Survival of the Safest: The protective nervous system. Part 1.
Anxiety, chronic fatigue and persistent pain. I obviously now have full command of your attention with these sexy conditions!
But given the complexity, functionality and brilliance of the human body, I have long asked myself, why is the body capable of producing such unhelpful responses?
Evolution 101: traits that make us safe are more likely to get passed on. Therefore, traits that enhance our survival chances are always going to be become dominant.
Animals of all sorts have different survival mechanisms. Chameleons can change colour to camouflage themselves from predators. Echidnas have spikey exteriors to physically shield themselves. Koalas live in trees out of harm’s reach.
Humans have highly evolved nervous systems that alert us to threats within and outside our bodies.
Individually, we possess remarkable resilience through our nervous system and its coordinated work with our immune and hormonal systems.
The human nervous system (brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves) is incredibly well adapted for survival. We experience:
- Thirst – to protect us from dehydration
- Cold – to warn us when our environment is becoming dangerous
- Fatigue – to rest when sick or in need of recovery
- Pain – to alert us to potential threats
- Anxiety/fear – to alert us to threats in many different contexts
Mostly, these responses are incredibly useful and essential for survival. Yet sometimes they go haywire.
Unfortunately, happiness and mental comfort come second to these crucial survival processes. If our nervous system unconsciously deems that we are not safe, protective measures are taken.
The body sometimes gets it wrong. It starts producing an exaggerated protective response that is unhelpful. This exaggeration can be a temporary amplification of intensity (think headache/migraine/acute neck or lower back pain) or can also develop into a more persistent pattern of symptoms (eg. chronic pain).
Sometimes a patient will barely be able to walk in my door due to a recent onset of crippling lower back pain. This presentation often has nothing to do with tissue damage, but merely an extremely efficient, and debilitating, protective response.
I liken it to a fire alarm going off in an office building. Everyone is evacuated and 10 fire trucks arrive at the scene. After a full investigation, it is concluded that some burnt toast set off the alarm.
When pain, fatigue or other protective responses persist, this can be another another sign of an overly sensitive nervous system. Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia. These conditions may all be examples of a protective nervous system that has gone into protective overdrive.
In these more persistent scenarios, it is more akin to a quieter alarm bell going off continually, with an annoying fireman (I am picturing Fireman Sam) coming in to check on our safety daily.
Why does this happen?
Stay tuned for part two.