61 – Resetting our Stress Response with Megan Land McCarthy and Dr. Jasmine Bray-Mak
written by Safe Harbour Therapy on 22/10/20
Stress — The Good, The Bad, The Ugly & The Reset
In somatic experiencing, clients know that touch is part of the treatment protocol and often wonder why??
Well, touch is essential to not only development, but to survival. A lack of healthy, appropriate and nurturing touch is often one of the contributing elements of developmental trauma.
“Touch when applied appropriately, safely, and ethically, can be used to repair attachment ruptures, promoting healthier and more accurate interoception, creating a sense of safety and connectedness, supporting better access to co-regulation and self-regualtion, and repairing chronic somatic shame”. (Nurturing Resilience, pg.203)
Touch can help clients to identify and more fully develop appropriate boundaries and to experience a sense of agency when determining how, when, and what kind of touch occurs.
Touch can, in part, provide what was not received during the early developmental phases, and provide a helpful option for those clients who are open to the use of touch and somatic forms of therapy.
Why are the kidneys/adrenals always part of the treatment?? The answer is that they are a direct way into the nervous and endocrine system, giving us the opportunity to reset health and regulation. The kidneys are topped by the adrenal glands, which act to produce cortisol and norepinephrine (adrenaline); key chemicals in the body’s threat response. This part of the body frequently experiences a great deal of constriction when the nervous system is dysregulated. The presence of the therapist’s hand (which doesn’t move in SE touch) encourages the muscles in this area to relax and allows blood flow to increase. As this happens, the kidney often descends a bit and begins to reflect the pulse. Once this regulation is achieved, the therapist moves to the other side of the table to support the other kidney.
When working with a population who have experienced developmental trauma, these systems are chronically set on high alert and need to be “reset”. When the kidneys are held safely, the body starts to relax, reducing the flow of Cortisol (stress hormone), telling the brain that it is possible to rest. In doing this, we are imprinting new pathways and telling your system that you are safe, not alone and support is readily available. There is no need to cling to your survival strategies. This needs to be repeated many times, and slowly, regulation comes in.
The way your body interprets stress is more than just mental and psychological stress we’ve come to know. Other things that can trigger a stress response in your body, or influence your biophysiological health include things like physical trauma, surgery, immunological stress, ongoing systemic inflammation, intense or excessive exercise, inadequate sleep, starvation or malnutrition, relationship/financial/work/family/societal stress, and environmental toxic burden to name a few.
So, what areas make up and control these powerful systems? Simply put, it is called the HPA axis. It is comprised of the Hypothalamus which activates the fear response of fight, flight or freeze. The Amygdala which decodes and sorts emotions while at the same time, determining the possible threat and stores fear memories. And the Pituitary Gland,which controls the function of most other endocrine glands by producing and releasing a number of different hormones. Each hormone affects a specific part of the body and can influence things like obesity and metabolism, blood sugar regulation, thyroid function, milk production during breastfeeding, appropriate growth and development in children, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, male sex characteristics, libido, menstrual cycle, fertility, and mental health. Overall, this tiny gland plays a vital part in regulating the body’s functioning and overall wellbeing.
While cortisol sometimes gets a bad rep, it is important to underline that it is still vital for good health and survival. This is why it is important to understand the difference between good stress and bad stress. Along the stress curve we are able to assess different levels of cortisol, and how it influences the body.
The difference between good stress and bad stress is how we perceive the stressor. Our body is able to read these signals and responds appropriately. Good stress is the stress we use to keep us going; one that motivates us to hit deadlines and accomplish things that are important to us. It can be that exhilarating and energizing feeling after a good work out, or the adrenaline rush that comes after you jump out of a plane. Optimal stress levels are ones that keep you feeling relaxed, laid back, motivated and moving forwards. Too little stress or too much stress is where we hit some problems.
When there is too little stress, we are inactive. We lack motivation, we feel numb, and nothing really seems important; there is nothing driving us forward. On the other end of the curve we see the build up to “adrenal fatigue/insufficiency,” which can start with symptoms of fatigue, building into exhaustion. When our body is putting out high levels of cortisol, we can feel uncharacteristically wired, angry, anxious, or panicked. This can be sustained on and off for only so long, before our body eventually hits burnout. Again we’ll feel exhausted, numb, lack motivation and that is because there’s nothing left to drive us forwards.
Levels of cortisol change throughout the day. The changes from morning to evening are referred to as the diurnal cortisol slopes. Typically, cortisol should surge within the first 30-40 minutes after waking (the cortisol awakening response), making you feel alert and ready to tackle your day. It drops rapidly a few hours after this surge and then continues to drop slowly throughout the day, until bedtime where cortisol trades off with melatonin for a good nights sleep. When there are abnormalities in this pattern, we can see a variety of symptoms such as difficulty falling/staying asleep, waking feeling exhausted, feeling wired and not tired, or feeling persistently drained.
Flatter diurnal cortisol slopes have been studied and associated with poorer mental and physical health outcomes. This may be a result of the associated changes in inflammation and immune function.
From a Naturopathic perspective, we consider how all of your symptoms are working in relation to your perceived and physiological stress, to get to the root cause of your concerns. We are able to run functional tests that assess your salivary cortisol throughout the day to see how levels vary, and are able to apply similar testing to assess your cortisol awakening response. We consider nutritional deficiencies that may be at play, which may be reducing your resiliency to every day stressors, or may be contributing to the severity of the stress. We take all of this into consideration and are able to support you with dietary recommendations, lifestyle modifications, acupuncture, homeopathy and botanical herbs like adaptogens. Adaptogens like eleutherococcus, rhodiola rosea, withania somnifera, panax ginseng, ganoderma, schisandra chinensis and more, have been extensively studied for their benefit in reducing the body’s perception and reaction to stress, help to calm anxiety and nervous tension to better support your overall wellbeing and stress tolerance.
So how do Somatic Experiencing and Naturopathic Medicine work together? Naturopathic Medicine addresses the underlying factors and obstacles you may be facing in health, giving you the support you need to dive deeper into your Somatic Experiencing sessions to retrain the body’s nervous pathways and response. Together, we can help to reset your nervous system, give you tools to manage your ongoing stress, and teach your body how to feel safe.
- Nurturing Resilience. Helping Clients Move Forward from Developmental Trauma. An Integrative Somatic Approach. Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell. 2018, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
- PMID: 29021708, 28578301