Question. What does feeling rushed all the time, quick to anger, anxiety attacks and a shrinking circle of friends and activities have in common?
Well, they’re all controlled by the nervous system. If your nervous isn’t regulating stimulation (i.e. stress and emotions) you’re likely going to run into one or more of these problems.
No need to worry…the therapy I offer, re-sets your nervous system!
Mary Jane didn’t always live this way but over the years her world has become progressively smaller. There was a time when ski parties or white water rafting down the Fraser was a regular weekend event. These days, apart from a few household errands, she rarely departs from a routine of work and home. An occasional outing with a friend ends typically right after the movie as she rushes home.
Dirk is still confused by his actions. The garbage bag had split, spilling its contents all over the floor. He reacted strongly, swearing loudly and grabbing stuff in a haphazard way making things worse. He felt like punching someone but there was no one to blame. He didn’t like to admit it but he had to concede his anger was out of proportion to what had happened. It now seems trivial. This hasn’t been the first time. His girlfriend has complained several times about his behaviour.
Lyle admits that things just haven’t been the same after that bad LSD trip he had six months ago. Recently with no warning he has been experiencing anxiety attacks where his heart starts racing and he has trouble breathing. Oddly enough he’s noticed that getting together with his buddies appears to bring it on. He deals with it by spending less time with the group, seeing only one or two of them at a time.
Sandy never has enough time to get from one appointment to the next. She always feels rushed. She admits that she probably fills too much of her day with things to do but she can’t seem to help that. “If only I could get a good night’s sleep” she says.
These individuals are all suffering from nervous systems that have trouble in regulating arousal. Arousal, or what is often referred to as your activation, is important in understanding how Self-Regulation Therapy works. A resilient and healthy nervous system can process and assimilate high levels of arousal to a point of rest in the body. A dysregulated nervous system, on the other hand, fluctuates widely from hyperarousal to constriction, never fully achieving a stable balance. Some common and visible signs of dysregulation include agitation, shyness, emotional reactivity, rage and hyperactivity.
Fortunately we have an innate ability to regulate arousal. Understanding our evolution can help us to understand what goes wrong and why we have difficulty in managing our arousal. When human beings are faced with traumatic events we react as we have for thousands of years in order to protect ourselves. In the split second before a traumatic event a part of our brain that is very similar to that of the reptiles reacts before we are even aware of it. This reptilian brain releases an enormous amount of energy into the nervous system to enable us to ‘fight or flee’ the impending danger.
You may at one time have experienced a ‘close call’ and soon after felt yourself feeling shaky. Free-floating energy caused by the influx of adrenaline and other hormones in our system causes us to shake as our body tries to release the excess energy. We are typically alarmed by the shaking and attempt to stop it, frequently by distracting ourselves and getting on with other things.
Yet, this release process has been designed by nature to help stabilize the nervous system. Pre-empting or blocking the release serves only to back us up, eventually leading to dysregulation.
You may be also aware that despite the constant and obvious danger, many animals do not develop post-traumatic symptoms. Only in domesticated animals and those under laboratory conditions do we see the severity of trauma symptoms so common to humans. Yet our initial response to threat is very similar to that of animals. Interestingly, there is no mistaking the similarity to a panic attack. We breathe more heavily, and our heart starts pumping. Blood leaves the surface of the skin to be used for the large muscles and we go pale. We start sweating as the body attempts to cool us down, and digestion slows down to conserve energy (or we have the urge for a quick dump).
What mammals do that humans do not is to allow the energy to be dissipated through a successful fight or flight, and later through muscle twitching, shaking and releasing. Animals are not frightened by normal bodily functions that we have come to associate with fear and with something that appears out of our control.
Sometimes there is no survival benefit in fight/flight. Like the possum ‘playing dead,’ or the deer frozen in the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, mammals will take the other, lesser-known option – the freeze or immobility response. The freeze response is an evolutionary protective mechanism – few animals in the wild will eat dead prey. This mechanism is part of our heritage also. However, the immobility response verges on death. Wild animals that are manhandled can go into shock and some will die. In humans the counterpart might be ‘Voodoo Death’ where someone is literally ‘scared to death’.
