All of us have heard from well intentioned friends, family members and colleagues “its ok, just calm down”, “its’ not the end of the world” and “just relax”. Of course, these words are offered to help us in a moment where things are often feeling out of control for us and everything that is happening is just too much to process. The hope when we are offered these pieces of advice is that we can hear this and rationalize in our minds that all is okay and if we just tell ourselves this we should just be able to change the way we are feeling and calm down. The problem with this approach is a critical piece in understanding the experience of “anxiety” is missing.
“Anxiety” or what we refer to in Somatic Experiencing as “activation” is an experience that is rooted in physiology not the mind. When we experience what we have term anxiety, our autonomic nervous system is perceiving danger and has begun to mobilize a fight or flight response. What we feel is an initiation of our stress response. The important thing to note here is our body responds the exact same way to psychological stress as it does to actual threat. So whether your spouse is yelling at you or a tiger is chasing you, the physiological changes in the body are the same as it begins to prepare to defend itself. Our muscles contract, out heart rate speeds up, our breathing rate increases and we build an internal state of survival energy that would be used to execute this fight or flight if that danger materialized. And it does not feel good. We can’t think and our thoughts start to race as we try and locate the source of that danger and our higher brain goes offline.
When we have dysregulation in our nervous system as a result of chronic stress, overwhelm and trauma, we are at a severe disadvantage when trying to process stress. We activate very quickly and once we have become activated and these physiological changes have occurred it is very difficult to come out of this activated state. The system just doesn’t know how to anymore. In fact, we often get stuck there and long after the situation resolves the system still perceives that danger and stays in that physiologically activated state. Over time, as this repeatedly happens our baseline changes and our system just no longer knows how to fully feel safe and settle. Furthermore, our nervous system is so full of that old unused survival energy that when we try and take in new stressors there just isn’t any room and we easily start the cycle again. We activate quickly, we can’t settle, more energy locks in the system and we get more dysregulation.
So no, we cant just calm down. No matter what we tell ourselves.
Somatic Experiencing addresses the dysregulation in our nervous system by helping to discharge that unused survival energy so we are no longer stuck in that physiologically activated state, lowering that baseline, bringing some safety back into the system and re-teaches the nervous system how to adaptively respond to stress.