Transcript for Episode 4: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

Allison Sweatman & Andrea Coston

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Here’s the transcript for episode 004 of the Trauma-Informed Everything podcast:

I’m Allison and I’m Andie, and welcome

to trauma informed everything.

On this podcast we examine how trauma shapes our individual family and societal experiences.

We demystify trauma and promote a world of trauma informed everything because like it or not trauma informed everything.

As always remember our disclaimer, everything we say is for informational purposes only,

and nothing on this show is meant to replace treatment from a licensed mental health professional. Thanks for listening and enjoy the show.

Hey, all you cool cats and kittens. This is Andie here to finally use the marketing minor my dad paid for. He’ll be so pleased to hear that we are inviting you to continue to grow your working knowledge of trauma in practical and applicable ways. Just head on over to our channel. Patreon and you can peruse the different levels to find a perfect fit for your needs and your budget. Just remember, my dad will want to cut every Patreon subscription. But for real, our Patreon will provide you with action steps, practical tools and useful resources that help you take your knowledge of trauma from this podcast to real life application. From meditations to journal prompts to even getting to interact with us on a more intimate level. Our Patreon is set up to apply these trauma concepts to your real life. Check out the link in the show notes or go to patreon.com slash trauma informed everything to become a patron. See you there.

So classes in session and today we’re going to give you a little bit of an anatomy lesson.

Yes and anatomy lesson we’re talking about the whole body here. Remember, it’s not just your mind and your body as separate entities but the mind body system or the brain body system. This is going to kind of bring a lot of that together. So when we Talk about the nervous system, we want to begin by saying, it’s so much more complex than we’re going to be able to present here. And especially for those of you who are visual learners, this first part, you might not even be taking in or learning at all. And that’s okay, we just want to give you a primer, start big picture with the brain body system, and then break it down. And eventually we’re going to get to these two words that we’ve been saying parasympathetic and sympathetic, and that’s what we’re going to focus mostly on today. But this next part, it’s okay if you don’t internalize it at all, but we want to make sure that we give it to you so that you can see kind of big picture and then break it down into smaller pieces. And also, we will have a resource in our Patreon to break this down visually for those of you who join us on Patreon So, Andie, break it down.

So first, your nervous system is composed of nerve endings that transmit information to the brain. That nervous system is broken down into two parts. You have your central nervous system, which is your brain and the spinal cord. And then you have the peripheral nervous system, which is everything from the spinal cord down. The peripheral is broken down even further into two parts, the somatic and the autonomic nervous systems, the autonomic nervous system is broken down and contains the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems that run from the spinal cord down.

So let me think about this this way. So we’ve got almost like these, these charts right, so you can think the nervous system, big top of the chart. And then from there, you’ve got the central nervous system, which is your brain and your spinal cord, which the way that I remember that is they are what is in the the center of your body, they run down the center, so that’s the central nervous system, and then the peripheral nervous system. From there. We’re going to break Down the peripheral nervous system a little bit. Yep, somatic and autonomic. We’ll talk about whatever later. But the autonomic nervous system is where we’re going to find parasympathetic and sympathetic, which is where we are focusing


Yet again, there’s going to be an excellent visual braking, all of this down on Patreon, if you’re interested in that.

Alright, so let’s talk about the sympathetic nervous system. Yes, yeah. So your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your fight flight or freeze response, which we talked about all the time when we talk

about trauma, you can’t really talk about trauma without talking about fight, flight, freeze or fun.

Yes or fun.

That again, is a whole nother episode. We’ll we’ll break that down in the future. But for now, just know that whatever you know, about fight or flight, or fight, flight or freeze, it applies here. So the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for that.

It controls the unconscious parts of the body like organ function and other things. But it also takes us into survival mode. Like how to fight off a bear attack. Because millions of years ago, our sympathetic nervous system was crucial for our very survival. Why things like, you know, bear attacks, or you know, if you want to get, you know, even nerdy or dinosaur attacks,

or saber toothed Tiger attacks, yes, all of these things, we needed our sympathetic nervous system to take us into a mode where we could survive those literally life threatening scenarios. But do we like to stay in our sympathetic nervous system?