In our modern culture ‘fight or flight’ is often not appropriate and we tend to use the freeze response more often. For example, hurling ourselves from a speeding car headed for a collision makes little sense. Sometimes our cortex intervenes. Attempting to maim or kill someone because they merely annoy us is clearly not accepted in our culture. However here is the problem. Stuck in the immobility response our body never gets to complete its programmed agenda for fight or flight. The charge remains locked in our system, sensitive and waiting for any signals that might represent time for action. You might say, Mike is stuck in ‘fight’ mode. His brain stem is ever on alert for opportunities to complete its ‘fight’ agenda.
You might be asking how someone could have a panic attack if there is no sign of danger? The answer is in our prime directive for survival and in our reptilian brain’s ability to form associations. ‘Associations’ are anything that are reminders of a threat, even remotely. So at the time Lyle was having his bad LSD trip he was with his buddies. Hanging out with his buddies triggers those same associations. He starts to feel uncomfortable, and the next thing he’s having a panic attack.
If our nervous system is dysregulated it doesn’t take much to ‘fill us up’: coffee, traffic, too little food in our stomach, a quick visit to a mall. We arrive home frazzled and drained. We lie in bed with our mind racing. The brain stem records the high level of activation and sends a message to the cortex to figure out why. The cortex searches the current stressors in your life and easily comes up with several that could explain things. It is the excess energy that is driving your thoughts, not the other way around.
A good night’s sleep usually helps to discharge that energy. On another evening with a much quieter day you wake feeling refreshed. Problems feel less insurmountable.
Sandy’s current predicament is a prime example. She’s in a catch-22. Being so activated she doesn’t sleep very well. Without a good sleep she has little resiliency for the days’ activities and is prone to finishing the day feeling frazzled once again, which sets her up for another bad night.
A mind body approach to the nervous system interrupts this cycle and brings resiliency back, giving you plenty of reserves to live your life.
With each unresolved trauma our nervous system becomes increasingly compromised. You see, too much “unresolved” trauma in our system causes it to be more or less dysregulated, and then we develop symptoms. At this time we are more vulnerable to using less constructive ways to reduce arousal. Alcohol and drugs are two common examples. For some like Mary Jane, reducing the amount of stimulation and going only to safe and familiar places serves the same purpose.
Traumatic events are typically those that cause us severe harm, such as motor vehicle accidents, torture, rape, and childhood abuse and neglect. We are now redefining trauma to include those things that trigger the same survival mechanism in the body but may not have always been labeled as such: falls, sport accidents, surgeries, painful dental procedures, household accidents, assaults, near drowning, and birth trauma to name a few.
Self-Regulation Therapy (SRT®) is a body-centered psychotherapy that is based on this innate ability to regulate arousal. SRT helps individuals manage their level of arousal and unlock trapped energy associated with traumatic events.
One of the more important aspects of doing SRT is that we are working to stay within the client’s range of resiliency as opposed to pushing for catharsis. Unlike most therapy treatments, which encourage a cathartic exposure to the intense trauma-related energy, SRT uses ‘homeopathic’ dosages of your arousal (ie. your activation) in order to exploit the body’s natural healing ability. Resources enable us to do this.
A resource is anything that resonates positively through the nervous system and conveys a sense of safety and support.
A resource is also based on your subjective experience. Children are particularly un-resourced and thus more vulnerable to trauma. They know little of the world and are totally dependent. As adults we can draw on more resources. Using resources in the therapeutic session enables us to access minute amounts of activation, which in turn facilitates discharge in the system.
Self-Regulation Therapy provides a comprehensive treatment for a range of psychological and somatic symptoms. Using SRT, clients are encouraged to track their physical sensations to learn more directly the signs of their autonomic arousal and release. In time, individuals who learn to regulate their level of arousal find they have more control over moderating anger, managing stress and adapting to change. Indeed, clients who receive SRT feel they have a greater sense of well being and an increased capacity for self-soothing. In brief, SRT takes the fear out of being alive.
Written by: Dr. Susan LaCombe
You might find the following off-site resources helpful in better understanding this article: Self-Regulation Training, How to deal with freezing up, Dysregulation of the Nervous System and Relief for Anxiety.