I have been reflecting a lot, as of late. My brain has been full of thoughts and stuff about nerves. Let me explain…
I sat in a therapist’s office dazed and numb, but somehow feeling so much shame.
I was studying for my doctorate in physical therapy and getting good grades. I came from an amazing family whose parents never split. I had access to all my needs and a lot of my wants. … Yet I was having so much anxiety at night. Pushing my boyfriend at the time to help me feel fulfilled. Experiencing bouts of crying that would last hours each day and into the night. Missing 70% of my classes and labs due to uncontrollable crying.
I don’t think I have the vocab to fully express how low I felt. I remember distinctly thinking the most merciful thing life could give me was to take my life from me. I wanted to be tapped out. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.
As I sat there with this stranger, I was doubtful of what difference he could make, but I was willing to try. I poured out everything, thinking I was proving to him how “crazy” I was. I believed I was crazy because there was no reason why someone who was born into privilege, some wealth, a loving family, a quality education, and great health would be so mentally unstable.
“You’re not crazy,” was his response to me as I fumbled through my problems as if I was at a confessional.
He was the first human to explain how I was behaving physiologically in a way that made so much sense. There was nothing pathologically wrong with me. My body was responding appropriately.
He taught me about my nervous system. It changed my life.
Please note, discovery, healing, and trial and error is an ongoing process. That day gave me a glimmer of hope when I was completely hopeless. It gave me the strength to take another step. I wish I could say everything was better from that moment on, but it wasn’t. However, I had the courage to continue to grow and learn from that session and subsequent sessions. I believe knowing about this intricate electrical setup in your body is so crucially important, so let’s dive in!
I’m a science-minded person and like to know how something works instead of just “believing.” It’s great to believe, but when you can grasp “how” a tool is effective, you’ll be able to yield better results.
So let’s dive in.
Your nervous system is an electrical sytem that sends messages to and from your body to your brain, and it’s composed of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system is divided into two branches: somatic and autonomic. The somatic has to do with movement and senses. It’s not the focus of today.
The autonomic system is also divided into two branches:
- Sympathetic: flight, fight, freeze
- Parasympathetic: rest, digest
- Parasympathetic: rest, digest
Both are important. The sympathetic is critical to survival because it’s the response to a threat. If you’re being chased by a lion, you need your body to send blood to your muscles so you can escape the threat. However, once the threat is neutralized, you should be able to return to your parasympathetic system.
The parasympathetic system is important for other functions of survival, such as the function of your visceral organs (managing blood sugar, lowering inflammation, digesting foods, performing analytical thinking, etc.).
Here’s the problem: Nowadays, we aren’t running from lions, but we do experience a lot of stress. We have stress of finances, school, work, family, etc. We also have a larger frontal lobe than any other animal, so we can literally cause ourselves stress just from our thoughts.
Picture a gazelle that has just fled for its life after being hunted by a lion. Once the threat stimulus is gone, it immediately returns to grazing. Humans can rehearse, remember, and imagine threats that perpetuate the sympathetic adrenaline rush state of being… even if the threat doesn’t physically exist!
I’m sure you’ve experienced this: Think of a time when you couldn’t sleep just because of all the stressful things you were thinking you had to do the next day or because you were afraid of something happening.
It’s also important to note that the thoughts you think about yourself can be a lion. In other words, you can be a lion chasing yourself!
Thankfully the equal and opposite is also true: You can become the safety your body needs.
It’s important to learn how to regulate your nervous system. I picture my nervous system as a scared toddler who needs to be comforted and taken care of. Creating safety for your mind and body can help you return back to baseline. It can be achieved through gentle movements, breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, relaxation techniques, etc.
So there I was in the office, and my therapist had just explained that from past experiences, I was stuck in a sympathetic state. He basically said to me, “It’s as if there’s a bear constantly chasing you.”
To paraphrase what he taught me;: My body was in a constant state of threat. I couldn’t think deeply and reasonably about my relationship with my boyfriend at the time. I wasn’t able to focus on school. I was crying all the time. I couldn’t understand why I struggled with my religion. … My body was experiencing a chronic threat of danger whether it was visible or not to the outside world.
I wasn’t crazy, because my body was doing what it was made for: protecting me. It was ready to fight, run, hide, or shut down at any moment based on the threats I was internalizing.
Before I could address the external issues at hand, I had to learn to stabilize and regulate my nervous system in order to have clear mind and calm body. I’d been subconsciously wrestling with lions and was losing.
Understanding what I shared above has been life changing. Just trying to think more or harder about an issue doesn’t resolve it. It’s about taking a moment to create safety and give your body permission to go into the parasympathetic state where you can be more creative and logical to address any “mountain” you’re currently facing.
My number one thing I want you to know is this:
YOU ARE NOT CRAZY.
Welcome to the human club. Your body is doing exactly what is designed for: taking care of you.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing about the nervous system. I teach my clients several techniques and walk them through how to regulate their nervous system and have clarity of thinking. If you want to learn more about how you are NOT crazy, sign up for a free call!