Do you find yourself stressed out by a lot of things? How do you keep yourself going after a gut-wrenching moment hits you? Do you think your past trauma has changed your nerves and has made you less or more sensitive to stress?
What can past trauma and chronic stress do to you nerves?! Everything in your past has changed your nerves, either for stress or for calm.
Your “nerves” are actually a great indicator for hidden stress and trauma! In fact, the nerves are where it all started. The long-term effects of trauma on the body all have to do with the nervous system.
If you’re finding your body and mind burdened down by stress and past trauma, and have patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors repeating themselves in your life, but aren’t really want you want to do, you need to rewire and heal your nervous system. That’s exactly what we’re going to look at here!
In this blog, we’re going to look at how stress and trauma changes your nervous system and where to start in order to rewire and heal the nervous system.
The Nervous System
What exactly is the nervous system?
The nervous system is made up of cells called neurons. If there’s a neuron somewhere, it’s part of the nervous system!
Neurons, as shown in the image below, are cells built for rapid communication. Neurons remain connected with each for this rapid communication, and they form a vast and intricate network system throughout the brain and body.
The nervous system looks and acts very much like a modern bullet-train transportation system, with all kinds of connections and very fast communication from one point to another.
You want your neurons working well! Even small changes that make it communicate the wrong thing or communicate things slower will leave you with anxiety, depression, headaches, forgetful, overweight, in pain, stomach hurting, high blood pressure, and hormone imbalances.
Categories and Functions of the Nervous System
To better understand the functions of the nervous system, different regions and different types of nerves have different names. These can be seen in the image below.
The other nerves in your body are of two different types that are either under conscious or unconscious control.
The Peripheral Nervous System are called “motor neurons,” because they go to your muscles and make things move. The most important thing about these nerves is that they’re under conscious and unconscious control. That makes total sense, because of course you can both decide exactly how to move your leg to stretch out, but you can also put it on automatic mode when you’re walking somewhere but don’t want to think about how to exactly move your foot and leg for each step.
Then you have the nerves that make up the Autonomic Nervous System.The Autonomic Nervous System runs all of the life-sustaining activities of your body. It automatically keeps you alive without you having to think about any of it!
Automatic life functions include keeping your heart beating, lungs breathing, blood pressure, core body temperature, and digestion.
Remember, that digestion involves a lot of processes, from getting the food down to the stomach, having enough acid to break it down, making enzymes that will break down the food, moving the food down through the 6 feet of intestines and absorbing nutrients along the way, and then moving the rest through the colon to eliminate it.
Nausea, feeling hungry, thirsty, or full are also key functions that can be off in people with imbalanced nervous systems, due to past trauma and accumulated stress.
The nervous system also directly influences other vital automatic functions that you need for life, such as hormones and immune system attacking bacteria and viruses that would get you sick.
- Balance and Posture
- Sensory Input: Communicating Touch, Temperature, Pain, Taste, Sounds and Sight to the Brain
- Automatic Life Functions: Heart Beating, Lungs Breathing, Blood Pressure, Core Body Temperature, and Digestion
- Stress Response (Fight, Flight or Freeze) to People, Places and Things Throughout Our Day
- The Immune System
Big Picture of the Nervous System
The two important things to know about the nervous system as it relates to trauma and stress is that (1) it directly controls or indirectly influences every major system in the body, but also every single cell, and (2) communication runs both ways in the nerves. Meaning the body communicates information to the brain, and the brain communicates commands to the body.
For this reason, what we think may be “just in my head” does still play itself out in our bodies.
Our psychology really does become our biology, because the nervous system communicates what’s going on in our brains to our bodies so that it can respond to the reality it sees.
Similarly, your biology influences your psychology. If your body is injured or is taken over by inflammation, or another disease, this also gets communicated to your brain.
One of the major ways this plays out for people with histories of early childhood stress and trauma is that their nervous system is more sensitive to pain, touch, and temperature. The brain continues to get messages of “threat” from the body, because of these communications.
Over time, the psychology responds with persistent anxiety, difficulty sleeping, depression, and fatigue from having been in threat mode for so long. Yet, then this psychology also starts to play out in the rest of the nervous system, including the automatic functions of which we aren’t consciously aware.
Can Trauma Really Change Your Nervous System Forever?
Well, check these studies out.
- Adults with sleep problems were questioned about their childhoods. Having a tough childhood was associated with sleep problems in adults. Having family conflict between the ages of 7-15 resulted in already having a hard time sleeping (insomnia) by the age of 18 years old.
Women who had experienced sexual abuse reported sleep problems 10 years later. Trauma results in changes to the nervous system that don’t necessarily correct themselves.
As this, and many other studies have shown, the changes may show up later years. It may appear many years later, so much so that a person doesn’t connect it with their past trauma.
- Children with higher Adverse Childhood Experiences were found to have scores that have more medical symptoms, the most common ones being somatization (chronic and recurrent physical complaints with no clear diagnosis), sleep disturbances, and emotional dysregulation (extreme mood swings).
Looking at the number of different medical symptoms that would normally seem unrelated, the authors were thinking perhaps the common denominator between the stress and the symptoms is the changes to the nervous system.
- Just in the digestive system, early life stress has been shown to cause persistent problems in the colon, the intestines, and absorption of nutrients. Many adults have problems with constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or even different forms of colitis, and haven’t been told that there’s a strong correlation with childhood trauma and current stress.
