What nervous system state am I in? (Never stop asking why)
Updated: May 18
I've recieved many different mental health diagnoses over the years, all from different health care providers. It became more and more shameful each time I would go to see a new provider and received whatever diagnosis of the moment they chose to throw at me and the symptoms I was experiencing. Over the close to twenty years that I was lost within the healthcare system, I was given the following diagnoses:
Anxiety Disorder NYD (Not yet diagnosed)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Major Depressive Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder
Substance Abuse Disorder
and the list goes on...
Notice the constant in all of these labels. Disorder. It rings through. This is actually the first time that I've written them all down at once and looked at it. My medical record must just light up like a Christmas tree. Until now, it has been too hard for me to look at this list in its entirety because of the immense shame and stigma attached to it. If I were to internalize these labels and believe them to be ‘who I am’ (ie. I am obsessive compulsive, borderline, an alcoholic, depressed etc. etc.) it would be pretty clear and easy for me to believe that I am ‘majorly disordered’ at my core. And I did believe that for a long time. The heaviness and weight of these labels clung to me for years, ringing in the back of my head whenever I wanted to get close to somebody. 'But you're so disordered' the voice in my head would say, 'and eventually they'll find out about it and not want to be near you anymore. You’re not worthy’.
I am so immensely grateful that my journey has taken me to a place where I have had the opportunity to begin to educate myself with new ideas and modalities that were never a part of the mainstream narrative that I was previously fed.
Never in all of the years that I received these different diagnosis was there any education, communication or awareness around the possible reasons or purpose behind the distress that I was experiencing and the coping tools that I had so adaptively chosen. I was told that it was random, genetic or given no explanation at all aside from that good old chemical imbalance theory.
However, when you get that many labels over the span of two decades you start to begin to want to question things a bit. At least I did. You especially start to question things when the solutions that are presented to you do not actually help. My sense is that this is when labels like ‘treatment resistant’ get tossed around placing the notion of further ‘dysfunction’ onto the individual rather than on the system for the its inability to effectively help them.
Throughout the years I was told many different things by health care providers whenever I would want to delve more deeply into what was going on with me. The most common and prevalent response that I was given was 'don't ask why'. I was very literally told those exact words by a practitioner here in Kenora about six years ago when I was presenting with severe anxiety. ‘What you need to do is just stop asking why and just accept it’ they said to me as they stared into my eyes with concern. They may as well have added ‘and shut up and take your pills like a good girl’. I felt completely and utterly deflated, disempowered and at a loss. The pills weren’t helping, I was in immense pain and I was being told to just accept that this was just the way it was going to be - indefinitely.
I am so extremely glad that I listened to that voice deep within me that told me to continue asking WHY, despite being told by that professional to ignore it, as it lead me to find answers that were so monumentally empowering, life altering and supportive for me.
Gradually, I began to explore and reach outside of what I was being told by the system and eventually one of the things my learning and experiences lead me towards was an understanding of the key role that the autonomic nervous system plays in my health and wellbeing.
The first time I was exposed to this information was when I attended a Trauma Sensitive yoga teacher training in 2016. The training manual explained to me how, just like all mammals, we as humans have survival based nervous system responses that are the product of the degree of threat and safety that exists in our immediate environments. What's more, we also have an unbelievably intelligent internal threat detector system in our brains that stores sensory memories of anything that was threatening to us in the past. This threat detector is called neuroception and it functions completely outside of our conscious awareness. In other words, we don’t choose what to be aware or fearful of, these stored, unconscious experiences do, and they can speak very loudly, even if we don’t consciously want them to.
For example, let's say that years ago when I was listening to 'Wonderwall' by Oasis something scary and threatening happened to me in that moment, like getting in a car accident or being mugged on the street. In the future, every time I heard the song Wonderwall it is possible that my limbic system would associate that song with the painful and dangerous experience that I had had years before and would cause my nervous system to go into one of the three main nervous system survival responses - fight, flight or freeze. Maybe the song is playing on the radio as I wait in line at the bank. Suddenly my pulse begins to race and I feel a panic attack arise. It feels confusing to me because I’m not consciously aware of the song. Or maybe my concious brain doesn’t even make the connection to the song having been played all those years ago during the original event. All I know is my stress hormones are sky rocketing and I’m running towards the exit.
