Imagine: It’s a thousand years ago, and you’re out in the wild. It’s getting dark, and you’ve been separated from your group. Away from the protection of your family, your nervous system is on high alert, scanning your surroundings for signs of possible danger. Suddenly, a wolf springs onto the path before you, and your body shifts instantly into high gear. You search for an exit; for a way to escape the predator that’s standing before you ready to strike. Suddenly you see in the distance a tree that you can climb, and that the wolf may not be able to. Your body, flooded with adrenaline, takes you at a faster pace than you’ve ever run in your life, toward the tree, and safety. The wolf chases, but when it realizes it can’t reach you in your safe perch, it gives up the chase and wanders off to find more suitable prey. Safe from danger, you climb down from the tree and make your way back toward your family and the safety of their campfire. When you reach them, your body begins to tremble, signaling to your brain that the trouble has passed, and shaking off the energy that your stress hormones summoned to save you from danger. Your breathing slows, as well as your heart rate as your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and allows you to calm down and return to your baseline, regulated state. Higher levels of brain function begin to become available to you once more, and your body’s normal processes kick back in. You can return to connection with your loved ones and to the feeling of safety that comes with that connection.
Imagine: It’s 2023, and you’re lying on your bed, looking at your phone. You’re doom-scrolling through social media, reading post after post about suffering, war, climate change, and injustice. Each post signals danger to your brain, but there isn’t really any need to run - after all, you’re just sitting in your house, with the door safely locked. Intellectually, you know you’re safe at the moment, but we’re wired to be alert to danger of any kind, and your brain is processing many of those danger signals: news of harm befalling other people, injustice perpetrated against people who look like us or who look like people we love, expressions of rage and sorrow, and despairing predictions about the state of the world in the future. You look at the clock and realize with a start that it’s 11:30 PM - an hour has passed without you being aware of it, and you have work in the morning. You sigh, close your phone, and go to sleep. In the morning, the first thing you look at is your phone. It has even more bad news, more anger, more grief, and more despair. You get up and go to work, and the cycle begins again. You find yourself feeling anxious most of the day, and being unsure why: you’re physically safe, you have housing, and you have food, but you also have a sense of dread you can’t seem to shake off.
The Nervous System
Our nervous systems have a very specific pattern of functioning when we perceive we are in danger. Being social animals, when we see other human beings in danger or being harmed, we also feel a sense of threat, and our bodies are finely tuned to identify these threats so that we can respond automatically and quickly. We see a threat: our body releases chemicals that shift us into another state of being, and we go into fight or flight. If we can’t escape danger or defend ourselves, we can go into another nervous system state, where we freeze and become immobilized, giving our bodies a chance to assess the situation and work out new options for escape or for defending ourselves, and then we may shift downward back into fight or to flight. Once the danger has passed, our body gradually shifts back into our baseline, regulated state by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.
Here’s the trouble: when we’re on our phones, we can dissociate from our bodies and fail to notice the danger signals that are arising within us as we soak up more information than our brains have ever had to process, with a level of urgency that is profound and blaring. Our intellectual minds may suppress what our bodies are telling us, because we know that, in reality, there is no wolf crossing our path - it's just the internet doing its thing. Yet, even though we may not notice the nervous system response, it still occurs. And when it occurs, we must be able to complete the stress-response cycle so that we can return to that baseline state - and that isn’t an intellectual process, it’s a somatic one. In other words, it has to happen in your body for your nervous system to allow you to let down your defenses.
'So What Can I Do?'
1. The most important advice I could give to any client is to limit their access to social media and their phones. Social media hijacks our brains in a way that is similar to an addiction to a substance or gambling, and the use of phones can disrupt our body’s natural cycles of activity and rest due to blue light mimicking the light of the sun.
2. Support your body by completing your stress response cycle.
After a life-threatening event, our bodies shake and tremble to release the excess stress hormones that were produced as we fought off danger, so that they don’t continue to circulate through our bodies. We also use our bodies to fight or flee, and if we’re frozen and never make it back into fight or flight, we can become dissociated and struggle to return to our baseline state. In the absence of clear external triggers, it can be hard for your body to discern whether it's safe and if it's okay to settle down. Helping your body go through some of the motions can help bring your parasympathetic nervous system online.
3. Seek therapy. A therapist can offer a calm, reassuring space for you to process excess stress and nervous system activation, and help you learn to attune to your body’s signals more effectively in the moment. They can also help you learn techniques to help bring your parasympathetic nervous system online, such as breathing exercises or meditations.