I hear this question a lot. Being a somatic therapist, I believe in the connection between the mind and body, and use that connection to help people heal. But how does the nervous system influence mental health? Here are the basics:
1. There are two “sides” to the nervous system.
Our bodies feature a complex nervous system with two “modes” or “sides:” the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the helper. It is sympathetic to your plight - if there is a threat, you’ll need to run away. The sympathetic nervous system will ramp up your heart rate, increase blood flow and dump adrenaline into your system. Imagine yourself giving a speech in front of a large crowd - do your palms get sweaty? Is your heart racing? That is the sympathetic nervous system getting you ready to run for your life. Crowds are scary!
The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite. Envision a “para” chute (punny, I know...) slowly guiding you down to earth. The parasympathetic nervous system is for resting and digesting. It’s a slow heart rate, it’s your ability to sleep, and to eat without discomfort and with appetite, it’s having enough presence for play and sex (important!) - it’s part of what we need to connect with others.
On any given day we experience both sides - getting pumped to give a presentation or complete homework, or winding down with friends and loved ones. Bottom line: Neither is “good” or “bad.” They are both useful, but at different times. It’s not useful to be amped up and unable to relax when it’s time to sleep - and it’s not useful to be relaxed and un-mindful when driving through rush hour in Denver.
2. Trauma disrupts the nervous system.
The definition of trauma is when a person experiences a threat that they are not able to overcome. Our sympathetic nervous system is there for us in an emergency, but in our complicated world, sometimes running away or fighting isn’t enough to save us. And depending on our age or circumstance, running or fighting might not even be an option. An important note: The way I use the word “threat” is to describe anything that poses as a physical or emotional danger. Public speaking is a threat. Rejection is a threat. Natural disasters are a threat. Sexual assault is a threat. Once a threat becomes so great that we can’t do anything about it, it becomes trauma. If we are powerless to save ourselves, our body has failed in its main task: to keep us alive. Trouble is, while animals rarely survive traumatic events, human beings do all the time. Our evolved brains go into overdrive, replaying the trauma, re-living the stress, finding every tiny thing that reminds us of danger - all in order to make sure it never happens again. The brain is taking back power in the only way it knows how: to learn. That hypervigilance means that the sympathetic nervous system is always on, making it impossible to rest and digest, to connect, or to sleep - all critical elements in maintaining good mental health.
3. Trauma can be acute, or ongoing.
Therapists classify trauma into big “T” and little “t” traumas. Big T’s are moments: accidents, assaults, disasters. Little t’s are chronic traumas: an emotionally abusive relationship, bullying, neglect or poverty. They are like dings on your new car. It starts out nice, but over time the car loses its shine - and eventually it will quit working altogether. Both “T” and “t” will throw your nervous system out of balance. A stunning example of the impact of little t - trauma is the ACES study. In 1995 Kaiser launched a study looking at the long term effects of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (hence, ACES). The study found that the presence of poverty, neglect, abuse, and mental illness in homes - essentially high levels of “threat” (see above) - lead to the adoption of health-risking behaviors as adults. If a child’s nervous system is on guard all the time, they grow up into adults who also have mental health issues, physical health issues, or other problems that prevent them from leading long, satisfying lives. When we treat trauma, as therapists, we aren’t just looking at single events that have happened in a person’s life, we are looking at prolonged exposure to threat, and how the nervous system can recover.
4. The nervous system can recover.
It begins by establishing safety and security. This looks like building skills and learning tools that will help an amped up nervous system relax. I love using mindfulness techniques, nature and movement. I often hike with my clients, or sit under our favorite trees. We use the birds and plants to experience a slower pace, and our senses to explore the open world. We also work on solving the solvable problems - finding a job, repairing relationships, and nurturing the body through food and supplements. Once the body has faith that you can and will take care of it, it is time to process the traumatic events - both “t” and “T”. In processing, sometimes things need to be re-experienced. Most of the time they need to be re-felt as well, but in a safe environment. Then the body can discharge all the pent up energy that the trauma and powerlessness left behind. Finally, we work on creating a “new normal.” Life experiences change us. There is no “going back” to how you used to be, only moving forward with who you are now - which is always with more wisdom, more compassion, and a deeper understanding of life and your place within it.
One thing I’ve learned in my time as a therapist is that we all have an impulse towards health. We WANT to get better, we WANT to be whole. Behavior that looks destructive or is destructive is rarely for the purpose of destruction. From overspending to self sabotage to isolation to self-harm, it’s all an attempt to regulate the nervous system so that we can feel better and begin to heal. I have so much faith in my clients, that they can and will recover, and they - YOU - already have all the wisdom you need.
If you are struggling with your mental health, have experienced trauma, or know someone who has, please reach out. There are resources and caring professionals (us included) who know how to help.
Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255
Text “TALK” to 38255
Resources from the article:
ACES Study: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html
"I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?"
- Mary Oliver
Aleya Littleton: Therapist, Climbing Guide, Teacher.