Today’s card was an invitation to concentrate on my nervous system. I decided to reflect on the state of balance between my sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In case you are unfamiliar with these terms, our sympathetic system is the system that responds to emergency situations and either compels us to fight against a threat or to flee from it. Our parasympathetic system can cause a collapse response but also dominates when we are relaxing. Both systems activate (although the parasympathetic response is stronger) when we have a freeze response to a threat. This article go into great detail about how each system works.
As I’ve shared previously, I am someone for whom threats seem to be everywhere. Given that I have PTSD, I scan every environment in which I find myself for possible dangers and stand ready to activate my sympathetic system at a moment’s notice. After being on T the last six months, I have observed an increase in the likelihood of a fight response, which is helpful in some ways as I do not feel as immobilized by anxiety as I did in the past. For example, I’ve started to engage in a confrontational way on a social media site, something I would have never done before and which feels as though it is channeling my general state of hostility. On the whole, whether it is to escape or confront, my sympathetic system turns on in many situations where it is not necessarily needed.
I also struggle at times with my parasympathetic system activating after chronic stress. This leads me to withdraw from others and detach internally through dissociation. My issues with dissociation seem to have gotten better after starting T, but I am struggling mightily with engaging socially. This article explained the Polyvagal Theory, which I’d only read about previously in passing, and has left me with the impression that connecting in a calm, happy state with others involves different body-brain pathways than dissociation or fight-flight. It also postulates that PTSD is related to swinging from active systems of reacting intensely to stimuli and passive systems of shutting off.
Dysregulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are linked with a ridiculously long list of negative health outcomes and ultimately early death. I think this knowledge only serves to increase my anger at others, both my parents whose behaviors set me down this path and the people in my current life who add to my reactivity through their inconsiderate actions. Side note: Hostility was also noted as an outcome! It feels very unpleasant to read an entire scientific journal article that lays out detail after detail to which I can perfectly relate, and to feel relatively helpless to make changes because the structure of my brain and nervous system have been so altered through my experiences.
The one positive note I found at the very bottom of the article was that mindfulness practices have been shown to have some efficacy in addressing PTSD symptoms. This has been my lived experience; the main pathway through which I’ve reduced my dissociation has been through present-moment awareness. I feel a renewed commitment to this practice after this scientifically-grounded confirmation.
The switch I seem unable to flip is that of neuroception, meaning that I unconsciously conclude nearly every place I’m in and person I’m around is unsafe. I don’t feel consciously safe either. There isn’t necessarily an internal conflict as I genuinely believe most people cannot be trusted and most physical environments hold hidden dangers. I think I will pay more attention to tracking where and when I have a sense of safety, in order to examine whether there are any consistent features of my physical or social surroundings that assist with achieving this perception.
I watched the movie “Angel Has Fallen” yesterday (spoiler alert). The last scene was a spot-on representation of PTSD. Both the son and the father experienced negative effects of fighting in wars. They wanted to work on healing together, so they went to a “Zero Gravity” treatment center where they got into sensory deprivation tanks. The scene shows each of them gently floating on their backs in their own pool of water while wearing a swimsuit. They are both starting to relax and then, unexpectedly, the lights are turned off (to increase the sensory deprivation). They both start to immediately freak out. I think that scene will stick with me for a while as it so perfectly represented the reactivity of the nervous system, even in moments of calm, for people with PTSD. If you have PTSD, what is the interaction you observe between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems? What, if you read them, did you note in the linked articles that connects with your experience? Which environments and/or practices grant you the highest degree of a sense of safety?