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Depression: It’s Not You, It’s Your Nervous System

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“Stigma” is a word we frequently hear in reference to mental health. There is still a stigma around talking about depression and other mental illnesses. Sometimes, it even prevents people from accessing treatment. One reason stigma persists is because there are still some who believe people can control their depression or should be able to fix it on their own. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. When we learn how the nervous system works, we start to understand that anxiety and depression are caused by dysregulation and not a lack of willpower.

More and more researchers are discovering that problems with our nervous system are the root cause of many illnesses, including mental illness and many chronic health conditions. Specifically, when our autonomic nervous system becomes dysregulated, we respond using our “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex, which has dire effects on the body and brain. When explaining how a nervous system becomes dysregulated, I often use the metaphor of the tiger in the corner of the room. If you have anxiety, it’s as if you are constantly protecting yourself from the metaphorical tiger by bracing your muscles and being hypervigilant. For those with depression, it’s as if you are aware of the tiger, but know there is nothing you can do about it, so you enter into a freeze state. Neither of these responses is conscious; it’s how our bodies react to perceived threats.

Any traumatic event can be a disruption to the nervous system. Some people think they have not been exposed to trauma, but once you understand the many types of trauma, you will see there are few people who escape it. For example, we inherit our nervous system from our ancestors, and with it, we inherit their trauma. This is referred to as “ancestral trauma.” In addition, our nervous system acclimates to the people around us—if their nervous system is dysregulated, ours will be as well. We also may have repressed trauma or trauma that happened prior to the age of three when we start to have long-term memories. Even environmental trauma, such as exposure to certain bacteria, viruses, or chemicals, can harm our nervous systems; this is in addition to what is more traditionally referred to as trauma, like tragedies or violence. Essentially, few people can be exposed to some trauma and not experience its impact on the nervous system. Although there are some people who resilient nervous systems and bounce back quickly from these factors, many of us are greatly impacted and may not even know it’s happening.    

When your nervous system has been dysregulated for many years, “fight, flight, or freeze” becomes your default setting. You may feel restless and jittery even when doing low-energy activities or be so checked out that all you can do is sit on the couch and watch television. Feeling calm and present becomes foreign, so it’s almost uncomfortable when it happens. Unconsciously, you start doing whatever it takes to remain in an activated state.

So, now that you know that your nervous system controls your mood, is there anything you can do about it? The answer is yes.

One way to help regulate your nervous system is to literally “get out of your head.” Most people in a dysregulated state have racing thoughts and little awareness below the shoulders. You can start to feel more “embodied” by learning grounding techniques, such as feeling your feet on the earth or feeling the energy in your hands. Another way to do this is by using “body scan” meditations. These guided meditations walk you through how to feel into your body and draw your energy downward.

 Another gold standard for calming the nervous system is traditional meditation. Sitting still and breathing reminds your nervous system that you are safe and can stop guarding yourself from the tiger, which is why it has gained traction in recent years as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. However, people with a dysregulated nervous system have a difficult time sitting still in silence. Start slowly and use a guided meditation (you can find many free meditations online). Using a guided meditation helps keep intrusive thoughts at bay. You can start with one minute a day and work up to ten minutes, which is about the amount of time your body needs to go from activated to calm.

Consider activities in your life that help you feel calm. If you increase the frequency and do them intentionally, these activities will help regulate your nervous system over time. Maybe you enjoy drawing or walking in nature. The more time you spend in a calm, regulated state the more it starts to feel familiar and the more you will notice when you feel outside of that state. The sooner you can recognize your nervous system is activating, the quicker you can intervene to pull yourself back to a calm, centered place.

If you have severe anxiety or depression, you may consider somatic psychotherapy, which is a type of therapy that focuses on the nervous system. In this type of therapy, a trained therapist will ask you questions about the sensations in your body in order to move stuck energy. It is effective in treating mental illness and trauma.

The most important thing to remember is that anxiety and depression are not your fault. When your nervous system isn’t regulated, it’s very difficult to “think or talk” your way out of it. If you have anxiety or depression, know that it can get better. If you know someone with anxiety or depression, approach them from a place of compassion. We are all truly doing the best we can within the confines of our nervous system.

Kerry J. Heckman is a freelance writer and therapist based in Seattle. She authors a wellness & lifestyle blog called Words Heal and writes about health, chronic illness, and travel. You can also follow her healing journey on Twitter and Instagram.

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