If you’ve heard about fight or flight, freeze or fawn, or noticed your tendency to flair-up, avoid, people please or shut down in the face of difficult situations, then you are seeing the patterning of your autonomic nervous.  

Left unregulated, an over-stimulated nervous system can lead to burn out, strained relationships, and unhealthy work/life balance. Nervous system regulation is a crucial step in working towards reducing stress and increasing tolerance, so you feel calm, content, engaged and energised. 

In this blog I’ll describe how Steve Porges' Polyvagal theory can help you recognise when your nervous system is hijacking your ability to be present, receptive, and tolerant, and what you can do about it.

What is the autonomic nervous system?

The nervous system is a complex network of neurons & cells that carry messages between your brain & your body.  It determines how you experience your life. Whilst our nervous system is hard wired to keep us safe from danger, we are also hard wired for connection with people we know and trust to be safe. So, our nervous system operates in a state of tension, moving towards safe connection and moving away from unsafe connection.  

To experience the way your nervous system affects how you feel, take a moment to look at the images below.  Simply study each one for 5 seconds and as you look at them, notice how you feel. 

Did you notice a sense of calm or caution as you watched the images - this is your nervous system at work.

The nervous system isn't cognitive. It’s a primal response that happens within your brain and body.  And because it’s hardwired from primitive origins, our nervous system is not able to distinguish between the perceived threat of a wild animal, an invading tribe, a natural disaster, a demanding email, an angry work colleague or a screaming teenager.  

If you are unaware of how your primal response to the world influences your nervous system, you may feel like life is happening to you and you have no control.  However, developing understanding of how this complex system works, can help you recognise your patterns, so you can deal with stress in a healthy and liberating way.

So, what is going on exactly. The nervous system is made up of two major branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  These branches connect the brain to the body, delivering messages to the muscles, organs and glands. Messages like the feelings you experienced when looking at the images. These two branches work together to create a state of arousal and calming.  Similarly, when we inhale, we activate the sympathetic nervous system, and when we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Just like day and night, the system works in balance.

What is the sympathetic nervous system?

The sympathetic nervous system is a branch of the nervous system that gets you moving, taking rapid, appropriate action. It is necessary for us to do the things we need in our everyday lives.  When overly activated by the demands of our environment, we experience fight or flight mode. Contrary to its name, the sympathetic nervous system’s alarm bells go off, pumping the accelerator to take action towards safety and away from threats.

Here’s what happens when the sympathetic nervous system is activated or aroused:
  • The Amygdala in the brain signals the release of stress hormones – we feel stressed.
  • The change in brain activity overrides the frontal cortex’s capacity for rationalising & reasoning – we lose our ability to think logically.
  • The breathing shallows & the heart rate quickens, delivering more oxygen to the muscles.
  • Our hearing and vision sharpen.
  • Our pain perception reduces temporarily.
  • Digestion slows as blood moves from our organs to muscles & the brain.
When your nervous system is overly stimulated in a state of hyper-arousal, you may:
  • Act before thinking or find yourself over-thinking.
  • Be restless, always be on the go, distracted and procrastinating.
  • Feel agitated, on edge, snappy & reactive.
  • Experience jaw tension, including teeth grinding.
  • Feel anxious & worried about future events.
  • Feel anxious about things you said or did.
  • Experience trouble sleeping, calming your mind, being still.
  • Feel exhausted or burnt out.
  • Experience digestive issues.

What is the parasympathetic nervous system?

The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body's ability to relax, conserving energy by calming and cooling our engines, so to speak. As the name suggests, it operates alongside of the sympathetic nervous system, as the vagal brake. 

When the parasympathetic nervous system is in healthy activation:
  • We feel calm, relaxed, and at ease.
  • Digestion is good.
  • Heart rate is normal.
  • Breathing is full and extends into the abdomen.
  • We are tolerant and available for social interaction and connection.
  • Safe to be social, talkative, engaged & motivated. 
  • Free to explore, be curious, playful & creative.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is overly stimulated, we may feel:
  • Unmotivated, overly tired & lacking the energy to do anything.
  • Depressed & hopeless.
  • Disconnected, untethered and floaty.
  • Lost, alone, abandoned, unreachable. 
  • Invisible or wanting to disappear.
  • Numb or foggy.
What is the freeze response?

The freeze response is a different physiological process than fight or flight. It describes a blend of nervous system responses that immobilise a person, preventing them from being able to move or act against the stress, but remaining on high alert, as if in fight or flight. The freeze response looks and feels like:

  • Staying small, still and silent. 
  • Being a bunny in the headlights.
  • An inability to think, speak or take action.
  • Procrastination and an inability to find agency.
What is the fawn response?

The fawn response is a similar combination of different responses that include actively tending to the needs of others, as a way of keeping ourselves safe and connected, yet unable to prioritise our own needs. This may look like:

  • Peace keeping.
  • People pleasing.
  • Feeling numb to your own needs and values.
  • Being overly focused on the needs of others.
How do I calm my fight or flight response?

Calming the fight or flight response is easier than you might think.  You can activate your parasympathetic vagal brake by focusing on breathing slow and full into your abdomen, emphasising your exhalation. 

The following activities are also known to soothe the nervous system:
  • Mindfulness.
  • Walking in nature.
  • Creative activities like craft, art, carpentry etc
  • Yoga, Tai Chi & Pilates.
  • Massage and other therapies.
  • Meditation.
  • Relaxing activities like playing music, cooking, time with friends etc
  • Singing or chanting.
  • Breathing exercises.
  • Dancing and rhythmic movement.
  • Talking and somatic therapies to work through the unresolved stress and triggers.

Some people need to discharge the big feelings of fight or flight from the physical body to support the parasympathetic nervous system to calm.

This can look like:

  •  Intense anaerobic exercise.
  • Boxing, wrestling or martial arts.
  • Cycling or running.

If you have experienced chronic or acute stress, including abuse or trauma, you may experience your nervous system constantly on high alert for self-protection. It may feel difficult to relax and let your guard down. You may find yourself overly focused on others and unable to connect to your own needs.  Working with a trained professional, you can gently work through unresolved issues and reprogram your nervous system, changing your relationship to stress and discover authentic feelings of safety, calm, ease and connection.