*Disclosure: While this article discusses life-or-death situations for the animal kingdom, it is not designed to discuss life-or-death situations or PTSD for humans, but rather ways to conceptualize Generalized Anxiety Disorder. 

Almost every living being on this planet has a nervous system. It was one of the first systems that developed within us and our animal ancestors. Have you ever thought of the origins of why we say we are feeling “nervous”? We use this term because it is in our nervous system where many of our emotions live. Our nervous system sends cortisol and other stress hormones between the brain and the body. If you want to hack your anxiety, get to know your nervous system and learn to regulate it! 

Rest and Digest


When our Parasympathetic Nervous System is online, it is known as being in the “rest and digest” state. In the animal kingdom, this can be envisioned as an antelope grazing peacefully in a herd or cubs lightheartedly playing together. I like to think of my dog in this state when she is lying on her back with her belly and legs up, with a real (or imagined) smile on her face. This state can be identified by breathing deeply, noticing a lack of tension in our bodies. It is having access to hunger cues, and experiencing a sense of peace, calm, or joy. The scientific function of this state is to help our bodies conserve energy. This way we have the energy needed to effectively respond when a stressor does arise. Unfortunately, however, many never know, or rarely experience this nervous system state. Some may often feel they are “stuck” in flight, fight, or freeze.

Let’s take a closer look at these other nervous system states to better understand their function. We can see how they serve us so that we can hack our anxiety and better know our nervous system.

Flight

The Flight Response is part of the Sympathetic Nervous System Response. This means our nervous system’s response to stressors or threats in our environments. This is a natural, and innate, response to fear. 

This response is why the gazelle knows to run away from the lion. This is why the squirrel runs away from my dog up the tree. The desire to flee from a situation can present as tingly sensations in your legs, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, urges to run away or escape, or patterns of avoidance altogether. Observe when these sensations arise for you. Nervous System Regulation doesn’t mean “never feeling fearful.” It means learning how to work with your nervous system and build its resiliency to return to its more restful state once the threat has passed. 

Fight

The Fight Response is also part of the Sympathetic Nervous System Response. This means our nervous system’s response to stressors or threats in our environments. This is a natural, and innate, response to anger and fear. This response is why hyenas could fight off a lion. This is why my dog growls when she sees a very scary balloon floating in the air. The desire to fight a situation can present as heat rising in your body, clenched fists and jaw. It includes “lashing out”, hitting, saying rude comments one later regrets and didn’t mean, slamming doors, or yelling. Observe when these sensations arise for you. Nervous System Regulation doesn’t mean “never feeling angry.” It means learning how to work with your nervous system and build its resiliency to return to its more restful state once the threat has passed. 

Freeze

The Freeze Response is also part of the Sympathetic Nervous System Response. This means our nervous system’s response to threats or stressors in our environments. This is a natural, and innate, response when assessing if fighting or fleeing will lead to the safest outcome. Imagine a rabbit freezing when it sees you walking by, as it tries to calculate the best escape plan. Consider a zebra’s ears perking up when hearing lions approaching or my dog dropping what she is doing to pause, perk her ears, and tilt her head to assess the threat of the siren passing by. 

While the freeze response can be a very helpful response in strategically planning one’s next move, it can also lead to total shutdown. If it’s subconsciously decided that fleeing or fighting likely won’t lead to safety, the body can try a third option, which is “playing dead” or “shutting down”. This is the body’s very clever way to ultimately stop when it reaches its capacity of what it feels it can handle. Think of a possum “playing dead” to escape a predator. If the predator thinks it is already dead, it may not trigger the predator’s chase response to attack it, therefore leaving the possum and searching for its next meal elsewhere. In humans, this aspect of the freeze response can present as numbness, holding your breath, feeling paralyzed, dissociation, and procrastination. This is similar to fear but taken to the next extreme. This is experienced when fear reaches the point of total overwhelm. Observe when these sensations arise for you. Nervous System Regulation doesn’t mean “never feeling overwhelmed”, it means learning how to work with your nervous system and build its resiliency to return to its more restful state once the threat has passed. 

One Difference Between Animals and Humans 

The difference between animals and humans is that animals are very in tune with their bodies. When they have these intense nervous system responses, they also have the innate tools to discharge excess energy to return to homeostasis (in this case, the parasympathetic nervous response). I have observed this by watching my dog “stress shake” after playing too roughly with another dog or becoming too frustrated if she is not understanding the training command. We, as humans, due to societal influences and what we have learned is acceptable about emotions have since been disconnected from our innate wisdom in how to discharge, or regulate, this energy in the body. 

Book a session with one of our wonderful therapists to learn how hack your anxiety, regulate and get to know your nervous system, and build your resilience to cope with stress.

Article written by Jessica Dattalo, LCSW, a licensed Chicago therapist who specializes in treating a variety of mental health disorders with evidence based treatments. To schedule an appointment with her or one of our other therapists, contact intake@cityscapecounseling.com

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