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  • Tara Palmer

Freak outs, and the Role of the Autonomic Nervous System

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

· Why am I freaking out, breaking down, or otherwise feeling like a hot mess?

· It must be anxiety, depression, a panic disorder, trauma.

· I hate feeling this way. What is wrong with me?

If you find yourself concerned with ‘freaking out, breaking down, or otherwise feeling like a ‘hot mess,’ and have not yet learned a bit about your autonomic nervous system, and how to navigate it, you are in luck. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is basically a mind-body surveillance system that operates day and night to keep you safe. Despite how awful it might feel when you are ‘freaking out,’ I want you to know you are ‘normal,’ and that your experiences reflect the work of your ANS trying to help you out.

Hmmm. You may be thinking. How is it helping me by causing me to ‘lose it’ in front of an audience of people, or by creating so much anxiety I can’t sleep at night or causing me to lose my cool when my kids won’t do what I ask?

Those are good points that we will want to take into consideration as we continue. For now, all I ask is that you bear with me for a minute as we talk through some ANS basics.

So, what is the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System)?

The ANS is a part of your mind-body system made up of many parts (heart, lungs, stomach, ears and other stuff), it functions at 3 separate but related levels, and is essentially woven together by the Vagus nerve.

Your ANS is always working behind the scenes, reading and responding to different things in your internal and external environment, and then sending real-time mind-body signals designed to keep you safe. This behind the scenes operation is called neuroception. Neuroception is different than perception in that operates without conscious thought. When our ANS detects a threat, it automatically responds by sending cues into our body to prepare us to defend against the detected source of potential harm; we often experience this as ‘freaking out.’ We do not choose the activation in our body; it happens to us through our ANS.

AHHHH…. Sigh.

For many of us, there is some relief with this idea of neuroception. If I am not in charge of it, then I am not causing a ‘freak out, break down, or mess.’ If I am not causing a freak out, then, maybe, I am not a freak. And if I am not a freak, maybe life can get better. But, then again, if I am not in charge of my ANS…

ANS, Friend not Foe

It is important to remember our ANS has always been there for us doing its primary job of keeping us out of harm’s way. If it detects a threat, it kicks into a defensive pattern it believes is appropriate to the situation. It may either ramp us up into a fight or flight response, or collapse us into playing dead due to its perception of a life threat.

In contrast, when our ANS reads that our environment is safe, it sends signals that allow our mind-body system to settle into calmer, maintenance patterns that support living well, rather than just surviving. The increased ease in our system helps us know that it is safe to connect with vs. protect our self from others. It allows us space to connect with other aspects of our self as well (introspecting, noticing and identifying feeling experiences, higher level thinking, etc.). When we are safe, we can optimize our well-being and access enjoyment, meaning and purpose. We can appreciate the moment, or plan for the future.

Our ANS has been shaped from the moment of birth. It develops a sort of muscle memory based on what it has previously experienced. If, for example, it has learned that trying new things is safe, it might have a mind-body state memory of anticipatory excitement about an upcoming event. On the other hand, if previous experiences suggest trying new things leads to ridicule or shame, it may have a mind-body memory state of anxiety, fear, or dread.

This sounds complicated. Just how much do I need to know about the ANS?

In short, perhaps not much. Yet, it depends. You may be a detail-oriented person, and love understanding the specifics. If you crave more information, that’s great. I will offer some lovely resources at the end of this article if you want to build some more in-depth knowledge.

Most of us, however, are not going to need to know all of the physiological specifics to get a handle on what our ANS is, what it is doing for us, and what we need to do with it to increase our experience of well-being. In fact, many of us might get overwhelmed by the details and then lose interest.

So, for today, I am going to add just one more important layer of understanding to our conversation. If we want to create shifts toward increased well-being, we have to understand a bit about the 3 separate but interrelated levels of functioning in the ANS. Trust me, this is the good stuff. 😊

What are the 3 Level of the ANS?