Our system is so incredibly protective and brilliant that it doesn't only remember these hugely threatening and life altering experiences, but it also remembers the tiny threats in our day to day lives too. Things like smaller interpersonal stressors and/or moments where we somehow felt ashamed, disconnected or embarrassed. Our brains and nervous systems can even store body based memories from before we were able to speak and/or make concious sense of the world around us. These are called pre-verbal memories and are experienced primarily as body sensations with no thoughts or cognitive stories attached to them.
It was through all of this learning that I started to understand that much of what I was experiencing as 'anxiety' was actually the 'flight' nervous system response, and what I was experiencing as depression was the 'freeze' response. My body was actively responding to real or perceived threats that it was remembering from my past. Even if there wasn't anything inherantly dangerous in my life right now my body was remembering what had happened and was trying to protect me. We are, after all, brilliant survival machines. Understanding this gave me context for so many of my ‘out of control’ symptoms.
These ideas are the foundation for what has been named #polyvagaltheory, a theory developed and named by Dr. Stephen Porges and aptly described as #thescienceofsafety. Polyvagal theory allows us to learn and understand which nervous system state we are in in any given moment and teaches us tools to begin to actively and conciously change that state. And I'll give you a hint - it does not involve just telling ourselves to 'cheer up' or 'calm down'. Our bodies and our nervous systems do not respond to words. Since these symptoms are coming from the nervous system, we have to speak to them using the language of the nervous system, using body based or 'bottom up' methods of communication. We need to take full deep, belly breaths when we’re anxious, go for a run when we’re depressed and connect with emotionally safe and soothing loved one (pets count!) when we’re frozen or numb.
Polyvagal Theory also acknowledeges the power of what's called co-regulation. Sometimes, it is too difficult or not possible for us to come out of those nervous system survival states on our own. This was certainly the case for me. When we are born the human nervous system is undeveloped. We depend on the connection and what's called attunement from our caretakers in order for our nervous systems to learn how to regulate. If our environments are unsafe or chaotic or our parents are stressed and unable to connect with us in an attuned way, our systems will not develop in a way that allows us to easily self regulate, and we will be more dependent on things outside of ourselves to bring our systems into a regulated state. In these cases, we can connect with another nervous system in a way that feels safe to us and essentially 'attune' to that system. This will support our own nervous system to regulate and find a sense of equilibrium, rest, calm and safety. This, I’ve learned, can be one of the huge benefits of having a safe and comfortable relationship with a good trauma informed therapist, form secure functioning friendships and/or romantic relationships, or even more simply, engaging in connective community activities like being a member of a yoga studio, church or a sports team.
If there was one thing that all of the diagnoses that I received over the years have in common it's this - they all involve extreme nervous system dysregulation. Not being able to calm myself down, or pick myself up, or make myself move when I needed to. Having this information helped me understand how so many of the ‘maladaptive behaviours’ that lead to diagnosis were all aimed at somehow trying to regulate my poor, stressed nervous system. I would do things like drink alcohol when I was overwhelmed, activated or triggered (ie. the flight response), self harm when I was feeling detached, disconnected and lethargic (ie. the freeze response) and lash out when I was feeling angry, threatened or unsafe (ie. the fight response). What’s more, when my survival defences were triggered, the rational, logical ‘thinking’ part of my brain (prefrontal cortex) would turn off. My system didn’t need me to rationalize and plan. It needed me to survive - that’s all it cares about, and that is incredible. That is the opposite of disordered or maladaptive. That is brilliant, protective, adaptive, intuitive, smart.
