Nervous system regulation.
If you want to live a happier, healthier, more successful, more abundant life- work with your nervous system. Romantic relationship. Business and career. Family life. Friendships. Spiritual path. It is that important. And while it is not an universal cure to all of your needs, it is an integral part of growth.
If you are not taking care of your nervous system, you will experience serious rebounds. You might invest all your energy in growth, strategies, even spiritual elevation- and then just end up being pulled back in the old status quo. Why? Because your body and nervous system keeps you where you are. And that’s not meant in any bad way. It’s for your own safety.
Your nervous system and brain is here to keep you safe.
Lets unravel this.
First a little disclaimer. I am not a doctor, I am not a therapist, I haven’t studied neuroscience. I am a plain old economist who decided to put all my energy and attention into my spiritual practice and became a life coach. What I am sharing is highly experiential and practical and informed by polyvagal theory. It is what I use myself, I see my community using and what I am working with my clients. It is highly effective.
Let’s start to say that our brains and nervous systems are not designed to make us happy per default. Their main agenda is to keep us safe. And that’s a reasonable thing. I mean, for a long time the odds of survival haven’t been as good as they are today.
But luckily we have what’s called neuronal flexibility. Our brain pathways and our nervous system is constantly changing and renewing itself. And this is where we get to learn and evolve, if we choose so. The bad news is if we don’t build up the skill to shape our neuronal pathways, we run the risk of repeating the same patterns over and over again, unconsciously. Because the majority or our thoughts, emotions and actions come from the unconscious.
The upper limit problem
One of my favorite authors and teachers, Gay Hendricks, coined the word “upper limit”. I highly recommend his book The Big Leap, where he goes deep into this. I’ll elaborate a little on the basic concept. Our upper limit is our inner temperature setting. When we grow up, we experience a certain temperature setting, through our childhood environment and our family.
So what happens if we are having this new relationship that meets our needs on a whole different level? If we are experiencing love we never experienced before in our meditation? When we have the business and career success we always wanted?
Our subconscious starts to sabotage us. Because new and unknown equals unsafe. And unsafe is not good.
Even if the known is miserable, our unconscious rather experiences the known misery than the unknown bliss. That sounds dramatic, but this is what I see again and again.
Of course, it’s not super obvious when you don’t have an eye on it. You might think that this fight you are experiencing is totally legitimate. That this fear of failure is just how it is. That you start worrying about your financial security because there is a real inflation going on.
But these are all upper limits- manifesting.
I see business owners who don’t answer client requests. I see talented, gifted people not working in their unique talents and genius because they are dealing with all kinds of other stuff that “needs to be dealt with”. I see artists postponing their creative projects because there is simply not the time. I see spiritual practitioners getting themselves into big drama just after a blissful meditation retreat.
The reason why you are not as happy and successful as you want to be is because you don’t let yourself be as happy and successful as you want to be. Not consciously, but unconsciously.
This is why we need to deliberately choose to work with our subconscious and our body and nervous system. So these parts experience that it is safe to expand. And this is where nervous system work comes in.
Developing a key skill: nervous system regulation.
One of our first key skills is to increase our nervous system flexibility. That means that we work with our body and our nervous system, so that we can “change gears” more quickly. For a long time, we have been driving this marvelous body machine. But since we did not learn how to drive it — what happens is an equivalent of driving a car with taking the hands of the steering wheel.
For example from going into a state of stress and agitation in a state of playfulness. When there is an impulse, our nervous system very quickly and automatically responds to that impulse. When we feel safe and secure, we are usually in a state where our ventral vagal part of the nervous system is active. When we experience a trigger of stress, our dorsal vagal (freeze) or sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) come online. In these states, our conscious thinking narrows down and we react more from the older parts of the brain.
What nervous system flexibility means is that we train our neuronal pathways so we are more easily able to switch from the different states of activation or even better, combine the dorsal and sympathetic nervous system with the safe and secure state. With this, we come back into our curiosity and play and more of our executive brain functions start to work again. That means you are able to again choose consciously how to react and you are coming back to the driver’s seat putting your hands on the steering wheel.
The second of our key skills is to establish a new baseline of safety.
Unfortunately, many of us live in a constant state of activation. Stress and adrenaline are key drivers for our productivity. This is why the work starts with establishing more safety and calm in your body. This is not done by a wellness weekend or a day of self care. This is a structural choice that becomes our lifestyle, a fierce act of self care.
There are many tools and techniques to learn and establish a nervous system regulation practice and safety in your body. In my other article: “Naviating overwhelm” I explore some of those.
It is important to choose a body centered approach. Because you cannot think your way out of this.
In the end those tools only support you, they are a valuable ally on a whole other part: to live a life in which you choose to feel safer and regulated in your body. This does not mean that you won’t fall in fight, flight or freeze- to the contrary. It’s not about avoiding stress or activation. This is about choosing to learn to navigate and collaborate with your unique body and its needs.
The nervous system is different for everyone. So while someone may experience an environment as stimulating and expanding, someone else might experience it as an activation and an overwhelm. Learning to live a lifestyle that honors the body and the unique nervous system is to understand how your body is working, what environments, people, practices, habits help you to come into your body and curiosity and safety. It is about developing awareness of what triggers you and what consequences manifest in your body. It is a whole journey to support your body and your nervous system as a friend and an alley on your path, taking care of your body’s needs as you would for a good friend.
What is important to know, is that all our strategies do have a good reason to be in place. They are not wrong or faulty. There is a unique intelligence in our responses. Because at some point in time, this is the only thing that helped us to “survive”- to be with emotions and triggers that were more than we were able to digest. It’s an intelligent mechanism to keep functioning and alive. This is why it is important to approach that body wisdom with utmost respect and care. You are not broken or wrong. To the contrary. Theye strategies serve a purpose, but they might not serve you any more. It may be time now, to learn some new techniques and ways of being and upgrade your skill to navigate difficult situations.
Getting to know your body and nervous system
Here is some contemplation questions that help you to understand your nervous system and your unique setup:
- What environments, people, activities help you to feel curious, happy, joyful, laughing, playful, calm, safe, …?
- What does an inspiring working place look like? How do you work and learn best?
- What practices and habits help you to calm down when you feel strong emotions?
- What recharges you and nourishes you?
- How sensitive are you? Are you more sensitive to triggers and stress than others?
- What are your signature moves when being triggered?
Here are some possible signatures: Fighting, pushing back and going into strong emotions, trying to escape and getaway in any way (for example through being busy or trying to solve thing frantically), fainting, dissociating and numbing, not feeling anything
- What intelligence is behind that signature move? What does your body and your system need?
These are just some inspirations, some questions to help you go the first step on your journey of nervous system regulation and expansion. I personally believe it is one of the most important skills and every minute spending time on nervous system intelligence is a minute well spent.
You might want to get some help and some good co-regulation on your path. Especially, when you have a strong history and a sensitive nervous system! These practices and questions are not meant to replace that, to the contrary, they enrich the therapeutic process.
With that, I hope you enjoy your journey with your body and nervous system. May you expand in abundance, love and joy every day as you inspire others to do the same.