The 3 levels are called the Ventral Vagal System (VV), the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Dorsal Vagal System (DV). These systems are ordered hierarchically to secure our safety. I am going to create a list below that describes some of the characteristics of each level of the ANS. Many times, in working with clients, we give each area its own personalized, accessible, memorable name- (as is posted in parentheses behind each state).

The Ventral Vagal System (CALM)

This is the part of our nervous system that allows us to experience awareness of others and their feelings, of our self, our feelings, our higher ordered needs, and preferences.

When we grow up in safe environments with responsive others, our systems tend to learn that our needs for safety can be met readily in a social context. We seek to share our joys and struggles, trusting that those around us will respond in ‘good enough’ ways with comfort and support to help us through challenges we face. We ‘learn’ through experience the joy and benefit of connection.

We learn that it is safe to be fully human- to have a range of emotions, a range of needs, and preferences. We learn to cooperate, attending not just to ourselves and our needs, but also responding to those around us. This is a world of calm, cooperation, connection.

We band together to face the challenges of the world.

When we are in this state we might experience ourselves feeling: calm, content, contemplative, relaxed, happy, playful, adventurous, interested, engaged, connected, compassionate, grateful, in awe.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (ON GUARD)

This part of our system is about protection, not connection.

Our SNS is responsible for preparing us to face a threat; it readies us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of danger by causing an immediate increase in heartrate, pulse rate, faster breathing, and sharpening of senses (to name a few). It creates a real-time, all systems go reaction. The greater the threat, the more intense the response.

This part of our system might say things like: Be careful. Be watchful. They can’t be trusted. Be ready. You have to look out for yourself- no one else is going to. Don’t be a doormat. I’m done putting up with this crap. I’m out of here.

We might feel anxious, irritated, on edge, alert, ready to go, defensive, scared, panicked, angry, rageful or frozen. We might notice the intensity of somatic experiences (racing heart, rapid breathing, tightening muscles) increase the deeper we go into this part of our system.

Our ANS may tend to access this state (SNS) more frequently or even chronically feel activated if we grew up in an environment or later lived in an environment where we experienced the need to remain on guard to stay safe (whether it was conditioned by an incident specific trauma (an assault, car accident, medical event) or complex trauma extending from long-lasting emotional, physical, or sexual abuse).

The Dorsal Vagal System (GIVING UP)

This part of our system is also about protection, not connection.

Our DVS is responsible for creating a nearly full shutdown in our system. Our ANS will take us here if the situation we face is neurocepted as one where a fight or flee response might be dangerous, or our SNS has been in overdrive and is not effective in resolving our safety needs. Our DVS takes over by shutting down all non-essential parts of our physiology so that we can ‘play dead.’

Our heart rate and blood pressure slow, our breathing slows and lightens. We are physically collapsed, dissociative, numb. We feel little, if any, physical pain here.

We might describe our state as: low energy, no energy, ashamed, alone, isolated, heavy, depressed, disconnected, done. Our embodied experience might be described as drained, limp, or lifeless.

A Final Word:

The further back we go in history, the more we were in need of the intense protective responses in our ANS to keep us safe. Living on the land amongst wild animals, etc. required us to maintain a certain level of alert, aware, prepared in order to stay safe.

In today’s world, we will want to keep in mind that many of our problems or challenges are best solved in a ventral vagal (calm) state due to the fact that this is the state that allows our higher level thinking/ problem-solving, as well as our abilities to cooperate, collaborate and care for and receive care from others to come online.

Each of us has our own unique ANS patterns that have been built into ‘muscle memory’ from our earlier experiences. We will want to become familiar with our unique patterns so that we can consider when they are serving us well, and when we will be better served by finding pathways to shift our ANS state toward ventral vagal (calm).

*By bringing perception (our active awareness) to neuroception (the ANS state), we become empowered to create the changes we desire.

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