Rooted Mama Podcast
Episode 11: Nervous System Basics
Episode #11: Nervous System Basics
Our nervous system plays a substantial role in how we function, both physically and mentally. When we feel safe and secure, we can heal and grow. If we are stuck in a chronic state of stress responses, be it fight, flight, or freeze, our minds and bodies suffer. On this episode, guest Erin Simas shares her expertise on the nervous system, how it impacts our functioning, and how we can work to stay in a calm state.
Most people think of the nervous system as having only two parts: the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”), and the sympathetic system (“fight or flight”). Polyvagal Theory proposes that the parasympathetic system has two branches: the ventral vagal system, which Erin calls the “front vagus,” and the dorsal vagal system, which Erin simply calls “shut down.” We adapted these systems to be able to handle the challenges of our environment. We activate different parts of our nervous system based on the energy needs of a situation. If we view the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system as a ladder, the front vagus is at the top, which is where we want to be; this is where optimal digestion, hormone function, menstrual cycles, and stress management happen. The sympathetic nervous system (also known as the “fight or flight system”) is the second level of the ladder; this system is all about making energy any way necessary or possible. It is not an optimal energy function, it puts a lot of stress on us physiologically and psychologically. The last rung on the ladder is the “shut down” system; it is all about energy conservation. People who struggle with maintaining their blood sugar, for example, are often operating out of the “shut down” portion of the nervous system, because it responds to threats in the environment by “freezing.”
Our nervous system scans our environment for danger on a subconscious level. Each person’s nervous system is wired differently, so one person’s danger is not another person’s danger. Depending on what kind of danger our nervous system detects determines which part of the nervous system is activated. For example, if we can escape a danger, our sympathetic nervous system is activated to aid us in flight. If we cannot escape, our “shut down” portion is activated, and we shut down (freeze). Additionally, some people default to specific nervous system responses. Some might typically go sympathetic, regardless of threat level, while others default to “shut down.” Default responses are often due to childhood conditioning or subjective interpretations of a situation.
Physical symptoms associated with operating out of the sympathetic nervous system are constipation, anxiety, long-distance running, PTSD, rapid speech, and serious demeanor/facial expressions.
Physical symptoms associated with the “shut down” system (dorsal vagal) are loose stools, diarrhea, nausea/vomiting, depression, PCOS* (*inconsistent, but relevant), PTSD, slower speech, softer facial expressions.
Our health reflects which part of our nervous system is chronically activated. If we are not spending a majority of our time living in our “front vagus” system, our health and body reflect this. We will be stuck in threat states that keep us in less-than-ideal health.
Recognize which nervous system is activated, and choose activities accordingly. If the shut down system is activated (low motivation, low energy) go for a brisk walk. If the sympathetic system is activated (anxiety, high energy), go for gentle movement; this can include heavy lifting, providing it’s not too intense. The idea is to choose activities, and even music, that is the opposite of your sympathetic or shut down nervous system state to bring your nervous system back into the front vagus (calm, regulated) state.
If our child is lying still and not speaking, they are in shut down mode. A lot of children that tend to live in shut down mode are labeled as “easy” and “good” children, when in reality, they are not in an ideal state of functioning; they are not able to be their full selves. On the other hand, if our child is often yelling and hitting, they are operating out of the sympathetic system; they are often labeled as “difficult” and their needs often get put ahead of the needs of children who operate out of the shut down portion of the nervous system. Kids who are “coming out” of the shut down system might throw parents through a loop as their behavior shifts into the sympathetic system, but it’s an important part of the process to exercise their true selves and find the safety of their front vagus. No matter which state our children are in, helping them co-regulate by being in a calm, attentive state ourselves is key.
Our nervous system is meant to handle a variety of situations to provide us with the best safety possible. Problems arise when we primarily live in either the shut down state or the sympathetic state. These states can have profound negative effects on our mental and physical health, and keep us stuck in unhealthy cycles. By working to identify which system we’re operating out of, we can move into the ideal “front vagus” system, which allows us to feel safe enough to truly take care of ourselves. To get all the details of this episode, be sure to listen on your favorite streaming platform, and subscribe to my email list to stay up-to-date on all future podcast episodes!
To contact Erin, visit her website at erinsimas.com!