It’s no surprise that digestive issues are some of the most common symptoms of people with a large burden of accumulated stress, past trauma, and insecure attachments or Attachment Disorder.
The digestive system is known as “the little brain,” because it has the most complex nervous system. There are millions of neurons and its supportive cells. It’ss highly susceptible to any changes or inefficiency in the nervous system. Studies do show that women are more prone to the effects of early life stress on the gut’s nervous system.
In this picture, you can see how it all starts to come together, with the brain and psychology influencing all the activity and functions of the digestive system, even the gut bacteria, the hormones (endocrine), the immune system, and the rest of the nervous system (neuronal).
Because of how connected the nervous system is to every other system and cells in the body, changes or imbalances in the neurons make a huge difference.
After a significant trauma or a prolonged period of stress there are persistent changes in the stress response system. Now, the whole body tends to respond to any stress rather than just one’s emotions.
Even in adulthood, children who experienced relationship or environmental stress and trauma will now respond to ordinary levels of life stress in ways that are not ordinary.
The shape and size of a child’s brain has been shown to change with stress. This resulted in adults more likely to have depression if, as kids, they were stressed in their home or school environment, whether from lack of money and physical needs met, or lack of quality and secure relationships and connection with their family and peers.
Teenagers who had survived a stressful childhood, but were still internalizing their emotions was shown to affect the amount of brain tissue they had in their frontal cortex, the area for logic and reason. Others areas affected by early stress are ones that are associated with the development of depression.
It’s also the nervous system that makes us remember pain and fear. The immune system and supporting cells of the neurons are involved in this process. In response to pain and fear, the neuron support cells (astrocytes) release a chemical that is very inflammatory, the same chemical that the cells in your body release in response to an injury.
This inflammatory chemical sends a strong message to the neurons in the brain, “Remember this painful event so it doesn’t happen again!”
However, this inflammatory process in the brain can get out of hand when there are so many painful experiences to remember, and many mood disorders including problems like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are associated with chronic inflammation in the brain.
How Do I Change My Nervous System and Its Response to Stress?
While the list of long-term effects of trauma and stress on the body can be overwhelming, the good news is – you can change a long list of health problems by healing your nervous system!
Whatever your symptom, or symptoms, doing the work to rewire your nervous system will drastically improve your health now and for years to come.
How do you rewire your nervous system?
The first step is to get your nervous system out of survival mode and into a state of relaxation, calm, and secure.
This will be different for everybody, because what stresses one person out is different for another. It may actually be relaxing for another.
When you’re first starting out, it’s common to not really know what stresses you out!
Everything seems to stress you out, and it’s been years since you were able to even have one moment of true relaxation, where you felt in your gut that all is ok.
In this case, the first step is to actually get to know yourself. You would be surprised at how many people don’t really know themselves – they live in a perpetual state of just reacting and getting through life. This is very hard for a nervous system.
Step 1 is to find out which things stress your system. There is no right or wrong answer about what stresses your system, but “shoulds” are unhelpful. It is what it is, and there will be time for deeper analysis and understanding later.
Right now, just figure out what stresses you out and what relaxes you.
Step 2 is to start a short-term and long-term plan for rewiring your nervous system.
The short-term plan is to do whatever you can immediately to change your life and lifestyle to do more of what relaxes your system and eliminates all of what stresses you out. If you need to take a day to go off by yourself and figure out what you can change and how to do this for a period of time, schedule a day for reflection and planning.
A long-term plan is going to include things that will help heal your nervous system and build resiliency for the long-run.
This will include things from the category of finances, spirituality, therapy, health, and social life.
Step 3 Start your short-term plan today! Schedule the activities that relax you into your day…starting now. It will feel awkward to slow down the pace of your life even for 5 minutes to check in with your body and relax your nervous system.
If you think it feels awkward at first, you should keep practicing to get in touch with yourself. It will be very tempting, especially in the first three weeks to go back to old habits of rush, rush rush. But stand firm, take that time to slow down and get in tune with your body.
Making it a priority to rewire and heal your nervous system through a variety of approaches will require changes to your life and lifestyle that will be difficult, because of the power of habit and routine.
Getting your nervous system into a better place will help you have more energy, better health, and be your best self to make your best decisions in your life, in your careers, and in your relationships.
It is work; it is hard work, but it’s well worth it!
In summary, our psychology becomes our biology, and our biology becomes our psychology!
The variety of functions that the nervous system controls and which will be influenced by your psychology and which will influence your mood, thoughts, and belief system will all be affected if there’s an imbalance or a problem that causes it to work inefficiently.
Which is exactly what happens with chronic stress from previous trauma, especially in early life when the system is still developing. The nervous system gets stuck in high alert and reactivity or overwhelmed and shutdown mode, and this affects the whole nervous system in the brain and body.
This is going to affect everything that the nervous system controls or communicates with. Every cell in the body is affected, whether or not you feel or know it.
The nervous system is the key imbalance in trauma and this is the key to healing trauma!
So, let’s start rewiring and healing it today. This is where we start.
What is one simple and easy thing that relaxes your nervous system that you could start today?
Just start with one thing today, and don’t wait until you have everything figured out. Just start!
To Health and Healing Of Your Nervous System~
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Stress and the Sensitive Gut
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