Depression is something that happens in your nervous system. If you are going to hack into a system, the first thing you’ll need to do is figure out how the system is currently working. Once you have the programming mapped, you can hack it and put new data in so that it runs differently.
The first part of this 2 part series is going to provide information about how your nervous system works. You need to have this information so that the solutions offered in part 2 make sense to you. Don’t worry it’s actually pretty simple stuff that you’ve heard before but maybe have forgotten, or just not seen in the same way I am explaining it.
Psychobiological research has revealed a lot about depression over the years. Significant correlations between depression and Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) functioning, are well established.
Your organs operate, hormones are dispensed, blood circulates, and food digests under direction of the ANS. Research has shown that developing somatic, or felt sense awareness of the correlations between depression and ANS functioning, can help you hack depression.
The Autonomic Nervous System has 2 branches
- The Sympathetic Nervous System evolved in response to the need for safety. It is the first line of defence when you are under attack. It is commonly known as fight, flight and freeze. If you were in an attack situation, you would initially freeze, maybe even crouch down to decrease your chances of being detected. Then, after taking in your environment you would decide whether fleeing or fighting was your next best option. Simultaneous to these visibly noticeable responses, the sympathetic nervous system would direct your blood flow into your extremities, away from internal organs, preparing you to run. Your digestion would also be shut down conserving energy to be utilized in self-preservation.
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for maintaining balance in your system. It helps your body regulate when the emergency is over. When the parasympathetic switches on, your digestive enzymes flow, heart rate slows down, hormones change and muscles relax. It’s relaxing effect also has a role in sexual arousal. The parasympathetic response is often referred to as rest, digest and recuperate.
Depression and anxiety show up in the autonomic nervous system as elevated sympathetic nervous system arousal and lowered parasympathetic activity. When your body exists in a continual state of sympathetic arousal, hormones become unbalanced, metabolism gets disrupted, energy becomes depleted and your entire body/mind suffers the imbalance.
What happens in your ANS when you become depressed?
It may seem surprising that depression is not a parasympathetic response. You might think that sluggish and uninterested states happen due to an abundance of resting and recuperating. Depression and anxiety are actually both correlated with sympathetic nervous system responses. Depression occurs when your nervous system is limited to a freeze response and anxiety when the response has more of a fighting or fleeing quality.
Depression is initiated by a survival instinct that tells you to immobilize or freeze. Like when you hear a bump in the night and you freeze for a moment while you decide if you need to fight, flee or go back to your movie on Netflix. In depression, the Autonomic Nervous System decides that it is safest to freeze. Remember autonomic means it’s not a conscious decision. Instead of being social you stay home, instead of making plans you lay back, instead of initiating change you stay with what you know.
Depression can Appear to be a Viable Route to Safety
Research shows that individuals who have had early life experiences that required them to go into a freeze state for safety/survival, are more likely to experience depression later in life. If the choice to freeze limited or saved them from harm, the ANS learned that freeze was a viable route to safety.
Having experienced the freeze response in an intense situation and survived, the nervous system prioritizes it as an effective response. Freezing becomes a default response that the nervous system makes with the intention of self preservation.
What happens in your ANS when you have anxiety?
Anxiety, which often coexists with depression, is also a sympathetic response. Anxiety occurs when fight or flight is the chosen response. The fight or flight reaction pulls you out of freeze and tells you that the route to safety is by getting a move on.
Fight or flight pulls you out of freeze but, make no mistake, it is still a sympathetic nervous system response. Run, fight, run, fight, fight, run…It does not allow you to rest and recuperate and, it is not a conscious choice. It is a fearful reaction.
Discernment and the ANS
Interestingly, post traumatic stress disorder is less likely to occur when you have been in alife-threatening situation and, have been able to flee or fight. The act of fighting and fleeing requires awareness or presence of mind, whereas freezing is more prone to dissociation or zoning out.
The unconscious or dissociative qualities that occur in a freeze state get in the way of healing after trauma. Checking out impedes healing because it is hard to stop doing the things that you are unconscious or unaware of doing in the first place.
This is not to say that you must experience a life threatening circumstance in order to have a depressed or anxious nervous system. The perception of threat just needs to be a little distorted from the reality of your survival needs.
One of the challenges of the nervous system is, that it does not always distinguish between serious life threat and more benign threats. With evolution, it is now rare to be dealing with lions and tigers chasing you away from the watering hole. Under this new reality, every day stress like getting a C on your mid term, or getting chastised by your spouse can be falsely perceived as a serious life threat.
Then, when you do go through a period of life that is particularly difficult/threatening, your nervous system can become sensitized. A sensitive nervous system, can develop the habit of responding sympathetically to the every day drama that occurs in life. This sympathetic sensitivity can lead to depression/freezing and, or anxiety/fight/flight.
The important point here is, that your nervous system learns characteristic ways of responding. Luckily, it can also unlearn or extinguish those responses. The unlearning of depression and anxiety however, most often requires conscious action.
Coping with depression, with or without anxiety, can be facilitated by consistently calming the sympathetic-fight or flight nervous response and activating the parasympathetic, rest and recuperate response. Many of the pharmaceuticals provided for depression and anxiety do just that. They calm your nervous system by sending out chemicals and hormones that help you make the shift.
If you, or someone you know, are looking for an adjunct to antidepressants or if you have, with the help of your healthcare practicitoner, made the decision to forego antidepressant use, it may be helpful to explore ways to consciously hack the Autonomic Nervous System.