This article is an update of a blog post originally published in July 2019.
Some important context, four years on: The unpredictability of our world is now apparent and our need for healing, increasingly urgent. As the paradigm of conventional “wisdom” around our health and well-being shifts, it’s important to regulate and heal our own nervous system so we aren’t pulled into a fear-related response…
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Lately, it’s been feeling like the energy around the power of the nervous system, healing trauma, emotional well-being and mental health has really been ramping up in the best possible way!
But there are definitely some MISCONCEPTIONS out there about the connection between mental (and physical) health and stress responses in the nervous system.
Mental Health & Illness: What You Need to Know
At its core, mental and physical health go awry due to the stress response being out-of-whack repeatedly for periods of time that are longer than a few minutes.
The research is conclusive as Bessel van der Kolk states in his book, The Body Keeps The Score:
“As the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.”
Maybe read that one more time:
Not just mental illness, but “leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide”!
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This ‘stress’ is not always abuse and neglect, but can be a result of ‘other’ kinds of stressors, including many COMMON EXPERIENCES like getting our tonsils out, dental procedures (even getting braces!), shock traumas such as falls and concussions (the movie Concussion comes to mind), and other things we might not deem as ‘trauma.’ (I get into all the aforementioned in this article.)
The Nervous System Connection: What’s Most Important
When our biology and psyche is put under chronic stress—usually as a result of being in an environment wherein we were helpless and unable to escape and/or make sense of the sensations and scary things happening to us—we go into what is called survival stress, or survival physiology.
Survival physiology is meant to end after the stress is gone. (It should go away within minutes, seconds even!)
But, if it keeps happening (as is the case with abuse, mis-attunement, attachment ruptures, and chronic neglect during infancy/childhood or old surgical/shock traumas not treated, for example), the system must go into drastic survival physiology, and this is usually a BIOLOGICALLY TOXIC cocktail of fight, flight, and freeze survival responses.
These powerful biological survival ‘skills’ being ON for long periods of time underneath the surface, while not what we are programmed for, have become the norm for much of humanity.
This has made many of us incredibly unwell and kind of like functional zombies! In other words, we are living, day to day, stuck in our survival responses and that survival stress has huge effects on our physical and mental well-being.
One of the more common things I’m seeing on my social media feeds and in the questions my team and I get are folks who are experiencing overwhelming anxiety, panic, emotional tsunamis, and other highly charged internal experiences that they don’t know how to respond to or come down from.
Chronic Mental & Physical Illness: The Silent Pandemic
The human system, as I mentioned above, is not equipped for this level of constant survival stress, and with time, as the research has shown us, we get sick. (I outline the mechanisms in this vlog.) Our bodies are designed to come down from those stresses after a few minutes, and not stay in them for days, months or even years at a time.
The reason this is popping up more and more is two-fold:
- The conversation around mental health and trauma is now in the popular press. Just having this in the media will tease at the (biological) unconscious, and because these ‘traumas’ want out of the biology, the person will start to feel more and not know what to do. This last part leads into the second reason more people are feeling MORE…
- As humans, especially in western and highly industrialized nations, we are not well versed in BEING with the body and being with uncomfortable sensations, feelings, and emotions. And unfortunately, many of our self-help and self-care practices are geared to help us cope and manage, not heal and release for real.
Another excerpt from van der Kolk’s book goes well here:
“When you have a persistent sense of heartbreak and gutwrench, the physical sensations become intolerable and we will do anything to make those feelings disappear. And that is really the origin of what happens in human pathology. People take drugs to make it disappear, and they cut themselves to make it disappear, and they starve themselves to make it disappear, and they have sex with anyone who comes along to make it disappear and once you have these horrible sensations in your body, you’ll do anything to make it go away.”
I believe we are experiencing a big wave of societal discomfort because we are, collectively, feeling this sleeping beast that has been locked in a cage and sedated for centuries and it really wants to get out… NOW.
As Robert Scaer writes in his book, The Body Bears The Burden:
“Unfortunately for our species, our cages are often cultural and of our own making.”
“For generations we haven’t de-activated our self-protective threat responses.”
I know that might be a bit heavy, but it is the truth and we must face this reality because the pressure cooker of emotional and physiological repression needs to let off its steam.
So if this is you and you’re new here, please know you’re in the right place, and what I teach throughout my online programs and workshops is geared to address these exact issues—anxiety, overwhelm, mental health, chronic illness and more.
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Nervous System Resources: Your Next Steps
- Start by watching Healing Trauma: a FREE 3-Part Video Training. It’s a good orientation to this world of healing trauma, nervous system health, and all things neuroplasticity.
- Continue your education by subscribing to my YouTube channel, where you’ll find all my latest vlogs, regular free live events, and more.
Here are a few mental health-related videos you might find it beneficial to begin with:
A. The origin of negative thoughts
B. 4 Essential Elements For Thriving When Stress Is High
C. Better Mental Health via Positive Coping Strategies
- Begin your nervous system apprenticeship today with my signature self-study program, The 21-Day Nervous System Tune-Up
Further Reading & References
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
Robert Scaer, M.D.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Interview with Kathy Kain. Her origin story, a new book & early trauma
Stephen Porges. Polyvagal Theory