel that as people, we have to understand that we are 3 different parts: mind, body, and spirit. When stress has arrived it is because one of these three is out of harmony. To remedy the stress, prevent stress, and lower your average stress levels there are many deliberate exercises that can be done to get your mind, body, and spirit back in harmony. However, you cannot work on just one of the three parts. All parts must be attended to and you will see not just the recovery time be reduced, but the stress will be completely eliminated. Also, your overall well being and your life will dramatically improve.

  5. This is a great article.. I have sons with autism and sensory processing disorder, in which anxiety is very prevelent. My one son moves a lot and chants and vocalised a lot too. I know that sensory processing disorder the nervous system has a lot to do with it. This article makes a lot of sense to what I’m seeing, and that reinforces that we need to respect the reasons why some autistic people are doing g what they are doing g. It is quite often self regulations techniques, and also self development on an under developed or overwhelmed system.

  6. I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. This explains alot about my triggers. I was just recently told about Complex PTSD. Reading up on that explained what was happening to me like nothing else. This article just put the cherry on top of the sundae! Thanks!

  7. I totally agree! I had a traumatic experience and after a while a got a discus hernia so bad that a couldn’t walk! I was afraid of operation and didn’t want to do it. In the beginning I was doing just little exercises and in a while a could walk again with a pain! I did it in nature! So every day I did that and little by little felt better. Its two years now and I can say that I can normally live! I do yoga, just started running and I feel amazing! Never feelt better and actually I am going now to take a walk, not because I feel bad- its who I am! Nice day! ☀️

  8. Don’t overlook hypnosis as a way to release trauma and minimize the stress response to new traumas.

  9. Hey, beautifully said, trauma need a conscious approach Iam physiologist i have a powerful eBook that I will love to share with us on how to manage stress daily and trauma if you can whatsa me +2347038663587 you get it on email

  10. I have ptsd and anger issues I feel attack everywhere I go and it gets worse in an open new public place. I’m 26 and spent from the age of 16 to 24 being abused by my now ex husband very deeply physically and emotionally bad.
    How do I overcome I shake when I hear his name and tears automatically fall when I speak aloud about the abuse I attend group therapy twice a week Tuesday’s and Thursday’s from 5 pm to 7 pm this seems to help but it also has made the effects of being scared more less with the shaking it’s gotten worse and the fear of him finding me and killing me is real. I have a dvo yet there is nothing being done for him breaking these things the issue on hand is I don’t know how to function like a normal 26 year old my age I can’t hold a job because of my anger and sacredness to just run and hide I can’t stand inside a restaurant and order food I can barly talk on the telephone to a person in authority my ex husband is very minipulated and tells me everyone is on his side how must I continue to get through life with thinking everyone is against me and eventually will continue to abuse me as he did and others through my childhood? I honestly just want to be somewhat of what society calls normal I wanna feel confident and proud yet I feel sick and ashamed??
    Is there any help?
    Will things ever seem to get better?
    Is there any hope yet into finding some inner peace?

  11. Great article. It’s incredible how much more we can learn, and share now to help free us from the suffering a lot of us have.
    I’ve been learning a lot about heart brain coherence, this article links to that deeply.
    If you think about it, our brain is like a hill, covered in snow. We get on our sledge, slide down to the bottom. When we go down this path many times, each time the groove gets deeper and deeper. It takes direct action, a change of path to change this route our brain is going through. Our brain is very clever, it loves learning! And so the sensation meditation is something I’ve read to be HUGELY effective. Whilst meditating, thinking about, “Hmm.. I wonder what it feels like to put my focus on the inside of my elbow.. What does that feel like..” It makes your brain think of different things, go down different paths it usually. Combine this with deep breathing, reminding yourself that you are loved and you are safe.. It creates a new pattern, and new response to triggers.
    Sending love to you all x

  12. “Or simply receiving a hug from a loved one, which releases oxytocin.” No hugs for me, ever. I am isolated and alone. I remember my life when I did have connection and bonding, but that was long ago. My traumatic stress comes from my husband cheating on me and leaving me for another woman 9 years ago.

  13. This has been my life since I was 23, I’m 51 in a few weeks time. But I now have help to release the trauma and I’m having to do a lot of work on myself, everyday. Just wished I’d known before but back then I had to suppress everything to be able to live. Very damaging on all levels.

  14. Brillent just what l needed to read had chronic pain in poas muscle for at least 2 years after a fractured pelvis the result of fall.

  15. Yes. PTSD, for instance, equals: A broken Stress Response.

    It represents a nervous-system reset that is far from helpful.

    What’s the way out?

    Treatments that restore the nervous-system back to typical-via learning, or relearning, how to respond to stress-all stress-eustress; acute distress; chronic distress, and traumatizing stress.

    Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: There’s a helpful set of skills to learn here. There’s a free course online. I’d share the link with Uplift’s permission if that might help anyone?

    Best,

    Darren Gregory
    The Trauma Recovery Blog (a self-directed volunteer effort, from a former British Columbia First Responder who hit the wall over 20 years ago and who studied my way to at least better manage my own now Chronic PTSD/Depression-the outcome of mismanaged Traumatic Stress Induced Brain Injury).

    • Wow I needed to read this today! 2 months ago I was involved in a car accident which left me with with a brain injury resulting in apraxia of speech and memory loss,and I’ve been struggling though my speech therapy sessions twice a week since,and yesterday I had a bad day and it was the first time I cried properly after the accident, today I don’t clench my jaw as much and my shoulders are more relaxed. The release by means of crying helped. My speech is still bad though…

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