When you are healing from a chronic illness, chronic anxiety or pain, settling the nervous system is key to healing. When your nervous system is amped up and you are stuck in fight-or-flight for an extended period of time, your immune system takes a hit and doesn’t function optimally, you are more quickly triggered to anxiety and your fascial system is more reactive to protect around areas that had been injured. Simply put, the body cannot heal optimally until you learn to modulate your system.
Down-regulation of the nervous system is a key skill that we can train ourselves to do. Because people come to me when they are in a heightened state, most of my work has focused on this part of the process. Receiving healing touch, learning to calm down the mind, focusing on the breath and present moment are ways to start this process. These things help to manage your system when it’s hyper-stimulated.
But what comes next? When you have been in a heightened state for a long period of time, your body starts to think that this is normal for you. So the reactivity often remains higher than it could be, and it’s quite easy to get rocked back off balance. That’s why that first trip to the gym after healing from a back injury can sometimes set you back—your body isn’t so sure yet that it’s safe to do some of these higher level tasks.
Much of the latest chronic pain science is leaning toward using a cognitive behavioral model, where the client is asked to ramp up their activities and face the very things that they are guarded against or afraid to do. This is done in a controlled way, so as to not just go from zero to sixty and create a situation that causes more aversion and fear. Essentially, protecting your sense of safety is a key component to healing. This process begins by respecting your body and your fears and being empathetic. It requires listening deeply and resting and taking it easy—learning to down-regulate. But if we stop there, we are only feeling safe within a very small bubble.
Just as our bodies became accustomed to living hyper-vigilantly, it also becomes accustomed to this “safe-bubble”. So we must work to expand our bubble. This is where gradual and safe exercise starts to come into play. (If you’re dealing with anxiety, you gradually expose yourself to that which creates a little bit of fear). The good news, is once you learn how to down-regulate, you already are equipped with the tools you need in case you “overdo it”.
I recommend working with a pro when you start this process: If you’re trying to increase activity, work with a PT or trainer to give you gradient exercises. If you’re working with your mental health, use a good therapist who can help you. The MFR table is a great place to be safely nudged out of your comfort zone. And if you’re dealing with introducing new foods to a digestive system that hasn’t seen many of them for a while, work with a nutritionist or functional medicine practitioner. Support really does help this part of a process. No matter what realm you are expanding, you are working with your body-brain. You are communicating to it, “Hey, look—we can stretch a little further and we are still okay.”
Research has shown that the physiologic mechanism for stretching a muscle is not that we are increasing actual tissue extensibility—we are training our brains to feel safe to move in a new range of motion. This same phenomenon can be applied to any type of stretching.
If a sense of safety is the key to growth, building strength is a great way to communicate that assurance. Again, you can start with the physical body. If your back hurts, get the hips and legs and back stronger—then it won’t feel the need to be in spasm quite so often. If your shoulder is talking to you, find stability in your shoulder blade and the little muscles around your shoulder joint. If you’re healing from a broken heart, who can you reach out to for strength? What kind of resources do you have that make you feel mentally strong enough to dive back into vulnerable intimacy again? Without the strength, your body-brain is going to panic if you stretch too far. Luckily, we can always build our strength back up.
When I first started work as a physical therapist, I remember getting orders from the doctors to work with “hot packs and ultrasound only” if someone had low back pain. Even then, I knew this was a bit short-sighted, but many of us believed that rest and calming us down was the main focus of treating pain. Then, once they calmed down, we could add activity. Usually that started with stretching, and then maybe we would start to add strength.
Sometimes there is a period of time when rest is appropriate. Sometimes people need to feel the relief of stretches first. But now we have learned that creating a sense of strength early on can often help people to recover more quickly. If you feel stable, you can suddenly bend over to pick something up without your body freaking out. If you establish trust with a friend or a lover, it’s much easier to be vulnerable. Your heart can open naturally, because it feels safe to do so. On the flip-side, if you keep pushing your body or your heart to open when it’s unsafe, your nervous system will continue to react and tighten more—or worse, you can override the signals to the point where it simply gives up trying to protect you and an injury occurs.
Growth requires bravery—you need to be willing to take a risk and go outside your comfort zone if you want your world to expand. When you’ve been through a storm that has assaulted your nervous system, you have had a first-hand look at the negative results that can happen when you take a risk. So you need to be even braver when you recover. The good news is that you have developed a tool-kit that arms you with all that you need to walk into that new landscape. You may have a “weakened” area that needs to move more slowly toward growth. But you also have a greater capacity to recover from harm. You know how to do it.