No, we do not like to stay in your sympathetic nervous system, actually, it’s very stressful place to be. Oh, and damage is being done when you stay in your sympathetic nervous system and I actually starts causing damage because negative hormones are being released into your body. It is causing actual physical reactions, like an elevated heart rate that over time can cause damage to your body. While our sympathetic nervous system is necessary for survival, it’s not a place that anyone wants to live for very long. And so we find when we look at modern life of modern humans like ourselves, I don’t know I’m a modern human. What about you and I, it depends on the day.

modern humans are for the most part, living in their sympathetic nervous system far more than is healthy. And so we’ve got prolonged stress on the whole brain body system when we’re living in that sympathetic state. And there’s even a word for this it’s called sympathetic overload that I found in the research and sympathetic overload can lead to all kinds of issues, the list is really too long. We’re not even going to Get into it. But when we’re talking about pro long distress on the whole system, we’ve got some pretty, pretty nasty stuff coming down the line.

Yes, yeah. Just to ask your doctor about what happens when you’re stressed all the time. Yeah, well, right, it’s, you go in for your yearly checkup. And that’s actually what they’re checking for. They’re trying to assess whether you are stressed or not,

of course, of course. And honestly, just because we don’t use the language of sympathetic nervous system response or fight or flight doesn’t mean that when we’re talking about stress, this is not a component of it. We talked about stress all the time. But you can start incorporating this understanding that we’re giving you of the sympathetic nervous system into just general stress on your brain body system. And I think this is another time when we want to remember we’re talking about a brain body system. A lot of people think of physical stress being Oh, I go to the gym, I work out or I go for a run. That’s physical stress. Well, that stress is just as much mental. I mean, as someone who runs marathons, that stress is just as much mental as it is physical. The same goes for those of us who spend many, many hours in front of a computer using our brain all day long. Not stress is just as much physical as it is mental but the disembodiment that we’ve been taught to embrace, so that we can just power through life is not something that’s healthy. So we need to remember that this is a system this is not those are not separate stresses.

They are not I actually heard, it was a research study, and I’m going to try to search to find it again and I’ll try to put it in the show notes. But they did a study on brain activity. And they, through this study, they figured out that doing one hour of therapy is like running a five k for your body. So when you come out of therapy or counseling and you’re exhausted because you would just did the same mental workload as you did as running a five k? Oh, that’s Yeah, it’s real. That’s how connected our thinking and our physical really is, is this the stress is on both. It’s very real.

That’s why when we talk about getting into your body, we’re not just talking about actual dissociation that can be clinically diagnosed or experienced. You don’t have to say to yourself or know or be conscious of the fact that you are dissociating to live in a way that for all intents and purposes, descend bodies you to live in a way that you are not recognizing the toll that your stress that feels so mental and psychological is having on your body. And a lot of times I think for most modern humans the first time they recognize that they are having somatic or body reaction. are consequences of psychological stress is when they do go to a checkup after a really long time. And the doctor says, guess what, we’ve got some hypertension going on here. Or maybe you’re feeling it in your body and you can’t stand up straight or you, you have these new aches and pains, we often contribute that to just old age, or just general stress or some systemic breakdown or whatever. But at the end of the day, we have to just keep stress of the whole system in mind when we’re talking about that. And back to what you said about therapy, when healing from trauma in a therapeutic relationship. So often what a therapist will tell you to do is get into your body, to remember that you have a body because if you’re experiencing fight or flight all the time, you’re in your sympathetic nervous system like we’re talking about here. That is a repeated experience. Have a traumatized person to be consistently in fight or flight in moments that technically do not warrant fighter flight. And that can feel really, really out of control. But one way to recognize that that’s what’s happening at all is to notice the body sensations that come with fighter flight. If you’re just staying in your head, it’s really, really difficult to heal, maybe even impossible to heal if you’re constantly in that sympathetic nervous system. And so a lot of what the therapeutic goals look like for people healing from trauma are to really recognize the body sensations of fight or flight, sometimes constant fight or flight.

