How do you and your body respond to stress?

Stress can be an uncomfortable feeling. It can overwhelm our minds and bodies, and when we’re in the midst of that experience it can be hard to view situations objectively and respond with compassionate wisdom.
In this blog post we look at Polyvagal Theory, a collection of evolutionary, neuroscientific and psychological thought about how the nervous system responds to stressors, introduced by Stephen Porges.

“Every day brings a choice: to practice stress or to practice peace.”

Joan Borysenko

As we begin, it’s important to recognise that feeling stressed in a stressful situation is a normal response.

Feeling our feelings (including stress) and remembering that things pass with time supports our emotional growth and nurtures resilience in the process.

In life, we will all experience a spectrum of emotions, milestones and life achievements. And it’s this spectrum of emotions that brings colour and texture to life. By keeping perspective and maintaining resilience during these experiences, we remind ourselves that we are strong enough to cope with anything that comes our way.

For it is our response to stress that truly matters. Below, we’re explore what happens to our bodies (our nervous system) in the midst of overwhelm, and how this awareness can help bring a wisdom to our experience, and the opportunity for choice and action.

The Polyvagal Theory

The sympathetic

The sympathetic part of our nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” experience.

It is what happens when cortisol floods our body and we get ready to physically defend ourselves or run away as fast as possible.

You can identify if you’re in this state because it is often associated with high anxiety, jitters, restlessness, panic attacks, lack of sleep – basically any embodied experience that keeps you in a state of high alert and hyper-arousal.

Once the fight-or-flight chemical reactions have begun, it can take our bodies 10–20 minutes to return to our pre-fight/pre-flight state and through long exposure to stress or trauma, we can in fact get “stuck” in this state and remain highly sensitive to external stimuli.

However, once we have an inner awareness of us shifting into this sympathetic state, we can start to work with our bodily response and gradually de-escalate from a state of tension and panic.

The para-sympathetic

The para-sympathetic nervous system is the calming aspect of our nervous mechanics. Here, the vagus nerve comes to the fore and works to balance the sympathetic part mentioned above.

This state can also be known as the ‘rest and digest‘ state. When we’re existing in this state in a  healthy and balanced way (aka we haven’t ‘tipped’ to far or heavily into it) we are able to relax and recharge.

However, when our external stimuli is in fact too stressful and our sympathetic state is overwhelmed, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve can activate, putting us in a state of shutdown, collapse or most commonly known: freeze. In contrast to the hyper-arousal state mentioned above, this is the state of hypo-arousal.

This reaction causes a sense of numbness in the mind and body; our muscles can feel fatigued and we move into a state of immobility and dissociation. Here, the purpose is to numb the body to the external stimuli because, sometimes, it’s easier to be less sensitive to pain.

Window of Tolerance

This third nervous system response, coined the “social engagement” system or ‘window of tolerance’, is a mixture of activation and calming.

The window of tolerance is the ventral vagal part of the nervous system. When you’re in this state, you feel like you can deal with whatever’s happening in your life. You might feel stress, but it doesn’t bother you too much.

Ideally, as humans we will gently move between our two hyper- and hypo-arousal states – being stimulated in stressful situations but also being able to self-regulate and self-soothe, returning to a calm, settled stated without getting stuck in either extreme.

Too much stress or a traumatic experience can shrink our window of tolerance, meaning that it may take very little to throw you off balance. However, through specialist help and support, individuals can expand their window of tolerance to ensure that they are more able to cope with challenges.

Above, Kendra, Orri’s Head of Therapies, reflects how feelings of anxiety and panic during period of stress is a normal response.

For students in particular going through periods of exam revision; module preparation or adapting to your timetables, Kendra highlights just how important it is to show compassion during this time, especially whilst in recovery from an eating disorder.

To take away…

Whatever your emotional response to stress may be, it’s important to approach these situations with a sense of compassionate wisdom and acceptance. Recognising that everything comes in waves, and this is one such wave.

Feeling how we feel and remembering that things pass with time supports our resilience and emotional growth, even if they do feel uncomfortable at times.

In fact, it is when we stay in these moments and make it over the hill that we develop resilience, and it is only through allowing our emotional experience that we begin to work with ourselves in the process of healing. So, if you feel like you want to cry, then cry – grant your tears permission to fall. All of you is welcome.

Remember, you never have to go through these moments of overwhelm alone. Communicate to your loved ones and support network – there are people who care and who will come alongside you.

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