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Why Do I Respond The Way I Do?

Your body is an incredible machine. It has a built in alarm system to help it to react to danger in a split second without requiring you to do anything at all! That system is called your autonomic nervous system, and it controls the muscles to your internal organs as well as your glands. Autonomic responses are mediated by the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems, which are antagonistic to one another. The sympathetic system activates the “fight or flight” response, and your parasympathetic system aids with a "rest and digest” response. Your Dorsal Vagal is the system that kicks in when you have a "freeze" response and shut down by being depressed or not being able to get out of bed.

Your brain is designed to keep you alive and in the least amount of pain possible, and to keep you away from "perceived" danger. So, when something stressful happens to make you "feel" like you are in danger, and your pre-frontal cortex (the logical part of your brain) can't figure out what is happening, your sympathetic nervous system takes over, your brain activates neuro-transmitters and your physical body reacts by producing hormones, re-directing blood to different muscle groups and organs in order to keep you alive. Your body gets ready to fight or to run from danger. This happens in literally seconds.

Below is a visual that will help you to understand your autonomic nervous system better. Utilizing the image of a ladder and creating a very simplistic way to think about your nervous system, you will see that when you are at the top of your ladder (which you would never climb up unless you felt it was safe) you are connected, feeling safe and your best self. Life is good at the top of the ladder.

But, when your body perceives danger of any kind (physical or emotional) your brain triggers emotions and feelings around circumstances that reminds it of a previous time that you have been caused pain, and it will try to protect you from feeling that pain again. Your autonomic nervous system kicks in and you will start to go down the ladder entering into "fight, or fright" mode. This may cause panic, anxiety, anger or other parts of you to show up, and if you don't reach out for help you may end up spiraling down into "freeze" .

The boxes on the left of the image show what to do at each stage to move yourself closer towards the top of the ladder, and provide recommendations (in the green box) for keeping you at the top. When you feel yourself shutting down or reacting to circumstances in a negative way, stop, ask yourself "Am I safe?" usually the answer is yes, so breathe, call a friend or schedule time with a therapist if you feel yourself withdrawing and spending too much time at the bottom of the ladder and need help with depression.

Sometimes understanding why we are reacting the way we do, can be helpful in recognizing what is happening in our body and when we are aware, we can make better choices as to how we respond.

Where do you spend most of your time on your ladder? If you would like some additional coaching around your autonomic nervous system, reach out! Schedule a one-one-one session and explore your body's reactions to circumstances and get some tools to use when you need them.

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