Original article featured in The Evening Standard January 2023
Change doesn’t have to be hard. So often our new year’s resolutions end up feeling like a fight – one that around 90% of us end up losing. So how do we create the change and growth we crave, with less effort and more success? To answer this question, we need to see ourselves through the lens of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) - and to do so is quite a revelation.
When our (ANS) is in a stressed state we call sympathetic dominance, we feel anxious and emotionally overwhelmed. We will often feel lost in worry or over thinking, and struggle with decision making and brain fog. In stress dominance, we tend to experience cognitive dissonance – a state where our actions don’t align with our values or intentions. This is because stress diminishes executive brain function and our ability to self-direct. For example, we say we aren’t going to drink on weeknights, yet find ourselves glass in hand on a Thursday (or a Monday). We make a commitment not to shout at our kids anymore, but a few hours later we are screaming across the kitchen. We would like to feel stronger or calmer, so we join the gym or start meditating, which goes well for a while, but then we somehow lose our motivation. We try to practice better boundaries and saying no more often, but when someone calls, we say, “yes of course”, and hang up the phone feeling confused and frustrated. Sustained states of sympathetic dominance also create issues with digestion, pain, compromised immune function, high blood pressure and heart irregularities.
Most of us are stuck in stressed states – partly because we live in a world that demands too much of us, and partly because our nervous systems have been holding stored stress since childhood. Stress and trauma are the accidental inheritance of many modern families – no matter how privileged our life may have seemed, and no matter how much we believe we were loved.
When the ANS reaches its threshold of tolerance and the stress becomes too much to sustain, we experience a state of collapse called dorsal vagal. In this nervous system state, we feel hopeless, stuck, depressed, and numb. Shame, voicelessness, and difficulty connecting with others also exist here, as do metabolic issues, low blood pressure, and fatigue.
When the ANS is in a balanced state known as ventral vagal, we feel joyful, calm, and energised. Here our mind is sharp but not noisy, social engagement comes easily, and we feel emotionally balanced - able to respond rather than react even in the most challenging of moments.
It is a wonderful thing to realise that we have a stressed nervous system, and not an endless list of unrelated issues. As we learn to release stored stress and regulate our emotional states in healthy ways, the ANS stabilises, and radical change begins to ripple out across the landscape of our lives. Using simple tricks and tools, things that take a few minutes here and there, such as diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation practices and somatic mindfulness techniques, we can begin to moderate the stress levels in our body. As our nervous system heals, all-encompassing wellbeing starts to feel within reach.