Yes, so let’s talk about the parasympathetic. So the parents is sympathetic is responsible for the rest and digest responses in the body, the body and the brain are in rest and ready for healing when we’re sitting in our parasympathetic nervous system. So the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system they work together In a push me pull you relationship to regulate the body’s responses and regulation in different systems and organs. So when Allison is talking about sitting in your parasympathetic, it’s trying to engage and quote unquote, fire up that parasympathetic nervous system that brings you into rest and digest. And this can also be termed as just being self aware. And in that self awareness where we’re in our parasympathetic and out of the sympathetic is where the healing begins. Going back to what Allison was saying, you really cannot heal if your sympathetic nervous system is engaged, because you’re not, you know, we may say in our bodies, but what it really means is that your nervous system your sympathetic nervous system is fired up. your amygdala is fired up, and you are disassociating the physical from the mental and in order to heal in order to start processing our trauma We need to be able to sit in our bodies and regulate our bodies. And that is where in that self awareness of our bodies we can start to heal and that nervous system starts communicating with the brain and firing in a way that healing can physically happen within the brain.

Yes, and the parasympathetic is rest and digest. And the sympathetic is fight or flight. And I just want to appreciate the gift of the rhymes there. I want us all to take that in and be grateful that we can, we can internalize what these two systems do for us and appreciate what they do for us, and very simply realize that resting and digesting is what most of us are missing. We talked about that all the time and the answer is to activate or fire up like Andie said the parasympathetic Nervous System.

So I just want to add here that when we are talking, we’re talking about the anatomy portion. These nervous systems run from our brainstem all the way down our bodies down our central Vegas nerve which runs through your spine. And that is why when you are feeling your sympathetic nervous system kick in or your parasympathetic, you will have physical responses. That’s like when you you know have to give a talk or you have to do a podcast and you start to get anxiety and your sympathetic nervous system is kicking in, and you can feel it and your your chest is tightening and your stomach is getting upset and your your bowels are getting all tense. Ready, maybe heading Mm hmm. And you start to get aches and pains. That is because these nerves run literally down the center of you and they they’re controlling those physical responses. The parasympathetic can reverse those responses.

Another thing that I like to tell people about that response that you just described is that your body wants to do something with it. But right now, because we’re not being attacked by a saber toothed tiger, our body is not going to run as it as a response to having that sensation down the middle of our brain body system, our body is probably not going to be able to get up and go for a run or hit a punching bag or something like that to discharge that energy that’s being created, because that’s what’s happening. And so, if you’re able, if you’re able, and honestly, this takes a lot of practice, this is for my own personal story. I am about two years into trauma therapy and I’m finally able to really recognize those sensations and ask my body what it wants to do right now. And honestly, even if you know what your body wants to do, you might not be able to get up and go for a run and If you’re in your work clothes, you know, you might not be able to hit a punching bag if you’re sitting at your desk. So, but that awareness is huge and knowing knowing that you can discharge that awareness at the end of the day, you can discharge that sensation at the end of the day, you can dance it out, you can punch it out, you can, you can, if you can go into the woods and scream at the top of your lungs, because that’s what you think that your body wants you to do, you can do that at the end of the day. So just know that that sensation is energy that wants to be moved. I know that sounds really woowoo for our purposes here, but it is true. It’s true. What’s happening there is something is being activated, energy is being moved and it wants to be discharged. But again, we’re not being chased by bears and saber toothed tigers. So if we can move that energy in another way, do it. So we’ve established that this is not something that we want to stay in for a long period of time, this fight or flight But the truth is our systems don’t necessarily know the difference between a bear attack and an impending deadline at work that you’re really nervous that you won’t meet, or whatever the stressor is in your life, you can name a stressor, sometimes our bodies, our brain body systems do not know the difference between that and a very legitimate present threat for your life. And this is especially true that differentiation is especially difficult for a traumatized brain body system. And that is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about healing. Part of healing is being able to in the moment of activation, differentiate between what is an actual threat to your very survival and what is not. And going back to childhood trauma, a child to a child, things that are not threatening to an adult are very threatening to it. And so when the brain body system was being developed in childhood, if there was a threat like that, then that can be something that it can take a lot of work for that adult system to unlearn that these things that are threatening to a child that were once threatening to me as a child, I can experience them today. And it’s not a threat to me. For instance, if a parent is harsh to a child or has expectations to a child, or communicate something that’s that makes the child abandoned a part of themselves to keep the parent in a good light that is legitimately threatening to a child that can be experienced as trauma because the parent is the caregiver. They can’t just find another parent, right? So they need this parent for survival. But in adulthood, that same, that same pressure that same expectation is not something thing that is necessarily life threatening to an adult who has left their parents home and is supporting themselves. But their brain body system might not know that their brain body system might be reacting to similar criticism from their parents that they felt as a child. But now it’s not life threatening as an adult, that criticism from parents is not life threatening. It was experienced as incredibly life threatening as a child, it really does always come back to how our systems don’t know the difference between what is life threatening, and what is just something that happens, right? We can’t put things in the right context, especially if we’ve been traumatized in childhood,