Having this newfound physiological perspective on so much of what I was experiencing helped me to understand it in a much more compassionate way. I also understood how much of what I had experienced had initially been outside of my control. So many of our coping strategies can carry so much shame, blame and self loathing. We can't understand why we can't 'just stop' certain things, or why we would even engage in them at all. This self loathing only perpetuates the dysregulation and disconnection that we are trying to regulate in the first place, thus creating a viscious cycle that is very challenging to break free of. Add into the mix any interpersonal or relational trauma and you find yourself in quite a stuck spot. Not being able to easily self regulate and/or fearing connection (therefore finding co-regulation challenging as well) is a very easy set up for many coping strategies that are deeply shamed by society in general such as using substances, binge eating, self harm and other very traditionally stigmatized behaviours.
This was the cycle that I unknowingly found myself in for two decades after the separation of my parents at seventeen. Having grown up in an emotionally unsafe family environment with a large amount of unprocessed generational trauma and then having my family unit disintegrate in my late teens did not provide my nervous system with the ability to learn how to soothe and regulate on its own. Chronic and consistent stressful experiences inside and outside of the home created a state of ongoing toxic stress with no safe place for processing. As a result, my nervous system was in a constant state of dysregulation and my body was holding stress from events that had happened years and years and years ago. I was always doing my best, and sometimes my best was using coping tools that were not healthy for me in the long run. They were, however, all I had and all I knew at the time, and they were pretty freaking resourceful, considering. They kept me going. They kept me alive. They helped me to survive. My experiences of going to medical practitioners and being repeatedly told that I was disordered in many different ways exacerbated my symptoms. I was already carrying shame and was very shut down, I didn't need to know what else was wrong with me.
I want to make it clear that I don't want to entirely negate the use and potential benefit of diagnosis and labels for some individuals in specific circumstances. I can completely appreciate that diagnosis can perhaps bring clarity and relief and understanding to individuals looking to understand their own experiences. It is my belief, however, that if these labels and dianosis are given without context or perhaps without understanding of some of the very reasonable and physiological reasons for many of the symptoms that come along with them, it can leave one trapped in a belief system that sees themselves as flawed, helpless, powerless and broken. Furthermore, labels have historically been used definitively, to describe ‘life long’ conditions that require pharmacological approaches indefinitely. But if there is anything that I have learned about the brain and nervous system, it is that it is adaptable, flexible, malleable - essentially it is plastic. Through something called #neuroplasticity, we have the ability to ‘reprogram’ our systems through repeated, ongoing experiences of safety and connection. This can feel strange at first and even threatening if it is unfamiliar to our systems. But, gradually, with practice and effort, is IS possible for our systems to adapt to this new normal. Just as it adapted to the threatening experiences that we were previously exposed to. There is hope. All is not lost.
And I suppose that's why I wanted to write this post. Hope. Understanding my nervous system and beginning to be able to ask myself the question ‘What nervous system state am I in?’ in any given moment is helping me to have a great deal more compassion for myself and my experience. It is empowering me to be able to make choices for myself that support my system in coming into balance and regulation. Even just understanding the WHY has helped me to navigate those states with so much more grace, confidence and power than I was ever able to do in the past. It has also helped me to endure painful states more easily having an understanding of WHY they're there and knowing that they won't last forever. In essence, the WHY is not only incredibly important, it is everything.
So, to the health care practitioner who looked me in the eye and told me to 'stop asking why' I want you to know that I am so beyond grateful that you said that to me because it gave me the important life experience of choosing to hear and listen to my own internal guidance system despite the invalidation, despite the gaslighting, despite what the professionals were telling me, and then discovering that that voice was, in fact, leading me towards exactly what was right for me.
And that is what I want to encourage of anyone reading this. I want you all to hear my story and hear the power in listening to that calm, steady voice inside of you that speaks your own truth to you, despite what the textbooks, evidence based treatments and professonals tell you. Because it is that voice that will lead you to what works best for YOU. And if that involves taking pharmaceuticals and/or accepting a diagnosis that feels right and empowering for you, then that is wonderful, as well. Its your journey, after all, not mine.
Never let anyone, no matter what their title, tell you what your truth is. You are the one living in your body. You are the one living your experiences. And you are the one who will guide yourself, one step at a time, towards your own best version of support, freedom, relief, empowerment and understanding.