Feb 19 | 10 min read

Author: Erica Walecka

When you think about counseling, I bet you don’t immediately think about your nervous system. It’s probably pretty low on your priority list of things to discuss with your provider, and yet, it’s such a central part of our functioning that it deserves some attention and care. This is part one of a 3-part series about how our nervous system can hijack our mental health and what we can do to help.

Disclaimer: I am a mental health counselor, not a biologist, medical doctor or neurologist — my understanding of nervous systems comes from this perspective and knowledge, this is mental health/emotional health advice, not medical!

For the sake of our conversation, we’re going to focus on two parts of your autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Let’s break down some words and definitions so we’re all on the same page:

  • Autonomic – automatic. We don’t have much control here. We are largely not able to control our breathing rate, our heart rate, our rate of digestion, or how our pupils dilate throughout the day. That said, we can, for short periods of time, influence many of these things. This will come in handy later.
  • Nervous System -You guessed it! We’re talking about your actual nerves – all the nerves spread throughout your body that are constantly sending and receiving signals about the world around you. Using our 5 senses is one of the easiest ways to register what your nervous system is taking in.
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System – our “rest and digest” function. Humans are meant to be in this state most of the time. This is where our bodies have been able to assess the world around us and deem it safe, stable, secure, comfortable. When our body knows this, it organizes energy to do various “rest and digest” functions including rest, digest our food, play, have sex (!), be curious, courageous and connected with others (also known as “attunement”).
  • Sympathetic Nervous System – our “fight-flight-freeze” function. This is our safety instinct, the thing that registers a potential threat automatically and redirects energy to move our body to safety. Energy for things not dedicated to the immediate survival of the organism is redirected so digestion slows, libido is gone, and connections to others are on the back burner. Think about a skunk, lizard and deer – if any one of these animals perceives a threat, their sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and the skunk will attack (fight back), the lizard will dart away (flight), and a deer will freeze. Each of these responses are to support the survival of a being, so this instinct is vital to life at all levels.
  • Downstairs Brain – our brains develop from the bottom up, so our instincts (nervous system) develop long before our skills for critical thinking, language, and self-reflection ever do. This is why sometimes we refer to our nervous system as our “lizard brain” — lizard development stopped after the instinctual part was created. Our “downstairs brain” is the base of our brain where our nervous system resides.
  • Upstairs Brain – Our upstairs brain is, as the name suggests, the top parts of our brain and is, as you guessed, where language, critical thinking, abstract thought, self-reflection and all the brilliance that makes us human is. Both the upstairs and downstairs brains are our friends, yet sometimes, if they’re not working nicely together, can result in a bit of chaotic overwhelm.

Your Sympathetic Nervous System operates kind of like the gadgets in a submarine that ping something outside the sub but doesn’t necessarily have the ability to label it as “enemy torpedo” or “harmless whale,” etc. My husband says this is incredibly simplified and potentially inaccurate submarine information, but I hope you get the point: Our fight/flight/freeze function is constantly taking in information from all the nerves in our body as they receive signals from the world around us and quickly categorizing them as either safe or as potential threats to our safety. Potential, not actual. It doesn’t know if it’s going to become a threat, it’s just saying “hey, wake up! There’s something that might not go right here so be ready.” So if that’s the case, how does it know what’s potentially threatening to our safety? Your nervous system learns and stores it in a giant brain-warehouse full of things that have hurt us in the past. Millions of years ago the threats were things like saber-tooth tigers, poisonous mushrooms, cavernous sinkholes… Today, most of the threats your nervous system files away are everyday, interpersonal slights. As relational creatures, we’re hardwired for relationships, so any threat to our belonging within the community — abandonment, rejection, hurt — will be filed away next to the saber-tooth tigers as potential threats.

So, we’ve got this giant warehouse full of all the times you’ve ever been hurt, even in the tiniest bit, and our sympathetic nervous system’s job is to scan our current moment (using all those nerve endings throughout your body) and see if this moment could potentially be reminiscent of any of those moments in the warehouse. If it is — if I’m wearing the same shirt that your college crush wore the day they broke your heart — your fight/flight/freeze is going to kick into action! “This could go how it did last time we saw this shirt, so get ready!”

Remember how I said this was a part of our autonomic nervous system? It’s automatic – instinctual. So even though you know logically that I’m not that person who broke your heart, your nervous system wants you to get ready, just in case, because that really hurt and your nervous system wants to protect you. Once the instinct to protect kicks in, you may find yourself fighting, flighting, or freezing before you are even aware of it and you’ll likely respond similarly to how you did to the original hurt. On one level, this is a good thing: your nervous system loves you and is really good at protecting you from harm. On another level, if you’re running purely on instinct, you could find yourself picking fights to protect yourself even though I never actually broke your heart; you may push away from people and avoid vulnerability even with the love of your life (flight); you may find yourself completely shut down and frozen when faced with a challenge you’re passionate about. In counseling lingo, we call this becoming “triggered.” What we mean by this is that something from your past (the warehouse) has been triggered, leading you to behave in this present moment as if you’re still in that past one – self-protective.

While these triggers have their place in evolutionary and biological imperatives, our brains didn’t stop developing with the downstairs brain, so we have the ability to step back and assess whether or not we want to react to the impulse to fight/flight/freeze or if we can support our bodies to return to a state of safety and stability so we can remain open and attune to ourselves and the world around us. Next week, we’ll take a look at how the nervous system works in everyday scenarios so we can begin assessing how we want to respond.