especially. And that comes back to back to anatomy. All of those memories are stored in our somatic nervous system that is the memory nervous system. And we’ll have another podcast on that later. But that those nervous systems are so interconnected. And so there’s an actual physical reason that that adult who had childhood trauma cannot differentiate because the body will react when triggered in the exact same way, because that’s how it’s habitually reacted.

Andie, what’s your favorite book about trauma?

Seriously, do you even have to ask? I mean, Alison, do you even know me? Well, what’s mine?


I mean, exactly.

That’s what I thought. Okay. Okay, how about this? On the count of three? We’re both gonna say our favorite trauma book. Cool. Cool. Yeah. Okay. All right. All right. Ready? 123

the body keeps the score.

I know. Right? Oh, good.

It took me months to finish because there was so

much good stuff to absorb and learn. Fly. Yes, me too.

That’s why when I recommend it to people, I tell them to take their time. It’s gonna be a lot. You know what I mean? Oh,

totally. Oh, wait, wait, wait, here’s an idea. Here’s I did hear me out.

Okay. Okay, you ready? Pretty good.

Let’s you and I get some folks together to read this

process and apply the concepts

from the body keeps the score. Hey, why don’t we start in the fall?

Oh, that sounds like a good idea. Okay, okay, but seriously, y’all. This book is thick. It’s important, and it’s key for understanding trauma in the real world. That’s why we’re choosing it for our first ever fall book clubs. Starting this September.

We’ll have regular online gathering printables to help you process while you read journal prompts, and more. We want you to get the most out of this incredibly important piece of trauma. Research. So we’ll be there with you every step of the way. To sign up, click the link in the notes for this show or go to Allison Sweatman comm slash fall book club.

So we want to be in our parasympathetic nervous system, more than we are safe to say, right?

That right? Well,

we’re trying to we’re trying to live in the parasympathetic. So how do we do that? There are some very, very practical tips that if they’re kind of new for you might feel silly might feel like they’re not working the first few times that you do it the first many times that you do them. But trust, this trust, this is about humanity. We all have access to many of the things we’re going to offer you here. And the first thing we’re going to talk about is the breath. That’s a good place to start. It is a fabulous place to start. And here’s why. Because when we are in our simple acetic as I said before our heart rate increases, our breath gets shallow and we actually get less oxygen to our brain. And obviously, your brain needs oxygen to function. So the very, most basic way that you can engage your parasympathetic is to brief.

So when you take a deep breath, it pushes that oxygen back to your brain, which tells the brain everything’s okay and it starts to engage that parasympathetic nervous system. Now, if you have been around for a while in the travel world or in therapy, you’ve probably heard of Foursquare breathing. Foursquare breathing is just breathing in and out and counting to four. So imagine you’re literally moving around a square. That’s why they call it Foursquare breathing. I prefer the 257 technique, which is where you inhale for two seconds. You hold it for five seconds, and then you release it over seven seconds.

Yes, I really like that one, because it touches on kind of the main thing that will get you into your parasympathetic nervous system. Well, first of all the presence and really drawing your attention to the breath, but also your exhale being long and slow and especially longer than your inhale. So even if the 257 even if those are not numbers that work for you. Sometimes it’s hard for people to let their exhale stretch to seven seconds. And if that feels uncomfortable, and honestly doesn’t calm you down, because you’re like, Oh, I can’t breathe. Then don’t worry about it. Start with inhaling to two or three seconds and exhaling to four or five seconds or don’t count at all. Just make that exhale as long as possible. And in through the nose out through the mouth is helpful. But that really slow exhale is what does activate your parasympathetic

and it’s definitely less about the numbers. And more about just slowing your breath down and deepening your breath. Your goal is to really expand your your chest cavity. And just sitting in your body as you breathe, it goes back to that rest portion of the rest and digest you are you are forcing your body into rest and that will signal the nerve, the parasympathetic nervous system to into that rest and digest. It’s like, you know, if you want to imagine it in your voice, your sympathetic nervous system is screaming at you. And you take this deep breath and you calmly say back to it.

