People all over the world struggle with the inability to regulate their nervous systems without ever realizing the true problem. We often find ourselves in various states of fight/flight through either trauma or even extremely stressful work environments that over time program the brain into that hyper vigilant state. The problem however is that the brain does not TELL us that we have gone into fight/flight. In the same manner, the brain will not tell you that your left oblique, or your right quad is no longer able to be flexed or activated properly, the brain will simply compensate and move on. Because we are not ever told that we have fallen into a state of dysregulation, most people simply think that their body and brain have betrayed them or that they have some unexplainable medical condition.
The brain’s primary function, in my opinion, is centered on two things. The first is to keep us safe, and the second is to keep us upright. Autonomic systems are constantly engaged to complete both of these tasks. The upright function is essential to any bi-ped. We see massive compensations in the way we stand and move when muscular systems stop functioning the way they are supposed to. These compensations usually have us in much poorer posture, and lead to positions that people associate with old age. One of the other primary functions of the brain is to keep us safe. This system is directly tied to our fight/flight response. The fight/flight response is a natural necessity in keeping us safe. When the brain recognizes danger it has a few responses (that are fully recognized by current research). There is the fight/flight/fawn/freeze response that I will show below.
But why is the brain pushing us into these responses? The answer lies in the fact that the brain recognizes danger/unsafe and therefore tries to protect us by triggering one of the above responses. The key here is that the brain endemically senses danger; and this is largely due to experiential data within its memory banks. This is a common example that I give my clients: Our brains see a coaster that we use to place drinks to protect our table as simply a coaster. That is our association to it neurologically. However, if that same coaster would be used in a brutal beating, my association to the coaster would change. Inexplicably, years later I walk into a store and see the very same type of coaster sitting on a table. What might you think my brain’s response to that coaster will be? Chances are I will likely go into some type of negative state, perhaps even a panic attack. The reason is that my brain has created strong associations between the coaster and being unsafe. This is due to the fact that my brain knows that the coaster was used as a weapon, and therefore could be used in that manner again. So my brain actively tries to protect me from that coaster via the fight/flight response. In this case we understand the brain is failing to properly regulate the fight/flight response. The nervous system is being over engaged. This is the essence of trauma.
Trauma changes the way the brain perceives the state of our being and neurological associations. We go from a relatively constant “safe” state, which is more of the constant regulated state, to a constant “unsafe” state, as the brain struggles to protect us. This constant struggle to stay safe is very often recognized as a constant state of hyper-vigilance. This can potentially cause or can be linked to the issues listed below. I urge you to closely study the chart. Some of the symptoms will certainly surprise you.
The regulation of our nervous system is incredibly important to address the fight/flight state. How do we begin that process? For some, even breath work can create intense feelings of panic, even though breath work is designed to access your parasympathetic system and therefore should help to regulate your system. So what can we do? It is an excellent question, and one that therapists around the world are constantly asking. Experts such as Bessel van der Kolk have proposed the use of yoga, theatre, and other body based activities to help reconnect the brain to the body. He has also founded a clinic based on sensory/physical experience. Indeed a method created by Peter Levine called Somatic Experiencing has found great traction, as it once again tries to help us move back safely into our bodies. More and more experts are understanding that trauma damages the link between brain and body, and that it must be restored in order to heal the brain. But why? The current hypothesis is that the more the body is connected to the brain and the more we can “inhabit” our bodies, the safer the brain believes we are.
It seems there is a strong correlation between physical strength/ability and our mental health state. This is being studied right now at multiple levels. Researchers are investigating a connection between skeletal muscle and cognitive impairment. As skeletal muscle decreases, researchers hypothesize that potentially so does our mental health. We are learning that mental health is directly tied to our fight/flight system, and our fight/flight system is connected to our state of safe/unsafe. (See Polyvagal Theory). So the less safe the brain perceives us to be, the more likely our fight/flight is to trigger and therefore the worse our mental health. It would appear that skeletal muscle is directly connected to mental health.
The more I work with clients that have nervous system based issues, the more I am convinced that the perceived strength of their physical body is relative to their mental state. I work with many people that suffer from poor regulation of their nervous systems. This is often due to long term trauma, or early life trauma/stress. It becomes abundantly clear that their brain does not think they are safe in their bodies, as their fight/flight response is on high alert 24/7, and what’s more engages with particular stimulus. For example: one of my clients mentioned that she suffers from anxiety when going into large crowds of people. This is something she has had for over 10+ years. She has undergone a great deal of neuro-connectivity work with me already, so the ability to activate/load abdominals/obliques and other key systems of the body has been established and fully reprogrammed. In essence, she has greatly improved the connection between her body and brain. I should note that this took her weeks, and that her neck tension and low back pain was a direct result of poorly sequenced muscular activation from a neurological perspective.
