Have You Checked in With Your Nervous System? Subtle Signs Your Mental Health Needs Attention

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Mother holding infant stares out a window with back to cameraThe nervous system is often referred to as the “heart of our experiences” and internal surveillance systems. Our fight, flight and freeze response. From our experiences, we adapt our survival responses which can become habitual automatic responses later in life. When we adapt to “survive” it may not be in the way that you think. It’s as subtle as constantly being told by your caregivers that you’re “too emotional,” “sensitive” or “dramatic” as a child. Left unresolved, some adults may shut down or avoid talking about their feelings or expressing their emotions, damaging their mental health. For someone who has developed this pattern, they have learned in childhood that it was unsafe to express their emotions and that adaptation has become a pattern of shutting down and avoidance, even when no one is telling them anymore that they are “dramatic” or “too sensitive.” 

Welcome to your nervous system.  

This isn’t about “thinking more positively.” Have you ever been told that advice, tried it, and you still experienced the anxiety? Your nervous system is more than just the memories and thoughts in your mind. It lives within your body. And, well…the truth is many of us live with these unresolved adaptations of safety, also considered, activated nervous systems. These experiences are contrary to general belief around what is considered trauma or to be “traumatic.” Oftentimes, we don’t consider having parents who didn’t validate our feelings or model emotional intelligence as “traumatic,” and unfortunately, this is pretty common. Common enough, where people don’t seek therapy to resolve these adaptations and may even be unaware of these patterns in the first place. 

Signals You’re Living With an Activated Nervous System:

  1. You create stress in your body without being in a stressful situation. Here’s an example: You’re doing the dishes, or taking a shower and you start to think about all the things your partner does that gets under your skin, or an argument you had with an old coworker three years ago, and all the things you should have said, or relive the fight.  
  2. Constantly adjusting to others expectations or feelings. Trouble setting boundaries and telling others what you want, or how you feel. Also known as people pleasing. 
  3. You’re always “doing.” On the move, can’t sit down and believe you have to “stay busy.” 
  4. Ignoring the signals in your body. Ignoring the urge to rest, to go to the bathroom, or eat food. 
  5. Overachieving (or underachieving). Chronically doing what’s perceived as “above and beyond,” to show others, and yourself, that you are valuable. Or, oppositely, making yourself small if you believe others have more value than yourself. 

What was once a behavior developed to survive your environment and get your needs met as a child, may now be a pattern in your adulthood that is impacting your relationships, abilities to live in alignment with your values, the quality of your physical health and mental health.

So, What Can I Do About It?

  1. Have more compassion for yourself. You developed these patterns for an important reason, to get through situations you had no control over, oftentimes as a child. When these patterns come up, quiet the harsh inner voice, and remind yourself you are safe, and that this will take time to heal. 
  2. Move your body. When our nervous systems are activated it often takes us out of our body. Move in a way that helps bring you back. Turn up the music and dance like no one’s watching, go for a walk, stretch or shake out your limbs. 
  3. Bring yourself back to what you’re doing. That means if you’re doing the dishes and you’re thinking of that argument you had three years ago, try and interrupt this and come back to what you’re doing. “I am putting soap on the sponge and picking up this plate. The warm water is running over my hands. Man, this pan is filthy.” 
  4. Do one small thing for yourself every day. This can be as small as having a glass of water every morning before your cup of coffee. Practice good self-care.
  5. Make time for therapy. Your mental health is worth the effort.

An activated nervous system looks different for every person, and this article certainly won’t cover them all. What I hope is that it is just enough to spark some thought in the person reading this to look deeper, and minimize any shame you may carry from what started as a survival response to your environment, and can’t be cured by “thinking more positively.” 

 

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Originally from right over the border in Attleboro, MA, my family and I have lived in Northern RI for about 3 years now. We love raising our growing family here. I'm a licensed therapist in RI and MA and currently do private practice therapy. Outside of work, we love to spend time exploring nearby parks, hiking trails, playing outside and keeping it pretty low key with spending time at home, watching movies, and having play dates with our friends.

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