I am having the privilege of attending an online certification course on Somatics and Trauma by the Embody Lab. So far it has been a learning journey, in which I got to put in psychological and neuroscientific terms what I have met in my shamanic and coaching practice when working with people affected by stressful and traumatic situations.
During one of the lectures by Deb Dana on Polyvagal Theory and Clinical Practice, we were introduced to the notions of a “flexible nervous system” versus a “rigid nervous system”. Autonomic flexibility can have amazing benefits, as it ensures that we can respond well to threat and come back to regulation after a traumatic event.
When our nervous system is flexible, it can cope with and regulate heavy emotions more easily, bring us into a state of connectedness with others, while also allowing for compassion and acceptance. What is more, it can have the effect of reducing the inflammation in the body and boosting the response of the immune system.
On the contrary, autonomic rigidity can distract us from all tasks and hinder us from using the thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex). It can bring depression and/or anxiety, and social isolation, as we tend to see all the people in our environment as angry and threatening. Chronic fatigue, digestive and respiratory issues, inflammation in the body as well as a lowered immune response can also be some of the risks connected to the rigidity of our nervous system.
Why our nervous system becomes rigid
When faced with a traumatic situation – which may vary from cases like childhood abuse and neglect to having to deal with a screaming boss or being overly stressed and scared about the current social circumstances – the regulating function of the nervous system is sidetracked. In such cases, we tend to adopt behaviours for the purpose of survival, in order to stay safe from the real or perceived danger out there.
In our day and age, we are constantly bombarded by cues of danger and disconnection. It feels like social connection is dangerous and we tend to avoid it. This is a survival response adopted by our nervous system, which is aggravated by the fear spread in society (e.g. by the social media) and by the unpredictability of events.
But it is important to stay strong and be resilient in order to cope with fear and insecurity.
How can we train our nervous system to become more flexible?
In my 23-year journey of meditation, yoga and shamanic practice, what I have learned is that transforming a part of our life requires turning inwards, tuning into our core energy, liberating the self from fake, socially acquired “personalities” and “programmes” and reaching a higher state of genuine compassion and connectedness with ourselves and others.
There are, of course, many different ways and modalities through which one can train their nervous system for balance and connection. It can be practiced on a personal level, by allowing time for self-care, meditation or learning, expression and entertainment through our favourite activities. Therapy and/or resilience coaching can also be very effective. And practicing with friends or in a group can be quite helpful for some people.
Working with the body and observing its responses can be a good start to reaching a state of resilience and nervous system regulation. When you have a specific reaction, you can look for the signs in your body, emotions and breathing, which show you whether you are in a state of alert and danger, or you feel safe and secure.
You can ask yourself what you need to do to find connection, and feel stronger and more nourished. You will be surprised with the answers that you’ll receive. Very often, the answers are within and we just need to search deeper.