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Over the past year I have been working with a nervous system coach. Initially I joined her group programme to find out what nervous system work was and to look at whether I was really as cool, calm and collected as everyone told me I was.
What I learned during that 6-month programme was eye-opening. Not only was there a lot more to this nervous system work than I realised, but also that I had been bypassing every single emotion that a human being is designed to experience.
Unlike other self-development work I have done, nervous system work is unbelievably subtle. It didn’t have the same immediate impact as other healing modalities I’ve tried. Breath-work has always had an almost instant affect on me, physically and mentally. Reiki and EFT Tapping have also given me deep and instant shifts. Nervous system work gently weaved its spell until I started to have insights I couldn’t deny and had me feeling surprised and shocked. Where had this work been all my life!
The bypassing I mentioned earlier was my biggest insight. Being disconnected from what my body wanted to experience and instead using my mind to explain away uncomfortable situations and events in my life had left me numb. Not just numb to the negative emotions of anger, frustration, sadness and grief. But also numb to the positive emotions of joy, happiness, peace, and contentment.
I was cool, calm and collected to the outside world, but beneath the surface my nervous system was busy suppressing every single emotion so that I could get through each day.
Nervous system work has shifted my life in a way I didn’t think possible and the more I researched and learned about it and myself, the more I also found there was a great deal of misinformation being shared in the name of being ‘the next big thing’ in self-development circles.
I want to share the five myths surrounding nervous system work that I continually come across.
MYTH 1 - The key is to return your body to a regulated state
When we are experiencing stressful or uncomfortable situations, we may feel a rise in temperature in our body. We may feel like we want to run from the situation. We may feel we are not in control of what is going on. We may start to breathe differently. These are just a few ways that dysregulation of our nervous system can show up.
Part of nervous system work is noticing what is happening in and to our bodies and emotions. It is to allow our emotions to be present rather than suppress or process them away in the name of regulation. Our nervous system automatically regulates itself on a constant basis. By trying to understand why something is happening in the moment we are not allowing the emotions to be present. We are trying to control how we feel because we don’t feel how we think we should.
Next time you feel a certain emotion, for example, sadness, let yourself sit with the feeling. Let yourself truly feel the sadness rather than try to hurry through your emotions in order to get on with your day.
MYTH 2 - Nervous system work will help you eradicate your issues
This is a big one in my book. The self-development industry has given us many tools so help us to ‘fix’ ourselves. To become the best versions of ourselves and live purposeful lives. Nervous system work has gained its place in the spotlight and by some it is touted as the latest fix.
We are taught and shamed that when we feel certain emotions, we must move through them as quickly as possible so that we can get back on the hamster wheel of life. We must regulate ourselves so that we can show our more balanced and perfect selves.
But nervous system work isn’t about fixing. It is about noticing. It is about allowing. It is about accepting every single part of you. And that includes the parts that feel angry, sad or frustrated at times.
The human experience is just that. An experience. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel certain emotions, we are not giving ourselves the fullest experience of humanness.
MYTH 3 - Nervous system work will help you go between regulation and dysregulation with more ease
Doing nervous system work will help you to become more aware of changes in your body and the emotions you are feeling when in certain situations.
However, you can not switch between regulation and dysregulation as if it were a switch! You are constantly regulating and co-regulating throughout the day. You may not be aware of it but this is something that is happening every single moment of every single day.
Your nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that are constantly transmitting signals between different parts of the body and the brain. It involves various feedback mechanisms that allow the body to respond appropriately to different situations, such as stress, temperature changes, or injuries. The autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary processes like heart rate and digestion, is responsible for much of this regulation
The nervous system responds to internal and external stimuli, adapting to changes in the environment and maintaining a state of balance known as homeostasis. It’s when we try to control this homeostasis that we may start being at odds with our own nervous system.
Have you ever felt agitated or stressed, but when you’ve spent time with someone who is in their regulated state, it immediately makes you feel safe and calm? That is co-regulation. Next time you are spending time with others, notice how you feel and how your body is reacting. These are the messages to take note of.
MYTH 4 - Nervous system work will fix me
This is similar to Myth 2. I’ll repeat, nervous system work is not a fix. It is not a band aid for the things you are feeling. It is not the solution to your problems.
It is instead a guide as to why certain things are showing up for you. It will help you see why you behave in certain ways. But this is not to fix you. It is to help you to notice where your baseline of nervous system regulation is. It is to help you to tend to the relationship with yourself so that you can expand this baseline in order to make changes in your life from a place of safety.
Many times we use mindset tools, affirmations and change our behaviours in order to ‘fix’ ourselves. But we must address our baseline and safety cues if we want true transformation.
I have spoken to clients who have done a great deal of mindset work yet are frustrated that their life still doesn’t change. When we look more deeply it’s because they are trying to make these changes from a place of survival or protection, rather than safety.
Our nervous system wants to feel safe when we are making decisions. If we are not feeling safe, we will constantly second guess ourselves or try to affect the outcome of certain situations. Next time you have a decision to make, check in with yourself. Do you feel calm about this decision or are you making it from a place of wanting to appease or please others?
MYTH 5 - Nervous system work will help to reset my nervous system
Sorry to burst the bubble on this one but it won’t. You can’t physically reset your nervous system, it was with you when you were born and will be with you when you die.
What you can do though is rewire and heal your nervous system. As I mentioned earlier in this blog post, it is a signalling system between different parts of your body so that the appropriate responses can be made. When the nervous system is unhealthy it can experience stress, overwhelm, burnout or panic attacks. These are a few examples.
Learning about your own nervous system and your learned and conditioned responses, baseline and safety cues can help you to heal your nervous system and rewire it to respond differently when certain situations reoccur.
In my own nervous system journey so far, I have learned that I feel safe when I am hiding and that in order to protect myself I put myself into rejection or victim mode. That is where my baseline of safety sat when I started this work. More than a year on and I have started to come out of hiding and showing up more in my life and the world in general. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes revert to hiding, because remember, nervous system work isn’t about fixing. I am more aware when I am hiding and that is an indication to me to look at why I may not be feeling safe enough to show up as myself.
There are several excellent resources that you can refer to if you would like to explore nervous system work in more detail:
Irene Lyon is a nervous system specialist. You can read more of her story and dig deeper into nervous system work on her website: https://irenelyon.com
The following are books I recommend and which have been essential in my own journey:
Kimberly Ann Johnson: Call of the Wild: How We Heal Trauma, Awaken Our Power and Use It For Good