"Re-Wiring" our Nervous System's Reaction to Stress and Trauma (using Dialectical Behavior Therapy)
This week in the Distress Tolerance DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) group that I attend, our therapist/group leader spoke about the interesting ways in which our nervous systems have been conditioned and thus affect our present responses and reactions to stress.
I learned that our nervous systems have adapted to react to stressful situations based on past experiences. In a word, they become "activated" to go into action based on past traumas.
For example, when I was a child, my father had a very terrible temper and could fly off of the handle at any moment and become abusive. Because of that, to this day, I am very sensitive to men becoming angry -- even without my being aware of it in the moment, I can later look in retrospect and see that I respond in ways that allow me to protect myself physically and emotionally, based on automatic thoughts that my brain and nervous system generate in such situations, based on past trauma. But what about when these gut reactions are overreactions to current, non-threatening situations?
The good news is, according to my therapist, we can override some of these reactions that no longer serve us. There are many reactions and responses that I have come to notice over the years in DBT - reactions to stress and upsets that may have worked as a child or a teen but that no longer serve me as an adult trying to navigate this world with Borderline Personality Disorder.
As I continue to work on building a life worth living - a key component to DBT according to its creator, Dr. Marsha Linehan, I look for ways to grow into the person that I want to become. Part of that plan is to be a mentally stable, competent, and happy adult. It's working!
When we let go of our old, no longer useful ways of coping, and as we learn and integrate new behaviors and skills, I liken it to a snake shedding it's skin and starting with entirely new tools.
As we undergo these changes, let's remember that our initial, usual reactions do have cause. Our initial reactions of anger, fear, etc. all served us at one point and likely kept us safe or feeling safe. By remembering that there is cause for our initial reactions, we can more easily let go of the judgment that something is terribly wrong with us for our reactions. We can choose to change our reactions by learning and consistently practicing our DBT skills.
We can also minimize additional distress through our new found strength. One of the main purposes of Distress Tolerance skills is to help us to learn to tolerate distress without making our situation worse. Now that's definitely a part of building a life worth living!