By: Dr. Jeff Brockman, LPC-A - New Leaf Counseling Group - Charlotte, NC
Have you ever been startled by a horn, a siren, or another loud noise? Ever felt rejected by a non-response from a friend or family member? Have you ever misinterpreted someone’s intention? If you have, then the good news is that your nervous system is working as intended.
The nervous system - which consists of the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves that run through our entire Body - is involved in every - single - facet - of our lives. The nervous system controls our movements (such as walking and running), as well as our speaking, swallowing, breathing, and learning. Our nervous system controls digestion, heartbeat, and sweating, as well as controls all five of our senses—sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste.
The nervous system manages risk and helps us to calm down and feel safe in relationships. In sum, the nervous system is involved in nearly everything, conscious and unconscious.
So how does the nervous system relate to anxiety and depression? Most specifically, the nervous system determines how we respond to potential threats to our safety (or whatever we relate to a perceived sense of safety). When we feel threatened, our nervous system mobilizes resources by releasing adrenaline and cortisol from the endocrine system. This increases the heart rate and rapidly pumps blood to our muscles in order to prepare for "fight" or "flight." While this is occurring, blood flow is moved away from our internal organs and brain in order to prioritize action, but this also makes thinking clearly and/or critically VERY difficult.
The release of adrenaline is nearly instantaneous and happens beyond our control, which is how most of the nervous system works. It works quickly—in 1 to 2 hundredths (0.01 or 0.02) of a second—in the service of our survival. Importantly, the nervous system reacts before the higher-level thinking parts of our brain even have a chance to catch up with what it is reacting to.
Role of The Nervous System: Fight, Flight, or Freeze
When we feel threatened, we either fight, run away ("flight"), or if we feel there is no way out, we freeze. Generally speaking, counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals understand the importance of the latter "freeze", rather than the more commonly heard phrase, "fight or flight."
When we feel threatened, we generally get anxious (fight/flight). When we feel trapped, like there is no way out, we get depressed ("freeze"). Thus, the nervous system plays an important role in both anxiety and depression. You can see examples of how this freezing behavior over time will create an experience of "learned helplessness." In many ways, this position is almost identical to the subjective experience of clinical depression.
But what counts as a threat? This is NOT always as obvious as we might assume and don't just include aspects of Life we tend to imagine when we think about feeling threatened, such as by an attacker or growling dog. Much smaller and more subtle events can cause us to feel threatened. For instance, common examples of this more subtle event might be a critical thought about Self, a car honking, a negative comment by a co-worker/friend, or a being dismissed by a Loved One can FEEL like threats, which activates our nervous system—before we even know it...
In addition to an increase in heart rate that pumps blood to our muscles for FIGHTING or RUNNING TO SAFETY, other changes occur in how the nervous system goes about its usual business of "self regulating" when we feel threatened.
When we feel threatened and our nervous system jumps into action, our ability to hear and even to read facial expressions diminishes. YES! When we feel threatened, we often cannot hear others accurately or read their facial expressions in the most accurate way possible in a given situation. More specifically on a physical level when we feel threatened, the middle ear shifts from listening for human voices to detecting the sounds of predators and sounds of distress.
Role of The Nervous System: Implications for Depression/Anxiety
What are we supposed to do with this? And especially in cases where we are struggling with Anxiety and/or Depression symptoms? One author uses the analogy of a ladder (top, middle, and bottom) as a metaphor for being aware of the shifts in our nervous systems.
At the top of the ladder, we are calm and comfortable and in no way threatened by those around us. If our nervous system perceives a threat, however, such as a siren or the beginning of an argument, then our nervous system reacts before we get a chance to accurate figure out what is happening - releasing adrenaline, increasing heart rate, sending blood to the muscles in preparation for fighting or running away, and even causing our ears to search for sounds of threat instead of the human voice. We go down the ladder...
Once we can learn to develop an awareness of what is happening, then learn to anticipate the triggers, we can begin to integrate coping skills and new ways of managing those situations that get us closer to what we actually want out of Life, rather than being "keyed up" with Anxiety symptoms, or "down in the dumps" with Depression symptoms. Once we get all of this moving in a more appropriate direction, the higher-level thinking parts of our brain are able to get our nervous system back under control, allowing us to go "back up the ladder."
Role of The Nervous System: Communication
So how does all this nervous system information relate to communication? If we get into a discussion/argument with a Friend or Loved One, then we are likelier to feel threatened, which will trigger the nervous system response described earlier in this article. Not only do we feel anxiety or even panic, but our hearing may literally be shifting from discerning human voices to looking for sounds and facial expressions of threat.
Because of these changes, it is very important to understand that we cannot be sure we are accurately hearing our conversation partner for what they are saying. As a mental health therapist, I witness a lot of couples and families in which one client does not accurately understand what their Loved One is saying - while I can hear the statement much more clearly as a neutral observer. This is one of the many benefits to getting the support of a professional therapist or counselor to work through difficult situations with Loved Ones that have resulted in getting stuck in the past.
In fact, misunderstanding may be more the rule than the "exception." If we can understand the role of the nervous system , as well as work through those states of Anxiety and/or Depression when we get stuck in fight, flight, or freeze, we can see the nervous system reaction as normal and even helpful, rather than scary. From here, we can begin the work of learning to access our higher level thinking parts of our brain to "climb the ladder" and begin returning Self & Loved Ones to safety.
If you are in the Charlotte area and looking for a professional counselor or therapist who can support you through these areas, please contact me at 704-457-1789 to schedule a free, fifteen-minute consultation, or click here to book an appointment online.
Dr. Jeff Brockman is a professional counselor associate at New Leaf Counseling Group in Charlotte, NC. He specializes in working with Adolescents & Adults who are having issues with Anxiety and/or Depression and ready to get the needed care. He looks for to hearing from you when you are ready by clicking here to book an appointment online.
Dana, Deb (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy. W. W. Norton & company: New York, N.Y.