Stress and Anxiety - Calming the nervous system through self-regulation


A number of years ago my brother survived a skydiving accident. He spent quite some time in hospital connected to a heart rate monitor that would constantly provide a reassuring beep with every heartbeat. Essentially we were privy to his heart activity and pulse rate, an internal biological function, by observing the measurements displayed on the monitor and hearing the beeps playing out in the background. One day as we visited my brother, he proceeded to show us a game he would play to while away the boredom associated with being bound to his hospital bed. We stood in amazement as he hinted toward the heart rate monitor. Systematically his pulse rate started to drop - digit by digit. The beeps became fewer by the minute as my brother lay with a cool smirk enjoying our bewildered faces. He had trained himself to control his pulse rate by intentionally focusing on breathing and relaxation.

The constant beeps provided auditory feedback about how he felt when heart rate went up, and alternatively how it felt when heart rate dropped. Essentially, my brother was able to learn how to consciously regulate pulse, which is an unconscious process of the autonomic nervous system.

At that point, I was unaware of this phenomenon, but the concept of self regulation has since become a field of interest that promises much relief for those struggling with anxiety, chronic or acute stress and symptoms of post traumatic stress. The autonomic nervous system is of particular interest as it related to stress. When we are calm and at peace the parasympathetic nervous system is at work. Typically we may experience the following symptoms when relaxed: our extremities are warm, food can be digested, we are able to relax and sleep well, our immune system can function optimally and we experience a general sense of calm.

The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, provokes an opposite response when we experience a real or perceived threat. The endocrine system is activated so that muscle tension, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and brain wave frequencies increase while skin temperature decreases.

Reactions to stress

The adrenal gland secretes corticosteroids, cortisol, catecholamines and adrenalin that reduce internal bodily function such as digestion, tissue repair and immunity, while increasing access to energy storage, protein and fat mobilisation, blood supply to the muscles and brain. There may be a sudden surge of strength, mental activity and dilated pupils that may assist in visual acuity. These physical response are associated with the fight or flight response.

This is the body's attempt to cope with the experienced stressor. If the fight or flight response does not provide the individual with a solution to the threat, then shock sets in and the person freezes.

Once we are out of danger our parasympathetic nervous system should reactivate and assist body functions to return to a normal, relaxed state. If this does not happen and the physiological responses remain, the individual continues to experience stress, anxiety and other overarousal symptoms such as hyper-vigilance or insomnia. Extended stress can eventually cause burnout when the body operates in overdrive for too long and suddenly grinds to a halt. Ideally burnout should be avoided and intervention initiated sooner rather than later.

The body responds to stress in 3 stages:

Current approaches to reducing stress and anxiety consider mediating the psychological and biological factors. Cognitive behavioural and rational emotive therapy assists clients to work through the mental and emotional aspects of trauma, while biological feedback techniques such as correct breathing and heart rate variability training can assist to calm the nervous system so that the individual can return to a state of rest. Since stressors affect the whole person, an integrated approach to wellness may be more effective in treating stress, anxiety and trauma of various kinds.

Written by Dr Ingrid Artus