The ability to react to threat is an evolutionary adaptation that has contributed to the survival and success of our species. Our bodies have developed what is called the Autonomic Nervous System so that we can instantly switch all our resources to saving ourselves when we are in danger, or when we believe we are. The system has two possibilities: the Sympathetic Nervous System that enables us to fight, flee or freeze and the Parasympathetic Nervous System which allows us to relax, rest and digest.
Humans need a certain amount of stress in order to feel alive, and that varies according to the individual, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For example, it is more possible to deal positively with stress if we feel personally resourced. Physical fitness, skill, experience and being part of a trusted team all resource us for facing the inevitable stress in our lives. If we are ill, or alone, or feeling overwhelmed we have fewer resources to call on.
Problems can arise when individuals have been in stressful situations for long periods. Staff in the NHS may well be feeling like this in these post-Covid times, so might teachers and others who have been responding to what has been an extraordinary challenge. The fight, flight, freeze aspect of the nervous system is permanently active, allowing no time for the body to rest and restore itself. This can affect our breathing, digestion and the immune system and, potentially, any part of the body.
It has repercussions for our mental health too. Being unable to switch off, we can lose our delight in the small, but essential aspects of being. Having no resources left to enjoy relationships is a common consequence. Life becomes meaningless and hollow, the future bleak... Some people describe this as depression. Our minds and imaginations can become over-active and keep us in a constant state of anxiety, affecting sleep and the ability to relax generally.
What can we do?
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