I’m okay. I’m safe. I love I’m safe and I’m okay. Yep, that’s really good. I always love to start with the breath whenever I give people options for how to get into the parasympathetic. Because it’s literally always available. I think a lot of meditation people and yoga teachers say that Oh, lot, but it’s so true. I was like, Oh, okay. The first few times someone, you know, had me draw my attention to my breath. But I use it all the time and my six year old, he will take maybe three breaths in a row whenever he needs it. It’s not like we’re having meditation sessions with my six year old, but the breath is what I know he can do. Sometimes it’s it becomes a game for us, you know, like we, we inhale, and we do a big circle with our arms. And we do the same big circle as we’re exhaling, whatever works and whatever visualization you need to do to have that really long exhale and get into your parasympathetic. Definitely do it but start with breath. I would say start with breath, even before you move on to any of the other suggestions we’re going to give you because again, it’s always available.

Yeah, I think going back to what you were saying, when I was taught this trick, when somebody’s like, well, you need to take a deep breath. I was Like it’s too easy. I breathe literally all the time. I don’t why? Why haven’t I figured this out on my own? Yeah, yeah, for sure. I did cheat it like I had this tool in my pocket. But I could have been using this whole time. Mm hmm.

And I will say this, I have a friend who struggles greatly with anxiety. And when I started talking to her about how much breathwork was helpful to me, she said that, in the beginning, it actually felt like it was increasing her anxiety in the moment, because she was, quote, dropping into her body and realizing how activated she actually was. Yeah, but pushing through with the breathing and focusing on like, the way air was moving in and out of her body was helpful. So just know, everyone’s unique and you might be feeling that as an increase of activation at first. But again, the breath exists to bring you back to the moment If you’ll

put your attention on, it can be scary to say with our bodies, especially if we have childhood trauma, and we have literally been running or trying to ignore and living in our sympathetic nervous systems for survival, and simply changing our breathing and making us aware that we have a body that we didn’t want to feel that we’ve been wanting, running away from, it can be very scary. So starting with your breathing, you can it can be, you know, just slowly walking into this idea. For me, that’s what I had to do because sitting in my body was frightening realizing that I had a body that it could feel things was and was so overwhelming, it would send me into a panic attack. So it started very slowly for me, and that’s, that is 100%. Okay, you’re not going to just like any other tool, any other resource, you’re not going to jump into it and be a pro overnight, even though you’ve been breathing your whole life. These, this idea of sitting in our bodies and feeling them can be very scary for some of us. And I know I know because I’ve already had feedback that some of our listeners are coming from very scary childhood traumas. And so I wanted to reach out to those people and specifically say, Go slowly, and if you feel yourself being triggered, it’s okay to run back into somatic and practice this like any other physical thing, you know, like a couch to five K. just slowly and eventually you’ll get to that five K.

Speaking of a five K. Next way that you can get into your parasympathetic is to engage your body physically. So, movement like going for a walk or running or yoga, especially if you can really ask your body what it wants in this moment is huge. If you’re not a yogi, just do some stretches. Head bend over stand Up, lean to the side, things like that. Just general stretching is going to get that energy moving the way that we were talking about before.

Yeah, I wanted to I had this great visual in my head for some visual learners. When you were talking about how the energy wants to move away and out of the body, it is no different. our nervous system is actually an electrical system. And we are no different than clouds. What that you know, clouds they have electricity and they want to expend that electricity and so we have lightning. So when your body has that energy that it wants to expend, you can kind of think of it as lightning that needs to be let out in order for the cloud or for us to move on. So it can be as simple as walking or running. It can be as simple as I do rage cleaning. When I am upset. I will text my friends. How you doing. I rage cleaning.

