The Tip of the Iceberg
Multiple competing demands in daily life can pull us in different directions and leave our minds busy, our nervous system firing, and sitting with a mounting sense of overwhelm. Stress is just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Busy’ has become such a common refrain and each time the message is repeated it diminishes our chances of finding calm and regulating our emotional response. The building pressure contributes to a lack of space to reflect and get clear on how we are living our life.
Managing our mental health and the wellbeing of those we care for has become yet another demand. Services and interventions can be frustratingly complicated, disintegrated, and threaten to break us down into our ailing parts. Until we recognise our mind and body are one magnificent interconnected, cohesive system we are unlikely to function at our best.
My initial training in psychology primarily focussed from the neck upwards but we are not floating heads. As understanding of the mind-body connection has grown so the contribution of factors such as movement, nutrition, and mindfulness on our mental health is increasingly recognised. Feedback within the mind-body system works both ways. When we feel cold, hungry, lonely or tired the quality of our thinking diminishes, and when we alter our mindset, thought patterns, and core beliefs, the functioning of the nervous system and hormones in our physical body change. The sophistication of our interconnected system means when a mental or physical symptom presents itself, perhaps an increase in anxiety, a chronic health condition, or a skin rash, its origins may lie elsewhere.
Whilst we have an amazing capacity to tolerate stress and demands, we do have limitations. We all have a personal threshold and when we reach it the system becomes overwhelmed and our symptoms act as indicators, a sign something needs adjusting. Twenty years ago my first supervisor would repeatedly remind me to look for the meaning. He urged me to look beyond the obvious presentation and determine the root cause driving and sustaining the patterns of behaviour I observed in families.
“The pain you are feeling is not a pathology,
you are not crazy. It is a signal.”
The constant interplay of information between mind, body and environment means our brain is monitoring our breath, our hormone levels, what is happening in our gut, and what it can perceive in the world around us. This ecosystem of information determines whether we are thriving or surviving.
It makes perfect sense to take an integrated view and consider all of the contributing factors. And it is empowering to awaken to the possibility our symptoms are like the canaries in the mine, a timely indicator of something out of balance, rather than indicative of something inherently wrong with us. We don’t need to look too hard to find some obvious culprits. Everyday more clues to underlying causes of our mental and physical health are revealed – from stress and diet to toxins and environmental factors, from our sedentary lifestyle to the loss of real human connections.
“it is no measure of health to be well adjusted
to a profoundly sick society”
Our bodies and minds are not designed to function under these conditions and exposure to persistent, chronic stress impacts our physical health, our mental health, and our relational health (the connections and relationships we share with others). Such busy lives with daily doses of stress means for many the body’s stress response has become stuck in the ‘on’ position, in a state of heightened alert and alarm, depleting our coping capacity. Huge numbers of GP consultations are now related to the impact of stress and the World Health Organisation calls stress ‘the health epidemic of the twenty-first century’.
Our nervous system is highly intelligent and finds ways to cope and bring the body back into balance, but this can mean we develop short-term coping mechanisms that compromise our growth. In time we might find our default mode is exacerbating our stress or sabotaging our efforts to change.
The antidote to this rather gloomy message is the enormous potential and promise of an integrated model of wellbeing. Taking pressure off the mind-body system, regularly getting out of our heads and into our bodies, taking action to reconnect, nourish and calm to allow us to fully harness our capacity for growth and repair.
“What happens in vagus……”
It is literally life changing to discover we have within us the ability to calm the alarm sounding in our mind and body. It allows us to respond with less fear and reactivity and show up as an active participant in our life. Neuroplasticity offers us the potential to overcome our hardwiring and learning to fine tune the functioning of our vagus nerve offers us a means to turn off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex and shift into a state of ‘relax and restore’. The longest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve branches out like a root system connecting most of our major organs. It is largely responsible for the mind-body connection and acts as a mediator between our thinking and feeling playing a central in regulating our stress response.
It comes as a relief to find we are far from powerless in addressing our mental health and wellbeing. Rather than feel defined by our symptoms and destined to a particular outcome we can incorporate lifestyle modifications – changing patterns of breathing, sleep, movement, nutrition, and human connection – and resume our position in the driver’s seat of our life. Building the capacity to calm and soothe our over-activated stress response and mastering our emotional health offers an antidote to many of the symptoms associated with modern life. And wouldn’t you rather be in the driver’s seat, as the architect of your wellbeing, than just a passenger along for the ride?