Over time, repeated exposure to stressful or traumatic situations causes damage to our nervous system. Just like muscles, nerves designed to signal safety begin to weaken from underuse, while nerves designed to signal stress and anxiety are strengthened from more frequent use. But when we rarely or never feel safe, our nervous system remains on high-alert constantly. We call this state of sustained alertness hypervigilance.
When someone is hypervigilant, it’s difficult to turn it off because the physical nerve is being constantly reinforced. When we experience high stress chronically, our body stays in high gear, and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our body without shutting off. That’s the physical result of emotional and mental stress.
Sometimes, due to prolonged hypervigilance, we don’t feel safe emotionally, mentally, or physically even when we’re in a safe environment. Our system is stuck in overdrive. Why?
Our nervous system was not designed to sustain fight/fight responses for prolonged periods of time. Our nervous system was designed to monitor our environment, notice danger, and alert us so we take swift action and return to safety. When the cycle is complete, our nervous system returns to a calm state.
But what happens if we don’t or can’t come into a place of safety physically, emotionally, or mentally? Our nervous system is designed to increase the alert until we hear it and take appropriate measures. If we don’t or can’t do that, though, we remain stuck in fight/flight.
If, for example, as a child, we were unable to protect ourselves from prolonged, sustained stress, our physical nervous system will be trained to remain in a state of constant fight/flight later in life. During critical years of development, our physical nervous system will develop while in a state of overdrive. Feeling safe will be virtually unknown.
As an adult, our circumstances may change. We may learn how to be strong and function in life. We may learn healthy boundaries. However, our nervous system may remain stuck in a state of constant hypervigilance and rumination. We may be constantly on high alert. Why?
Even when we interact with safe people in a safe environment, our nervous system is now designed to constantly scan for potential threats. It’s designed to answer the question, “Am I safe?” but if we’re not used to feeling safe, the response will be, “No, we’re never safe.” Because of previous stress or trauma, our nervous system no longer knows how to recognize safety.
That’s the key to healing. Learning how to feel safe. Since our physical nervous system is damaged, we train our physical nervous system to recognize what experiencing safety feels like. It’s like strengthening a muscle. This sends messages to our brain, reinforcing that the answer to the question, “Am I safe?” is, “Yes. I am safe, and this is what safe feels like.” In doing so, we learn how to experience safety more regularly. The result is reduced levels of anxiety, stress, hypervigilance, and rumination, thus reducing the present impact of past trauma.
On my healing journey, this was preceded by ensuring I was actually safe. Emotional healing and gentle boundaries were my first steps. Once I felt emotionally strong enough to establish gentle boundaries that would keep me safe, I no longer experienced extreme hypervigilance.
I’m benefitting immensely from continuing to heal my nervous system, and I’m moved to share that with others. After all, life in this system is stressful, so it’s not likely we’ll always feel safe. But reinforcing feelings of safety in little pockets of time reduces that hypervigilant feeling, increases focus on calming moments, and thus promotes feeling safe and at peace more frequently and with more ease.
Because my brain isn’t spinning anymore, I’m better able to focus on personal study, prayer, thoughtful meditation on Scripture, and to remain balanced in my daily life. I’m able to notice my nervous system when it’s scanning and mindfully respond to the alerts. And I can better control my thoughts so they don’t spin in an endless loop of rumination.
For some, it may be like the chicken and the egg. You must travel your own journey. For me, emotional healing and gentle boundaries was the first step. For others, learning ways their nervous system can experience small pockets of safety might be the first step. Wherever you are on your journey, I invite you to come along and learn how to reinforce and train your nervous system to recognize safety. This way, you can experience a peace and calm that you can intentionally tap into as needed.
If you missed it, grab the free 8 minute workshop excerpt on our Amazing Nervous System and if you want to know more about how to Level UP and break the cycle let me know or check out Level UP
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