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Awareness & Embodiment Practices for Nervous System Regulation

This post is based upon  a talk I delivered to Stockport ME Group on Friday 11th June 2021.

Nervous system (NS) dysregulation is a key component of pain and fatigue conditions. In this session I talked about how awareness and body-based practices can help improve the function of our nervous system.

We can think of the nervous system as having 3 ‘branches’:

1) Parasympathetic/ventral vagal/social engagement/‘rest and digest’ mode

2) Sympathetic/‘fight or flight’

3) Dorsal vagal – sometimes referred to as ‘collapse or shutdown’

Our nervous system (NS) acts as a protective mechanism which alerts us to ‘threats’ or ‘stressors’, so that we can take action. At a physiological level, our stress response is designed to be activated in short, sharp bursts e.g. we see a wild animal coming towards us and know to run or hide. Our body releases certain hormones and chemicals to support us in this process. Once the threat is over our baseline reverts to a state of homeostasis (balance). The body has received the signal that ‘we are safe’ and it is able to recalibrate and move back into a parasympathetic state. 

The design of our NS, has, however, not evolved at the same rate as our current, modern day lifestyles. Whilst we rarely flee wild animals, the NS is instead activated frequently by the high sensory load of modern life (e.g. busy cities, technology etc.), along with what the medical profession deem as ‘psycho- social-stress’. Psycho-social-stress is a load which we all carry, and is found in all areas of life. You may find it helpful to think about and note what your current ‘stress load’ is. The following list is not exhaustive but stressors, may include:

1) Underlying health conditions and/or history of infections (Epstein Barr virus and more recently Covid have been shown to have particular links to chronic fatigue and ME symptoms) 

2) Diet and environmental stress 

3) Grief

4) Financial insecurity

5) Relationship breakdown or difficulties

6) Parenting demands

7) Heavy workload

8) History of unprocessed trauma

9) Stress of living with pain and fatigue itself (this can be thought of as a ‘stress cycle’)

When reflecting upon the ‘stressors’ you are experiencing, it is helpful to note that ‘stressors’ do not have to be perceived as a ‘bad thing’. The term ‘stress’, refers to anything that triggers our NS. For example, we may love and adore our children, careers, or intense exercise but it is healthy to acknowledge that the workloads involved in all these areas are still stressors to our system. 

How we perceive the world (influenced by our personality traits, individual and family history, societal conditioning and past experiences) can also impact the level of activation we are subject to and shape our NS. For example, studies have shown that the following tendencies can contribute towards fatigue states and conditions:

1) An ‘achiever pattern’ – we put pressure on ourselves to ‘perform well’ and hold ourselves to high standards. Often the work involved in this can drain the system. 

2) ‘Helping’ – we may have a compassionate nature (a wonderful thing) but fall into patterns where we put the needs of others above our own.

3)  Anxious thoughts are activating to the NS. Rumination can also impact sleep, recovery, immunity etc… 

4)  A trauma history – modern science has shown how unprocessed trauma shapes our NS. 

When reflecting upon these areas, please note that none of these traits are a judgement. We are looking to meet ourselves, our circumstances and situation with compassion. We are more getting curious in noticing , when and how something has become out of balance or is negatively impacting us. 

When experiencing pain and fatigue, you may find that your stress load has become high due to a culmination of different factors or due to a long period of persistent stress. One stressor may be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ (often seen with viral infections). When our stress load is heightened over a prolonged period, our NS may become ‘stuck’ in high alert. That protective mechanism is now on overdrive deeming many or most things ‘unsafe’. This state requires a huge amount of energy which makes it incredibly draining. We may veer between feeling ‘tired but wired’ and then ‘crashing’ through sheer exhaustion. Immunity, digestion and almost every other system within the body is compromised. 

It can be helpful to remember that this is a subconscious process. The reptilian part of the brain assesses our felt sense of safety through the signals it receives from the body. This is why when the nervous system has become dysregulated, as is the case with chronic stress, persistent pain and fatigue conditions, it is important we work not just with the brain, but also with the body, to signal to this primitive part of the brain that we are in fact safe.

So how do awareness and embodiment-based practices help?

– They are holistic practices; meaning that the person is viewed as a whole. Each individual’s history, psychology and physiology has shaped where they are. A personalised approach to support is therefore required. 

– Modern medical, pain science, psychology and social support (often referred to as the growing field of ‘psychoneuroimmuniology’) aligns with many key aspects of somatic education, secular mindfulness practices and yoga therapy models. 

– When we cultivate greater awareness – we notice patterns, habits and tendencies that may or may not be serving us. We can then use embodiment-based techniques to explore and integrate new options. This can be profound. We work through the body to signal to the brain that ‘we are safe’. Our activation baseline can slowly start to recalibrate to a healthier level. Bodily systems (e.g. immunity and digestion) start to function better when we are more frequently in a parasympathetic state. Rest and repair can take place.

 – With awareness, we can begin to question conditioning, beliefs about ourselves and how this is expressed through the body (in movement patterns or sensations). We can sit with and change the narrative around things that may not necessarily be true or helpful. When we explore this through the body, we don’t just think differently but we change the way we feel. 

– By identifying movement, breathing patterns and postural habits that may be contributing to chronic tension, pain and excess energy expenditure, we can re-map movement patterns that have become sensitised to pain and find less energetically draining options.

– These types of somatic movements are very different to common exercise culture – you will never hear phrases such as ‘push through’ or ‘no pain no gain’. Movements are gentle, slow, spacious and accessible. We are looking to find ease and efficiency in movement. We focus on what things feel like, rather than how they look.

– By learning how to support ourselves in managing and improving fatigue we also learn about ourselves and how we relate to the others and the world around us at a deeper level. We come away with what I like to call ‘a tool kit of practices and techniques’, to support ourselves along with a new perspective and kinder relationship towards ourselves. This type of work often leads to greater feelings of joy, connection, purpose and authenticity in life. 

You can find out more about Embodied Coaching sessions here:

https://amydaviesyoga.co.uk/embodiment-coaching/

Bibliography

Stephen Porges: the Polyvagal theory and the vagal Nerve, interviewied by Dave Aspey at Bullet-Proof Radio podcast. First accessed in 2019. Podcast episode can be found here: Stephen Porges: The Polyvagal Theory & The Vagal Nerve – #264 – YouTube

 Howard, A and Arroll M, 2009, “The Application Of Integral Medicine In The Treatment Of MyalgicEncephalomyelitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”, published by Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (please see page 30 for an overview of the ‘Chronic Pain personality Types’, 

https://theoptimumhealthclinic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/OHC-Research-Paper-December-2011.pdf

 Haynes, Steve, ‘Pain is Really Strange’, Singing Dragon, 2015.

Watts, C and Barnett, L, “Teaching Yoga for Stress, Burnout, Chronic Fatigue and ME” course booklet (from my 35 hour CPD through Yoga Campus), first accessed in 2019.

Mate, G ‘When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress”,Vermillion, 2019

Author Unknown, Physiopedia, Biopsychosocial Model, accessed in June 2021 Biopsychosocial Model – Physiopedia (physio-pedia.com)

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