The 5 default patterns of an overwhelmed, overloaded nervous system (and
how to shift)
People-pleasing, avoidance, procrastination, quick to anger, disassociation, apathy, confusion, frustration, irritation…
Do any of these sound familiar to you? How about those around you?
While many of these qualities have been labeled as personality traits, what they really represent is an overwhelmed, overloaded nervous system. In fact, many of these qualities are normal responses to micro and macro traumas that we experience throughout our lifetime.
As much as these patterns may seem unchangeable, I promise that you can heal from them. In fact, these responses are normal and a sign of adaptability in the moment of threat. However, it can become more of an issue if we get stuck in such patterns.
The first step in moving beyond this “stuckness” is understanding your own bodymind, nervous system, and how you personally respond to stress. This will help set the foundation for what to do next and ultimately help you shift from collapse to confidence.
So let’s get started!
Understanding Your Nervous System
You’ve probably heard the saying, “fight or flight” when it comes to how we process stress. While this is partially true, it’s missing some very important components.
Our nervous system is responsible for practically our entire life. It coordinates how we process the external world, how our inner world responds, and how we navigate our emotional states. It’s the master control center of our entire body and it’s made up of three distinct branches.
(1) The Social Nervous System
As the most evolved part of our nervous system, our social nervous system is responsible for detecting safety in our environment, including from other people. This system is the first system we use to detect safety through facial and vocal expressions. When this part of our nervous system is balanced, we feel a deep acceptance and belonging with our tribe. We feel protected, empathic towards others, and have an embodied ability to read facial cues and directly communicate what’s aligned with our minds and hearts.
(2) The Sympathetic Nervous System
While many people associate this part of our nervous system as being “bad” or “stressed,” it’s actually very crucial for our health to have a well-balanced, sympathetic nervous system. This part of our nervous system is responsible for our ability to move and act on things in life. It coordinates our wake-up response as well as fornication. When balanced it helps us fight off true threats to our survival as well as pursue our goals with a healthy, internal drive. The sympathetic nervous system also controls our focus, alertness, healthy aggression, and sex drive (aka to pass on our genetics to future offspring).
(3) The Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is what many people refer to as the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. When balanced, the parasympathetic nervous system also coordinates our wind-down and sleep cycles, as well as some level of arousal. Besides digestion, it also supports our healing and recovery from bumps and bruises to fractures and infections.
When all 3 parts of our nervous system are aligned and functioning well, we experience balance and coherence physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
The 5 default patterns of an overwhelmed, overloaded nervous system
When our nervous system (or bodymind) perceives that we do not have the energetic resources to adapt to a life event, our system perceives this as trauma (no matter how small or big). The trauma cascade can look very different for each of us which is why it’s important to begin to understand your default pattern so you can more fully own the experience and shift into a more balanced, coherent state. It’s also important to note that we all have a default pattern and we all experience trauma to some degree. As humans, it’s inevitable. The key is learning how you respond, what your default is, and what to do in those moments so you don’t continue to carry the effects of trauma into the future.
Each part of the nervous system defaults differently. Here are the five ways that the three parts of our nervous system show up in states of disequilibrium and dysregulation:
**Note - if it feels very familiar, this is most likely your default response**
(1) Fawning - You keep your “enemies” (threat) in close proximity; niceness, appeasing, people-pleasing, acquiesce, hypersocialization, social dominance, subordination, your facial cues do not match your inner experience
(2) Fitting In - loneliness, isolation, feelings of imposter syndrome, camouflaging or blending into the crowd, showing less of yourself, social dominance to match the culture
(3) Fight - irritation, frustration, anger, rage, annihilation, lower neck tension, sympathetic dominance, high blood pressure, chest tension, sweating often
(4) Flight - worry, anxiousness, fear, terror, panic, jittery, cannot stop moving, shallow breathing, restless legs (trying to run), active avoidance, sympathetic dominance, wire-tired feeling (so tired but you cannot fall asleep)
(5) Freeze - confusion, “I don’t know,” disorientation, numbness, apathy, losing things, indecisiveness, procrastination, helplessness, resignation, collapse, depression, chronic pain, numb/cold hands/extremities, parasympathetic dominance, low blood pressure, shutting down
How to rebalance and reset from our default patterns
Now that you’ve started to determine your default response, here are some simple ways to help rebalance and reset your own nervous system. Please also remember different parts of your body can be in different responses depending on the level, depth, and intensity of the trauma(s).
The key to this is to become aware and then practice. You can think of it as learning another language - the language of the body. It will take time, energy, and consistency. This process of mastering your body language doesn’t mean you won’t ever default again (remember, you’re human). What this process allows for is for you to gain a level of autonomy and embodiment within your own experience. It’s about learning to surf the waves of life and become a master of your own inner and outer bodily reality.
Fawning and Fitting In Default - Rebalancing Tips
● Find a safe environment where you can verbalize what’s on your heart and mind even if it feels uncomfortable at first
● Practice wearing outfits that help you stand out little by little (even if it’s in the comfort of your own home)
● Practice speaking a tough conversation you desire to have out loud on your phone to yourself and listen to it after
● If you tend to stay at gatherings for too long, give yourself a healthy boundary of leaving by a certain time. End the evening with some internal reflection.
● Practice statements on your own such as
○ “No, I disagree, I have another perspective - are you open to hearing it?
○ Actually, this is my experience with x,y,z”
● Notice in your body when you find yourself people-pleasing where you sense it in your body first. Breathe into that area to create safety and stability as to not collapse into old ways of being.
● Practice some gentle breathwork and confidence posturing before going into a social setting or potentially difficult conversation. It can help to write out exactly how you desire to show up in your “big self” or the words, energy, and emotion you want to convey in that moment.
Fight and Flight Default - Rebalancing Tips
● Find outlets to express your anger and/or anxiousness in a healthy way such as kick-boxing, weight lifting, going for a run before you drop into meditation, hot yoga, singing, screaming into a pillow, intuitive dance, heel bouncing, etc.
● Sound healing through “Vu”
● Growling and accessing facial expressions that mimic “fighter” or healthy predator energy
● If you notice avoidance and running away patterns (aka flight) in your system, it’s possible you need to exert that energy first before moving into a conversation, project, deadline, etc.
○ Similar to fitting in, give yourself some self time before entering into community settings or challenging conversations so you can stay present in your bodymind
Freeze Default - Rebalancing Tips
● The goal with rebalancing the freeze response is to first activate a healthy fight or flight response (see rebalancing exercises above like “Vu-ing,” facial activation exercises, etc.
● This default response does well with deep somatic work to help the brain access the body in a new way and introduce more blood flow, oxygen, and nervous system flow to areas that have been in shut down for sometime
○ This can look like regular acupuncture, somatic experience, chiropractic, somatic massage, visceral and/or extremity massage, etc.
● Waking up the system to engage a fight/flight response to complete any past trauma loops is the first step
We hope this brings you some clarity and confidence moving forward in your healing journey. And if you are curious how chiropractic care can help reset and balance the nervous system – reach out! We are with you every step of the way.
Inspire Life Team