Stressed? Voice Your Needs
Our stress levels have reached an all-time high worldwide. In addition to that, the coronavirus pandemic makes the future appear quite blurry. When the external reality pressures us to keep up with all of the recent changes, it might be beneficial to delve a little bit deeper into what is taking place internally within us.
Deep diving into the stress response
When we are faced with a stressor, our brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. The hypothalamic activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of adrenaline cause the blood to flow to the extremities to prepare the body for fight or flight. The initial response to stress happens almost instantaneously without conscious awareness. If we are able to get away from the threat, the body resumes its natural function and the parasympathetic branch is turned on to promote energy conservation through normalizing digestion and facilitating wound healing in the body.
The parasympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system and its main function is to conserve energy in the body. Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system causes blood vessels and bronchioles to dilate and the heart rate to slow down. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system works in opposition to the parasympathetic nervous system by increasing heart rate and constricting blood vessels. The sympathetic branch is responsible for what is called “mobilization behaviors” such as fighting or running away from danger.
The polyvagal perspective
Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the polyvagal theory is a neurobiological theory that re-articulates the stress response. Polyvagal refers to the multiple branches of the vagus nerve that are involved in the nervous systems of the body. The vagus nerve, also called the “wanderer nerve” is the tenth cranial nerve and it runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. It is involved in the regulation of digestion, heart rate, breathing, and the constriction or dilation of blood vessels.
The polyvagal theory suggests that the activation of the different branches of the vagus nerve causes us to either socially engages with the environment or withdraw depending on what we experience.
The social engagement response involves the myelinated vagus. Mammals have developed this newer circuitry to socialize and reproduce. Moreover, myelination allows for faster transmission of information between nerves.
The activation of the social engagement system inhibits the sympathetic nervous system activity and promotes relaxation. This system is turned on when we are able to vocalize our needs and feel supported by others in our community. Facial expressions and the tone of our voice can activate the social engagement system.
The “freeze” system involves the unmyelinated vagus. This is the ancient defence system that we share with most vertebrates. The function of the dorsal vagal complex or the “freeze” system is to defend us against threats that we have no control over. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk calls this the “ultimate emergency system” in his book The Body Keeps the Score. When we are in this state, our heart rate drops, breathing becomes shallow, and our digestive system goes out of balance. Furthermore, immobilization is commonly associated with traumatic life experiences.
Activate the social engagement system
The polyvagal theory suggests that we are neurobiologically wired to respond to stress in a variety of different ways. Whether we become mobilized to act in the face of danger or recoil in fear depends on our past life experiences as well as current ones.
Currently, most of us are in a constant state of stress as we try to navigate our way out of the coronavirus pandemic. However, there are ways to activate the social engagement system to promote relaxation and bring more ease into our lives.
According to Porges, play and movement naturally activate the social engagement system. Although face-to-face interactions would be ideal, we cannot physically hang out with friends at the moment. What we can do, however, is to use our voice more often. Voice your needs and ask for support from members of your family or social circle in times of stress. A gentle and compassionate tone of voice coming from someone we trust can activate the social engagement system by calming down the sympathetic nervous system.
All in all, cultivating awareness around our internal experiences in times of stress can give us an opportunity to seek the support we need. So that we may thrive even in the darkest of times.
- 1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
- 2. Babic, T., & Browning, K.N. (2014). The role of vagal neurocircuits in the regulation of nausea and vomiting. European Journal of Pharmacology, 722:38–47. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2013.08.047
- 3. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
- 4. Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine,76(Suppl_2). doi:10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
- 5. “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk (2014). Chapter 5.
- 6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqO2b4MAxq4