One way of measuring our health is our capacity to be resilient. In other words, health is not about feeling strong and centered in every moment but finding the tools to return to center and regain strength in the face of stress and change.
What does it mean to be resilient and why is it important?
Dan Siegel, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in interpersonal relationships, mindfulness and emotions, coined a term related to our best zone of resiliency referred to as the window of tolerance. Our window of tolerance describes the physiologic and emotional bandwidth we have available to respond to various stressors in our day.
The ways that you respond to each stressor can be seen as either a movement towards up-regulation or down-regulation: you either rise to meet a perceived challenge or relax to deescalate tension, receive connection and discharge stress.
When your nervous system is inside the window of tolerance, these adjustments help you to stay inside a comfortable range of sensation. You feel resilient and able to handle change flexibly. Within this range, you are able to center yourself, your breathing and heart rate are normalized, you have access to full cognitive abilities like concentrating, making rational decisions and observing your own performance in situations. You can communicate well and connect with the people around you. You can learn new information and experience joy and pleasure.
What about when you find yourself outside your window of tolerance?
When your nervous system perceives that you aren’t safe, you might find your heartbeat racing, your breathing shallow or your thoughts racing. This is the physiological territory of fight-or-flight. You may feel as if you have less control over your response to stress (increased impulsivity). You may be more likely to snap, be argumentative, or act out of fear, anxiety or control. Or you may feel the need to leave the situation.
Other times, especially if a perceived stressor is even further overwhelming, it may put you into a freeze state. Despite the need to respond, movement and motivation feel next to impossible. Your heart rate, breathing and emotional tone may be low. You might experience temporary or longer states of depression. To some people this state feels like a place of powerlessness, shutdown, collapse or immobilizing paralysis.
Why does all of this matter?
It’s important to recognize that all of these states come from a place of evolutionary wisdom and survival. Our physiology is working appropriately when it activates us to either defend ourselves or leave unsafe situations. Similarly, freeze states allow us to rest, numb or survive overwhelming situations - or people - until it’s safe or productive to respond again (The primitive intelligence of immobilization is what allowed a prey species to play dead, tricking its predator into losing interest in the hunt while conserving energy for escape.).
Can nervous system states inter-relate with our health?
Absolutely. For example, constant nervous system activation can influence a host of symptoms like high blood pressure, anxiety, shallow breathing, digestive distress, racing thoughts, difficulty learning new information or insomnia, to name a few. Freeze states can overlap with symptoms of depression, loss of appetite or suppressed digestion, fatigue, dissociation, heavy or excessive sleep.
So, how can we apply all of this?
"The human nervous system is eminently suitable for change." – Moshe Feldenkrais
When you’re more aware of your own nervous system’s thresholds, you gain greater agency over it. You can learn when it’s best for you to practice up-regulating to respond to a stress, or practice down-regulating to discharge tension or deescalate. It’s helpful to have a healthcare provider who is conversant in nervous system states and whether or not these patterns might be particularly important in your symptom picture.
All of this has broad and far-reaching implications in both our interpersonal lives and social world as safety, stress, resiliency, stability, healing and power are all deeply inter-dependent.
In the meantime, here are some good reminders to help you nourish resiliency in your nervous system:
- MAINTAIN RHYTHM & REGULARITY: Our bodies (and hormones) love routine. Regular schedules of sleeping, waking, eating, working, exercising, resting and connecting builds your body’s capacity to handle stressors as they arise.
- ADOPT SKILLFUL PRACTICES TO RECENTER YOURSELF: Breathwork practices, music, mindfulness practices and movement/exercise that engage both the left and right sides of the body are helpful tools to modulate and re-center. You may need different styles of each to suit your specific centering needs.
- KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS AND SET BOUNDARIES: Set limits on interactions that trigger unnecessary nervous system activation or collapse.
- LEARN HOW TO WORK WITH TRAUMA + OVERWHELMING SENSATION: If you do go into fight, flight or freeze mode, get curious about it. You may want to work with a somatic (body-based) therapist to help make sense of these processes. Visit here for examples of embodied resiliency-building skills.
- NURTURE SAFE, CO-EMPOWERING RELATIONSHIPS: “A measure of liberation will be found in our capacity for intimacy.” – Prentis Hemphill. Human connection and community builds our sense of resiliency, especially when there is space for mutual support.
- OBSERVE AND REFLECT: Take time to review your daily habits and patterns. Notice when you tend to leave your window of tolerance and consider whether it feels necessary or not to repeatedly engage the same way with particular stressors.
We’ve been so conditioned to conceive of our bodies and minds as separate. Nervous system patterns are one of the many lenses showing us how inseparable from one another they really are. Destabilized physical health can influence mental and social health and vice-versa. Take care of all of you, take care of each other and reach out for help when you need.
1. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are by Dan Siegel
2. The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory and the Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, Stephen Porges
3. Healing, Resilience, and Power, Prentis Hemphill & Resilient Strategies Team via La Cura podcast
4. Resiliency Building Skills to Practice for Trauma Recovery, infographic by Heidi Hanson
5. Your Resonant Self, Sarah Peyton