How does one befriend their nervous system, and what exactly is the nervous system?
Let’s start by defining what the nervous system is and how it works. The central nervous system (CNS) includes your brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of two branches: the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic nervous system facilitates our voluntary movements. When my fingers do the typing on the keyboard my brain is working with the somatic nervous system to facilitate that movement, and I am conscious and in control of it. The autonomic nervous system facilitates the aspects of ourselves that are out of our voluntary control.
Within the ANS are the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight and flight response. It also helps us get up in the morning, motivates us to show up even when we don’t want to and brings excitement and passion to our lives. The parasympathetic has two different branches, according to the polyvagal theory. The ventral vagal state corresponds to experiences of connection, safety, peace, openness or receptivity. The dorsal vagal state corresponds to experiences of shutting down, numbing, dissociation or freezing. The vastly complex and incredible nervous system controls and regulates everything we do, from how we think, move, digest, feel, relate, sleep and so on. There is nothing we do that isn’t impacted by our nervous system.
How does one befriend this conscious and unconscious, powerful and subtle, adaptive and ancient system within ourselves? One way is to get to know it. When you meet someone you are attracted to you might find yourself wanting to know more about them. What is their history? What do they like? What are their challenges? As a stranger becomes a friend you get to know them and understand how to be in relationship with each other. The nervous system is a friend who has been within you, maintaining your bodily functions, sending you cues of safety and danger, helping you plan and problem solve, and reach out and withdraw as needed. You might just not have known you have this friend living inside of you who always has your back!
In the same way we might get to know someone new we can get to know our nervous system. Everyone’s system is wired differently due to our unique physiology and life experiences, and the more we get to know our system the more we can learn how to be in a kind and loving relationship with it. We can learn what settles it into ease or what triggers it into feelings of danger. We can learn what it needs in a state of threat and how to nourish it.
As you are reading this tune into your nervous system. What is your body feeling? Relaxed? Tense? Are your shoulders contracted? Is your belly moving with your breath? What are the thoughts and emotions you are aware of? Are you feeling at peace? Are you anxious? Is the mind active or quiet? Do you feel like you are in the ventral (connected, at peace or open), sympathetic (agitated, angry or jittery) or dorsal (shut down, numb or disconnected) state? Do you feel like you are experiencing a combination of states? This is the first step toward befriending the system through getting to know it. Through our connection we can work with it directly to resource it, find the inherent resilience within it and build on that resilience.
In the upcoming Resourcing and Resilience: A Yoga Therapy Immersion we will explore Befriending the Nervous System in an embodied way. Check out this group as well as the 4-month program that will build on befriending the nervous system here.