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Calming the Nervous System from the Bottom Up

by | Jan 4, 2023 | Blog, Science

Beginning in the 1990’s, researchers began to look at the impact that fear and anxiety have on performance in the sports arena and on the battlefield. They asked these questions: Is the fear that you feel during a big game or while fighting in combat the same fear that you feel when avoiding a bully or taking a test? Does it have the same effect? The answer is yes. And there’s a good reason for that.

The most important job of the brain is to keep us safe, at all costs. It does this by carefully balancing and regulating the body’s energy flow, monitoring, and responding to any and all threats to our safety.

The autonomic state of our nervous system is the mode in which our body is operating at any given time. It is involuntary and it changes everything. Depending on the autonomic state, the body transforms, activating different systems. The state of our nervous system provides the filter through which we experience the world, touch, smell, taste, sight, and sounds.

The elementary model of energy regulation is based on the reciprocal relationship between the two main parts of the autonomic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is active when the brain perceives that we are safe. Its self-preservative, healing function is to conserve energy. The PSNS helps us to “calm and connect” as it lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate and respiration, and stimulates immune function, salivation, digestion, and wound recovery. Facial muscles are activated, vocal prosody and eye contact are increased, and the muscles of the middle ear are activated, helping us to better hear the important mid-range frequencies of human speech.

When the PSNS is engaged, we have access to our whole brain. This includes the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for planning, evaluation, and conscious thought. These are the parts of the brain that make us uniquely human, giving us access to rational thought, focus, imagination, executive functioning, socialization, and language. This is the ‘adult’ part of the brain.

Conversely, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes engaged in response to apparent danger. It immediately detects and reacts to any perceived threat by activating the ‘fight or flight’ response, which arouses the body as it goes on alert. Respiration, heart rate and blood flow rapidly increase to speed our escape.

During ‘fight or flight’ there is a dramatic, system wide change in the body. At the same time that heart rate, pain tolerance, and general state arousal increase, nonessential systems are halted to provide more energy for emergency functions. Digestion and immune systems shut down and peripheral vision and hearing are reduced. There is a mechanical shutdown of blood flow before the capillaries, while the circulatory system redirects blood away from the body’s surface. This causes the face to become white and prevents initial major blood loss during trauma.

Unlike the PSNS, there is flat facial affect, and the muscles of the middle ear are ‘turned off,’ making it easier to hear extreme high and low frequency sounds – the sounds associated with predators and danger.

Our audiology signal shifts between PSNS and SNS, as we are actually able to hear sounds at different frequencies and at different volumes.

A part of the brain ‘goes missing’ during ‘fight or flight’ because blood drains from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thought. This makes it virtually impossible to learn new things, focus on small tasks, or consciously recall information that hasn’t yet been stored as procedural memory. Since the active, lower parts of the brain are focused on survival and escape, we are able to successfully engage in activities that are routinized or automatic, requiring no conscious thought, such as walking, driving, or playing a musical instrument that we’ve practiced for years.

The lower, limbic part of the brain is sometimes referred to as ‘reptilian’ because it doesn’t respond to speech, language, or rational thought. Emotions live here, in the ‘baby brain.’

When someone is in a state of high arousal, they are unable to have successful relationships with other people or to learn new things. Sadly, too many people struggle, moving through each day in a state of ‘fight or flight,’ frozen with anxiety, existing with less than their whole brain. Unable to be fully present, learning and social development are unattainable because a part of their brain isn’t available.

When our son was a baby, my husband John and I spent some sleepless nights singing to a very frustrated, needy infant. Cradling him, gently humming while we rocked him back and forth, we would eventually lull him back to sleep. I remember having hallucinatory, sleep deprived thoughts that if I could just reason with him, he would understand how important it was for us to finally get some sleep and he would calm down. But an infant’s brain hasn’t yet developed to the complex levels involving speech and language and rational thought, and the only thing that quieted my tearful little baby was soft, sweet music and gentle, rhythmic rocking in the safety of our loving arms.

When you’re in ‘fight or flight’ a part of your brain is missing and conscious, rational thought and language are not available. We can’t just tell people to calm down and behave when they can’t even hear us. The part of their brain that processes speech and language has gone ‘offline.’ We might as well try to explain how much we need sleep to a crying baby.

But we can overcome our physiology and our past to change our behavior when we can calm our nervous system below the level of conscious, rational thought.

Chris Bye and I were speaking at a behavioral health conference in North Carolina. It was a wonderful program, designed to provide resources and respite care for entire families at a weekend retreat. Right after our talk, a very animated man pulled us aside. His words tumbled out rapidly as he told us what had just happened. His son had severe autism and was in a constant state of arousal, sleeping barely a few hours each night. Always wound up and in motion, he was often destructive, using his fists more than his words. The man explained that someone had delivered a note during our talk, asking him to check on his son in a classroom nearby. He told us that he went with a heavy heart, fully expecting to pay for the hole that his son had likely punched in the wall, all the while trying to figure out how he was going to break the not-so-unexpected news to his wife and daughter, as this had happened several times before. He paused to take a breath and began to cry as he told us that as he entered the room filled with teenagers moving quietly to the sequence of CalmConnect playing on the big screen, all of the adults put their fingers to their lips for him to be quiet. Then they pointed to his son, sound asleep on the floor in the middle of the room, as the music played softly in the background.

There are many dedicated teachers and therapists struggling to use ‘top down’ programs for self-regulation and social emotional intelligence for children with severe trauma or high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience scores). As one behavior specialist told us, “I finally realized that I was wasting my time trying to tell children to be calm when they had no idea what calm was, and they couldn’t feel calm because they couldn’t feel safe.”

CalmConnect uses a visceral ‘bottom up’ approach to calm the lower brain and activate the Parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). There is no speech or language in the program, no directions or instructions. The program uses the body to calm the system and shut down the ‘fight or flight’ response. It activates the PSNS, changing the body’s physiology as it helps to sync our nervous system and brain by rocking or moving, soothing it with soft, reassuring, rhythmic tones and music, and the compassionate, expressive features of a kind community of friendly people. Once calm, the whole brain can now organize, regulate, empathize, and learn.