How we can recover from extreme stress


Extreme stress can feel really unpleasant but sometimes we may not even be aware that the symptoms that we are experiencing are due to extreme stress, let alone how to recover from it.

You may be struggling with anxiety, overthinking, you might feel exhausted and under the weather.  But you may not initially make that link to the root cause of your unpleasant experiences.

So what I wanted to talk about today is some of the ways that extreme stress can manifest itself.  And in order to do that we will take a look at the different nervous system states, how they feel and the role that they play.

The ventral vagal nervous system state

When we’re feeling very calm, and safe, present and connected, we’re in a ventral vagal nervous system state. You might think of this, like traffic lights, so that’s the green, calm state and in that state we can make informed decisions, we feel confident, we can connect to the people around us, we can problem solve. Also, from a health perspective, our body can run all its regular functions, our immune system works well. So we really want to be in that ventral vagal state for about 80% of the time.

The sympathetic nervous system state

Then we have our sympathetic, or fight flight state. This is a stress response and is there for a reason. If there is something dangerous that we need to respond to, it’s amazing how our bodies can react to that. It’s so fast, it’s involuntary, it happens before we even consciously know about it. 

You can imagine the fight flight state like your amber light of the traffic lights.  We get mobilised with energy to run or fight.  You might recognise some of the physiological changes that occur when you go into the fight flight state, such as increased heart rate and faster, shallow breathing, often through the mouth. It might manifest itself as a feeling of edginess or anxiety. Your muscles tense and you might feel shaky.  This response is designed to mobilise us ready for danger, and then we can drop back into the green ventral vagal state once the danger has passed.  

The thing is that our fight flight state is activated in response to our perception of danger.  And due to life experience, and past events our perception of danger may have been heightened and affected so that certain experiences now trigger that fight flight response even though we may not be in physical danger. Examples of these perceived dangers can be confrontation or conflict, getting something wrong, or our judgement being questioned. This response can become habitual due to us living in an environment  that we perceive as being dangerous in that way.

And this can have more long term effects.  Our digestion is affected, our hormones, our immune system.  This can manifest as problems with our stomach, our sleep, our mood and our overall health and the way that we feel.  When we are in a state that our system perceives as dangerous our reactions are very different from when we are in a state of feeling safe, calm, present and connected.  We might react with anger or frustration.  We might be short tempered and snappy.   Or we may retreat and avoid doing or saying things that we know need to be done or said.

We may not even realise that our experiences are symptoms of extreme stress. 

The dorsal vagal state

We’ve then got our red light, freeze, nervous system state – the dorsal vagal nervous system state.  This is where our system protects us, if it needs to, by dropping us into a freeze state and conserving energy. Our energy completely drops and we go into survival mode. 

The system is completely overwhelmed at this point.

You may recognise this as a feeling of not being able to do anything. 

You may have been in a high stress state for such a long time that your system drops you into a state where you can conserve your energy and survive. 

Unable to do anything it almost feels like your body’s really heavy, it can feel like you’re wading through mud. This can feel really frustrating and there can be a sense of guilt associated with it. 

What I really wanted to get across today, is that it’s not your fault. When we feel that way. It’s simply a response, a nervous system response that is actually there to protect us, because our system perceives that we are in danger.

How we can recover from extreme stress

So what we can do and what I teach in my Calmer You one to one programme is we learn how to practice feeling calm, and safe and present and connected again.  We start to map our nervous system state. So we develop a really deep understanding of what it feels like when we go into fight flight, what it feels like when we go into overwhelm. And that’s on a personal level. So it’s different for all of us. 

We all have our own manifestations of these nervous system states. And so we can start to develop a real clear understanding of when, how it feels when we’re shifting those nervous system states. 

And then we can practice and learn how to drop into the calm, safe, present connected state, the ventral vagal state, we can start to develop nervous system flexibility. So being able to shift state, as required. Understanding that actually, if we’re not in danger, that we can bring ourselves back into that place of presence again. 

I have a number of videos sharing practical techniques to help you to begin this work in the guides section of my free Facebook group.

Calmer You adds a trauma-informed element to the resources that I was teaching in the Healing Habits Programme. The trauma-informed coaching was the missing piece of the puzzle, because it really gave me such a good understanding of how the nervous system affects the way that we feel, and how trauma and extreme stress changes the way that we react to things. 

Posted in

Leave a Comment