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Stress: A Neurobiological Friend or Foe?

What do Polyvagal Theory, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing and Interpersonal Neurobiology have in common? They all encourage nervous system awareness and regulation as a key to wellbeing. To mark Stress Awareness Month this April, psychotherapist and Director of Psychotherapy Excellence, Tracy Jarvis, explains how we can help clients to identify positive and negative stress, befriend their bodies, and ultimately regulate their own nervous systems.


Stress affects us all, wouldn’t you agree?

From the potential affects of cortisol on the foetus in a mother’s womb, to the pressures of relational dynamics in the school playground, to the lingering thought of a no deal Brexit. These everyday experiences, whether you are a foetus, pre-schooler, teenager or adult – quite simply, affect our nervous system.

Stress can be defined as a set of internal or external conditions that move an individual’s state out of balance, away from emotional regulation and equilibrium. Some people might describe this as being or feeling under too much mental and emotional pressure.  Subsequently they are not able to cope.

There are two types of stress.

There is stress that promotes optimal functioning. This might be the mild anxiety that surfaces before competing in a triathlon to get an individual ‘in the zone’ or the anticipation at the birth of a new family member.

Then there is stress that has a negative impact on a person’s wellbeing. For example, constant rumination about passing an exam, or financial and body image worries.

As therapists, what we usually encounter in clinic is the stress that has a negative impact (and in some cases, a profound affect) on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.

The key to stress reduction

Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing and the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology have one thing in common – they all promote nervous system awareness and regulation as a key to healing and promoting an individual’s optimum wellbeing.

Nervous system awareness and regulation, I believe, is at the heart of being able to manage stress. This is because, when we feel stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) ebb and flow out of balance. Our flight, fight, freeze response is triggered.

By working with clients to befriend their bodies, and in turn their nervous systems, you can help them learn the ability to track the signs, symptoms and triggers of stress. You can then work with them to help them find resources for self-regulation. This ability for clients to have the option to self-regulate can be life changing. No longer is their nervous system spiralling out of control or they are relying on their therapist, but they are able to calm their system, which in turn helps calm their mind and ultimately reduces stress. In addition, this ability to self-regulate promotes hope, efficacy and confidence in their every day lives, creating a prolonged sense of wellbeing.

General stress busting tips

  • Be active and exercising
  • Get quality sleep
  • Avoid unhealthy habits and adopt healthy habits
  • Eat well and drink plenty of water
  • Connect with people and engage your social engagement system
  • Challenge yourself
  • Adopt a positive attitude
  • Meditate and engage in calming activities to help still your nervous system

Tracy Jarvis

Tracy Jarvis is the Director of PESI UK and is a UKCP registered Psychotherapist in private practice. She specialises in trauma, stress and neuroscience.

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