Your Nervous System Is at War—How to Negotiate Peace
Your nervous system has a sweet spot. Reach the optimal state of calm arousal and call a cease-fire on the war within you.
Laila Munoz has a recurring nightmare: She arrives home from work and finds about 40 uninvited Trump supporters in her living room, plotting a rally against the current government. She yells at them to leave, and someone throws a beer bottle in her direction. A man dressed in a MAGA t-shirt and jeans pulls out a Glock pistol and aims it at her, snarling, “You don’t belong here.” She runs out of her house and tears down a nearby alleyway, hearing the pounding of footsteps as the armed mob comes after her.
Signs That Your Nervous System Needs Attention
Nightmares are a common indication of nervous system unrest, and there is anecdotal evidence they are happening more frequently during the pandemic. Unlike bad dreams, nightmares are vivid, with disturbing content. Nightmares are signs that our body is experiencing anxiety, distress, or feeling out of control.
Other indications of an upset nervous system include intrusive thoughts that lead to worry, tight legs that are activated to run, arms that are tense and ready to strike out, erratic breathing, and overwhelming emotions. For many individuals, this state of unease has persisted since 2016, wreaking havoc on nerves.
Your Nervous System Has a Sweet Spot
There is an optimal arousal state for our nervous system that calls for an ebb and flow of emotions. This state is one of feeling calm and alert.
Under adversity, there is less capacity to flow between states and we tend to get overwhelmed easily. This leads to nervous system hyperarousal or hypoarousal. In hyperarousal mode, our body becomes excessively active, with impulses to fight or flee. Individuals in a hyperaroused state often talk quickly, use lots of gestures, and increase their speaking volume. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic are common. Heart rate increases, and the body perspires.
Some individuals under threat become hypoaroused and display a freeze response. Their body withdraws and shuts down, as if the person who was previously animated becomes stuck in an off position. They may report feeling exhausted or numb. They may appear listless, and if they talk at all, their speech is flat.
Ways to Manage Your Nervous System
The key is by learning to self-regulate, you can bring yourself into an optimal state of calm arousal.
Karen DeClerk, a Licensed Professional Counselor from Boulder, Colorado, helps her clients learn how to move from high or low arousal states to find harmony within the body.
Ms. DeClerk reports that stress from COVID-19, political unrest and lack of discourse, as well as intolerance toward immigrants and people of color, have taken a toll. She notices that her nervous system goes into overdrive when exposed to too much news.
For example, when she views politicians taking a dismissive, bullying approach, her mirror neurons kick in. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are thought to promote imitation. The theory is that when you observe someone acting in an aggressive manner, for example, your brain fires, and you may mirror or mimic that same approach.
In Ms. DeClerk’s case, after digesting graphic news, she occasionally adds an edge to her voice that normally isn’t there, or she makes a jab at a family member and doesn’t apologize immediately. Whether her reaction is due to mirror neurons or a hyperaroused nervous system, the outcome bothers her.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP), founded by Dr. Pat Ogden, is a treatment method that addresses such adverse effects on the mind and body. SP supports a deep, effective, and holistic strategy for healing. Ms. DeClerk, who is a trained SP therapist, not only practices this approach when she feels reactive, but she uses Sensorimotor Psychotherapy with clients to repair an exhausted nervous system.
To bring an upset system back into a state of equilibrium, Ms. DeClerk recommends an SP intervention of focusing on the breath and trying to breathe softly from the belly. You can also use your thoughts to promote healing by saying: “Just for this moment, I am safe. “ In doing so, you may notice that the tendency to brace leaves or the temptation to run away disappears.
Another way to reset your nervous system is to use a nurturing part of the self to console the part that feels threatened. Comforting expressions may include having empathy for the upset part or suggesting that you engage in an activity like a hot soak or a long run in the park. Such interventions can shift a tense emotional state to a tranquil one.
Some individuals benefit from grounding techniques to regenerate their nervous system. An excellent exercise to use when you are in a state of distress incorporates five senses.
- First, notice and say aloud (or distinctly inside your head) the names of five objects that you see. Take time to describe the details of each object, such as the content and color of a favorite piece of art.
- Next, identify five sounds that you hear—a train blowing its horn, cars passing by, children playing outside, your breath moving in and out, or your dog barking at the delivery person who dropped a package.
- The next step is to observe any smells in your immediate area, like the lavender scent of a candle burning or the smell of Kona coffee from your mug.
- Now touch five items that have different textures, such as the smooth cover of a book or the soft fur of the kitty on your lap.
- Lastly, call to mind items that you can taste, such as the sweet and bitter taste of dark chocolate, or the tart taste of plain yogurt with the tangy taste of raspberries on top.
Once you’ve completed this inventory, take a moment to notice what’s happening to your body, and see if you have shifted to a more optimal, calm place inside.
Turning to your partner for comfort is another way to renew an agitated nervous system. And touch is the master regulator. If your school principal sends an email that one of your child’s classmates has been diagnosed with COVID-19, you may feel upset and worried about your child as well as the family dealing with illness. Don’t hesitate to confide your concerns to your partner. You could ask for a hug or reach your hand out to your partner for a reassuring squeeze. Partners can co-manage their nervous systems by indulging in frequent physical contact, such as softly gazing into each other eyes at bedtime and sharing thoughts about the day. Or they can cuddle together before lights are out.
These approaches of tuning into your body and seeing what it needs to restore, using thoughts to calm and reassure, pausing and applying grounding techniques, and leaning on your partner may be just the thing to transform your nervous system from a battleground to a place of tranquility. And they may be the tools that succeed in keeping those nightmares at bay.
- by Beth O’Brien, PhD