Resiliency Blog Part 2: Our Bodies and Self-Regulation
One of the 5 Core Resiliency Factors
Drawn from Dr. J. Eric Gentry’s Professional Resiliency and Optimization Training and used with his permission.
Written by Julie Ballew, LCPC, CCFP
“We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress.”
Imagine that you are a zebra and a lion is chasing after you trying to eat you for lunch. What is going on in your body? If you answered that your “fight or flight” response or your Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, then you are right. When we perceive a threat to our lives, our body reacts and physiologically changes in big ways in an effort to keep us safe. For example, stress hormones flood our bodies to power our muscles to either defend ourselves or run away with all our might. We become focused only on dealing with the threat and stop relying on our senses to perceive the rest of the environment around us. Also, it becomes more difficult for us to use the parts of our brain (frontal and temporal lobes) that are responsible for formal thought, problem solving, abstract thinking, concentration, empathy and putting our thoughts/experiences to words. Ever find that it is hard to stay focused when you are stressed out? This is why.
It is a really good thing that our bodies naturally react to perceived threats by activating our Sympathetic Nervous System…it is a key reason why the human race has survived this long. However, we humans are different from our animal friends in that we can just think about a stressor or potential threat and our bodies will react as if our life is in danger. For example, you can be at home perfectly safe and recall a time when a colleague belittled you in front of the boss and get all amped up again. In this instance, you feel threatened by your coworker and what they are saying about you. Your life is NOT in danger; yet, your body does not know the difference and reacts by turning on your fight or flight response. If you are like most of us, then you likely spend a good chunk of your life unnecessarily living in Sympathetic dominance. In other words, you spend too much time being chased by a lion that isn’t there. We can so easily get all worked up with temporarily energized bodies and then fall into exhaustion. We are also left with brains that aren’t functioning at full capacity. Our fears, worries, anxieties, pain and stressors tend to grow and we feel like we are not in control. Additionally, many of our relationships suffer and we often find ourselves reacting to life instead of being able to intentionally respond in ways that are congruent with our values.
However, there is good news! We can learn to control our Autonomic Nervous System and inhibit our fight or flight response. We do that by practicing self-regulation. Simply put, self-regulation means scanning our body, finding a muscle(s) that is tense, and relaxing it. It’s a fairly elementary idea that has profound effects on our bodies, minds, relationships and overall sense of well-being. However, it is incredibly difficult to practice. For example, on a good day, I practice self-regulation roughly a couple hundred times. Why? Because I am consistently perceiving threats. In fact, as I write this blog, my current perceived threat is that you, the reader, may judge me incompetent. So, I can either choose to continue to let my fears leave me in a tense body and unclear mind, or I can relax my tight neck muscles and continue to share some with you strategies to boost your ability to live a resilient life. I choose the latter. By practicing self-regulation, we all can maintain control of how we respond to and live in a world in which we cannot control much else.
There are other more “formal” ways to practice self-regulation. If interested in learning more, I direct you to “Forward-Facing Trauma Therapy: Healing the Moral Wound” by J. Eric Gentry, PhD and/or "Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping” by Robert Sapolsky.
Julie Ballew, LCPC, CCFP has over a decade of experience working in the mental health field. Her professional interests include: promoting resiliency, trauma recovery, anxiety, depression, and couples counseling. Following her passions, she completed advanced training to become a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional (CCFP). As a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and Counseling at the University of Montana, she balances her studies, a part-time private counseling practice, and psychometry work. Additionally, Julie facilitates parent education and compassion fatigue seminars. She can often be found along a mountain trail with her beloved husband and dogs.