Our Healthy Nervous Systems

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

I’ve seen this Psychology Today article making the rounds and I have so much to say. It’s a powerful read. High level takeaway: Depression is not an illness. It’s adaptive, the workings of a healthy nervous system. It is SO refreshing to finally read this perspective from a mainstream source.

And also — Of course!!

Of course it’s beneficial. Depression is immobilization. Anxiety comes from recurring fight and flight that’s there, but unexpressed. Depression happens when, over time, our fight and flight aren’t deemed useful. When they’re felt as pointless. (Can I fight? Can I run? No? Fine, I’ll just run away in my mind.) When we feel fight and flight and can express them in some way, we return to regulation. We return to feeling safe and light in our bodies. We complete the cycle. The quickness of anxiety and the heaviness of depression is a result of not being able to express the very things that help us keep our bodies safe.

(And I want to add, there is a difference between the actual danger of a racist, sexist world, and the perceived danger of not being accepted by friends and family. Unfortunately, our nervous systems don’t always know the difference. So when I talk about “feeling safe” I mean in the immediate present: do you feel as safe as you actually are in this exact moment, whatever level that is.)

From 0–18 months our attachment forms deepest in us, (and really over our first five years) — it is when our body answers the question, “Am I safe?” I come back here all the time in my work because many people have no idea “why” they feel the intensity that they do. It doesn’t make sense until they think back and ask the question: “between zero and five, did I experience feelings of unconditional safety, love, and belonging?” The answer is “no” for everyone born into modern society (if you’re reading this, yes, you too).

None of us got this unconditionally — and that’s fine! We can heal it! — But what happens is that as we grow, our minds prune for whatever we received during this short, early time. So if we experienced chaos or separation or fear that wasn’t adequately soothed, we prune toward protection instead of connection. Then early childhood and adolescence gets layered on top.

Again, this is all fine. It’s not to blame our families. (They didn’t create white supremacist culture, they just live in it). Instead, this is all to say that it makes SO much sense that our nervous systems signal danger at a whole host of things that aren’t actually scary (anymore). It makes so much sense that we experience anxiety and depression because we still have unsoothed nervous systems.

And the beautiful thing is that we are hard wired to heal toward safety, love, and belonging. Feeling these things deeply creates powerful community. When we feel them, our communities are stronger.

Our original essence is deeply embedded with a default of love, safety, and belonging. It gets trained out of us, but it’s always there, waiting for us to be safe enough to feel it. So our job right now, is to get into the deepest layers of ourselves and communicate unconditional love, safety, and belonging. Simple, not easy.

Also, we were never meant to do this alone. We’re meant to coregulate. We’re herd animals living alone and currently distancing from people we care about. Of course, our nervous systems are screaming “danger” and kicking up depression and anxiety.

Together we can slow it all down and liberate the regulation that has always been there waiting for you.

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