In session, I had her visualize the stressful crowd that she mentioned was a trigger. She immediately felt tension all over her body, but especially her skull and the middle of her forehead. I then had the client work on specific activation/muscle loading sequences until she could feel her body intensely. (I refer to this connectivity or bridging of mind/body as neuro-connectivity). When she could feel her body intensely, including muscles starting to engage and fatigue, I had her sit up. Having her visualize the same stressful situation she then felt a lesser tension all over the body and diminished head tension as well. This was repeated 3 times, with strong neuro-connectivity established each time via the loading work. By the third time, she had almost zero tension when thinking about the trigger, and had almost zero tension in the middle of her head as well. I have seen these same results with hundreds of clients over the past few years. This is even proving to be true with extremely complex cases, such as the one detailed below.
This particular client experienced terrible trauma between the ages of 1-5. She suffered from dissociative events (life altering), incredibly strong anxiety, and hyper physical sensitivity. The sensitivity went so deep that when she would become stressed her knees would swell to the point where she could no longer walk and had to be carried. When she first came to me she could not feel ANY of her abdominals (zero sensation), nor could she flex or load them. She had no control over her quadriceps as well; and any time she would even think about releasing them, she would be pushed closer to the edge of a panic attack. I have been working with her for over a year. She no longer has the crippling anxiety, has full control over her abdominals and legs, and has been able to hold a job. She has begun to enjoy a normal life. Allow me to press this point: as her neuro-connectivity to her body has improved, so has her mental health! In a recent session, we were working through specific triggers that still create shaking as a guarding response. Any time she is in a perceived dangerous environment, such as driving on a new road, her body involuntarily reverts to shaking. Her teeth will begin to chatter. Surprisingly, even a simple visualization of one of these triggers would end in the same sensations and anxiety. Contrarily, upon doing some neuro-connectivity work, she could feel her abdominals, core, and body intensely. Asking her how she felt, she mentioned she was more stable. When she first tried to hold the position to activate her abdominals she said she felt weak. We did this neuro connectivity exercise 3 times, and at the end of the third time she mentioned feeling strong and that her shaking was completely gone. The more she was able to “connect” through these specific techniques, the more she could feel a strong connection to her body, resulting in improved mental stability. When she was able to “inhabit” her body and feel a deeper link to the physical, it completely shut off all guarding and shaking that she was experiencing. The most fascinating thing about this was that when returning to test the aforementioned trigger, the shaking/cold response was less each time. After 3 times of repeating this work, she was able to think about the visualized trigger and have no negative reaction.
From the above cases we can start to make the following conclusions; trauma and the associations of “unsafe” can create a true disconnect from our physical bodies. This disconnect actually exists on a neuro-connectivity level, as the brain actively places walls between the body and brain in order to try to protect us. These walls actually have the ability to shut our muscular systems down and make us functionally weaker than we should be otherwise. They also have the ability to change the way we perceive touch and sensation. As we start to connect again and the strong physical sensations through the body are felt, the brain starts to see the body as safe. As the body is thus perceived, the brain shuts off the fight/flight response because it no longer identifies or recognizes a current threat. The key to neuro-connectivity appears to be strong somatic sensation and feeling.
So the new question arises: how can we have a high level of sensory engagement and feel strong in our bodies when we still have concurring back/neck/knee pain? Pain is not conducive to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which is essential to breaking the fight/flight loop. Pain is much more than just the nervous system, and usually has elements of muscular imbalances and poorly sequenced activation. For example, I have never worked with one person who had neck issues that did not also have issues with their rhomboids, biceps, pectorals, and deltoids. So getting out of physical pain becomes extremely important in addressing the regulation of the nervous system. Getting out of physical pain, often requires resequencing muscular systems from a neurological perspective. Targeting specific muscles can render related or contrasting areas of the body pain free. Becoming pain free allows the opportunity for deeper parasympathetic activation. Becoming well connected to the body through my system of neuro reprogramming of muscular systems is a key piece of the puzzle that has helped my clients overcome intense mental AND physical health issues.
Understanding the link between the state of the physical body and the state of the brain/nervous system will likely continue to evolve into the next big mental health breakthrough. The ability to reprogram muscular systems from a neurological standpoint to fully rebuild the body from a state of complete weakness to a state of pain-free strength will likely be a part of that puzzle. If the brain does not have a particular muscular area on its neurological map (I have talked about this in previous articles), we will always be functionally weaker than we should be, and always have compensatory tension/pain patterns. The brain will also continue to shut specific muscular areas off ie, put them into guarding, during stress and trauma. This can cause a flare up of pain or tension unless programmed appropriately. This applies to athletes, as well as those dealing with severe physical/mental health issues. The more strong and stable the body, the safer the brain likely perceives us to be. The safer we are perceived to be, the stronger and more resilient our mental health can become.
If you would like more information on my work, or would like to contact me directly, please email me at email@example.com. I work with people remotely via online video across the country, as well as in clinic in Battleground, WA. No matter what direction you go for healing, I hope that you find what you are searching for. Be your own greatest health advocate, and do your research thoroughly. Until next time.