Last month we briefly reviewed the role of the sympathetic nervous system. We will be very aware of sudden acute threats and manage them effectively. However, we also face low level, chronic threats which trigger chronic low level sympathetic nervous system activation. It is this second situation that can be insidious, and we are often unaware of its presence.
This brief blog is about the need for awareness and I’d like to use a metaphor.
On the dashboard of our cars there are several early warning systems. What will we do if we notice that the temperature indicator is heading towards the red zone, if the oil pressure gauge is dropping, or the engine light starts to flicker? If we are aware, we will pull over and take some action which will hopefully avert a big problem later. On the other hand, if we choose to ignore the early warning signs and keep on driving the vehicle will likely come to a grinding halt and break down.
We humans can often have early warning signs that all is not well. If we heed those early indications and take appropriate action, then we are less likely to face a bigger problem later. The key point here is that we need to develop an awareness, which ironically is often challenging during the times when we are most stressed.
The early warning signs can usually be divided up into emotional, cognitive and behavioural domains.
In terms of emotions, we will often have heightened levels of irritability, anger, anxiety, or depression.
Cognitively, we will tend to interpret events cynically and be more prone to negative rumination.
Behaviourally we may suffer from impairment to sleep, decreased self-care, poor dietary patterns, or engage increased use of alcohol or other substances.
So how do we develop an awareness of potential early warning signs?
It often simply a matter of taking the time to reflect and be mindful of what is happening. It also helps to be receptive of others who might say “You don’t seem to be quite yourself today…” An important approach is to develop a non-judgmental curiosity of the early warning signs with an attitude of: “What might I do to address these things?”
Over the next few months, we will explore some of the basic strategies which assist us in responding to the early warning signs. These strategies are easy to implement and can make a significant difference to our health and wellbeing.
Author: Chris Crawford, Psychologist (MAPS)
Lecturer | Psychology |School of Health, Medical & Applied Sciences
CQUniversity Australia, Bld 6, Bruce Highway, North Rockhampton, QLD 4702