The American Medical Association attributes 60% of all illnesses to Stress. 60%. Before we get to how stress can manifest physically in the body, I’m going to share about the nervous system. There is so much to write about this subject, but because I don’t like to read long blog posts myself, I’m not going to write a dissertation in a blog. Be forewarned, I am not going to go into the details of how the body / nervous system functions at this time (synapses, neurotransmitters, polyvagal nerve theory, hormones, the brain, yada, yada, yada). First, I’m going to give a very simple overview of the overall picture and break this subject into multiple parts/posts. Hopefully, you will find that each of these posts build upon the next.
I have a couple of visuals that I use to explain stress and the nervous system:
First, I ask you to imagine a metal coil or spring and imagine grasping both ends of the coil between the fingers of both hands and pulling. The coil is malleable. However, if you push the coil together, you are applying pressure to the coil. When the coil has enough pressure applied to it, it becomes compressed, unable to move and becomes stagnant so there is no room for the coil to adjust, move or breathe. The coil is the Nervous system and the compression (applied pressure) is the impact of Stress on the nervous system.
Second visual: In my last post, I wrote about the Big T and little t trauma/stress. For the next visual, I’m going to ask you to think of a scale between 1-10 with 10 being the greatest impact (Big T, little t) to the nervous system. When stress ‘hits’ the nervous system, the nervous system adjusts and adapts as best as it can. Each time the system gets impacted, the level of stress ‘tolerance’ increases. For example, as a baby, we may start out with maybe little t’s to equate a level 2 stress tolerance to the nervous system, and as we develop and grow we experience other little t’s or a Big T that moves us up the scale to an 8 stress tolerance level. With each Big T or little t experience, tolerance is increased and we move up that scale. As we move up the scale, the nervous system and body become acclimated to that particular feeling or level of stress. With each level of stress, the coil goes from being malleable to becoming more and more compressed. Remember, our nervous systems don’t start out compressed. I am describing this in very simplistic terms, because I like simple and easy. Please know that everyone’s stress tolerance and capacity is different and I use this scale imagery just to explain and provide an overall picture. With that being said, although I write about tolerance within the nervous system, once the nervous system is at capacity (10 scale), it does not have ‘room’ to process or deal with additional stress (the compressed coil) and the nervous system becomes overwhelmed.
This is how the coil and the scale go together:
The impacted nervous system (the compressed coil) becomes acclimated to the stress and this consistent revved up (scale 1-10) feeling. So, the healing process becomes about regulating the nervous system, meaning having the nervous system ‘come down’ and resting from the stress, from this feeling of being ramped up. However, when the feeling of stress is reduced, it often feels uncomfortable to the individual and the individual will often subconsciously ‘create’ some stress or chaos to mimic the feeling of the previous level of stress. For example, lets say your system ‘builds’ a tolerance for a level 8 stress point, yet when your system begins to heal, your tolerance scale drops to a base level 5 stress point, becoming your new nervous system set point. But, your body/subconscious mind will begin to read this new level 5 stress point feeling as ‘not normal’ and begin to create a situation that will bring you back up to a base level 8, where it feels ‘more’ comfortable. That’s why some people become ‘addicted’ to chaos or a certain level of stress and adrenalin, it feels ‘alive’ and ‘comfortable.’ Here’s another example: Let’s say you have anxiety, to the point that you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep because of racing thoughts about what you have no control over (the next days work, the confrontation you need to have with your friend/neighbor/coworker, the bills you have to pay, or the paper that needs to be submitted etc.). By the way, this never happens to me. Anyhoo, your body becomes used to the effects of anxiety such as feeling jittery, an internal ‘buzzing’ feeling, short breathing, or the pseudo butterflies in your stomach that have nothing to do with passion, lust or love. However, when your nervous system becomes relaxed on a more consistent basis, this becomes a new feeling for the body, and you will subconsciously identify this as, ‘something’s wrong (it’s too calm),’ ‘something’s going to happen (because it’s too calm),’ or ‘why am I not feeling xyz,’ and then the anxiety spikes back up with those racing thoughts. Again, this is cyclical, because this feeling really doesn’t feel good to you, it’s just comfortable, what the body is used to, what the body remembers.
So, there you have the coil and the scale, the interplay between the nervous system and stress. You may not see coils that same way again. Just remember, what gets revved up, must come down for healing. When that begins to happen, your nervous system, which was compressed begins to open, creating space within your Self and your body, allowing you to adapt to change and the stress of life.