Okay, well dancing too. I tell people all the time, that dancing, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, if you feel that you’ve had a particularly anxious day, and you’ve just been kind of going through the motions, reminding yourself that you have a body and moving that energy, at the end of the day, all of that pent up energy that needs to be discharged. Dancing can be a fun way to do it. Even as a family, no one has to know that this is like a therapeutic practice for you. It could just be really fun.

We do dance parties at our house. If I noticed that my kids are wound and they have energy or I do, we will throw on a musical or some music or just whatever, you know, music they’re into. It’s currently Hamilton by the way. And yes, I do scream the songs for my children. But that’s they will come in and they they will now they’re to the point where they will come in and ask me for a dance party. And we’ve put some of these on Instagram or Facebook Live before our dance parties and it it looks so fun. But it’s really a tool that we use to de escalate when our kids are wound up or when I’m, you know, feeling frustrated. And I

love how that speaks to the wisdom of children, because a lot of children, even children who have experienced trauma, they can just tell you what they want to do. And if you asked them to get specific, they would say, I don’t know, I just know my body wants to move. You know, I just know my body wants to do this. I want to dance. And I think that taking that as wisdom and really learning from that is a really important thing to do. I love how kids can teach us to get back into our bodies in that way.

Yes, yeah. And we’ll take that concept into education podcast later. So one more, one more little fact about moving the body that I want to talk about is this thing called crossing the midline. As we know our brains have different hemispheres and when we are physically taking our body electric All line, literally down the middle of you, right where that vagus nerve runs. And this concept of crossing the midline will engage those two portions, those two hemispheres of the brain and have them start communicating again. So if you’re feeling super upset simply, as Allison was saying, do a stretch that takes your left arm and moves it to your right side, that creating the crossover and your hemispheres can help regulate and engage the hemispheres of your body. So any sort of movement where you’re crossing that midline is helpful.

Yes, that’s also an occupational therapy priority whenever my kids do ot crossing the midline. And I know that that focus is on development, but I also know that it’s also a really good regulation tool for them. So I love that. Another one that I found and I found so much research on when I went looking was going outside in in nature, you is naturally regulating I found one study that said it took on average for their sample. It took the people on average 20 minutes to lower their heart rate into what was considered an acceptable range for them. And these were people who were spent a lot of time and their parasympathetic because they had a history of PTSD. And they were they were in nature and literally all they were doing was being in nature. And 20 minutes later, their heart rates were down from their average which is pretty incredible and beautiful to me here. I think about that. And I’m like, oh what a gift nature is. What is helpful in that as well is the full presence of getting in nature. So noticing taking the moment to notice what you see what you hear what you feel if you can take your shoes off and feel That sensory integration of the feeling of your toes in the grass or the dirt or the sand, if you’re lucky enough to be at the beach, that is going to be huge and regulating as well.

This is a very interesting one to me because I, I remember this very specific argument between my parents and my older brother and my older brother is a lot like me, and he’s a free spirit. And, you know, we were having this argument he was with my parents about going to church, and they were like, you know, very traditional, you have to be there on Sundays and engage with God and I have this community and my brother was like, I find God more at the top of the ski hill or he was a huge snowboarder. I find God more at the top of the ski hill than I do in church and he what he was saying, now as an adult and being educated, I look back what he was saying is, I physically feel more peace and at one with myself at the top of the ski hill with his snowboard. than he did in, you know, a church appeal. And it’s that’s that always comes back to me when I think about nature because that’s what my brother was trying to say. There is evidence what we know about the body and the brain and what happens when people get into nature only bolsters your brother’s argument there, you know,

like, regardless of your theological understanding of the role that church should play in one’s life. We have evidence that says his experience in nature is doing good healing things for his body and I was gonna say, Do you are you familiar with Melissa urban of the whole 30 program? Yes. Okay. Melissa calls her hikes which she lives in Utah and has access to so many incredible trails, but she calls her hikes church all the time, and you can you can search on her Instagram account to learn more about her churchgoing but She just will say in her stories today we went to church and the pictures of the places and sometimes the videos of the sounds. And the stories from her being at church are just awe inspiring, just from my phone screen, and it’s so beautiful. And I’ve always liked that she actually has a podcast episode about her beginning to call her hikes church and I have always loved that.

Yeah, there’s actually for anyone who’s interested, there’s actually a book specifically on this concept and it’s called love.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai