Almost ten years ago, I taught English in a small town in France about 40 minutes from Paris. It was an interesting and difficult experience on so many levels, and it would have been a great time to have had my yoga tools, but alas, that is a story for another day. But right now I’m remembering a scene in the teacher lunch room. I eat fast, but one day, I watched one of the teachers literally inhale his yogurt. Looking back, it sort of reminds me of how my dogs eat – they sort of forget to chew.
My grandfather was the polar opposite of that French teacher. When we were children (and I will admit, even a bit when I was in college and would visit my grandfather), my brother and I would make a joke of my grandfather’s eating habits and count the number of times he would chew his food. One time he got up to 27 chews . . . for a piece of lettuce!
Looking back on these situations, I see two very different nervous systems. The French teacher was jittery in general. His manner of eating was simply one manifestation of his underlying hyper quality. My grandfather, on the other hand, was an accountant. Now, I adore accountants, but they are definitely not known for their high-strung jittery qualities. Instead, they are methodical and calm and precise. And my grandfather’s ability to chew was just a manifestation of those qualities. (And in case anyone is keeping score, I’m writing this while scarfing down my breakfast faster than I should.)
But this post is not about eating, though I do think about that a lot. This post is about our nervous systems. I had some fillings done on two of my molars yesterday, and I was in pretty excruciating pain for several hours after it was done. And I just kept thinking that my nervous system is so strung out. Being in pain for over a year does that. But as someone said to me earlier this week, that pattern has been in me for years. One could even argue it was there as a child while I was getting annoyed with my grandfather for eating so darn slowly. Sometimes he would even have to microwave his food in the middle of the meal because it got cold.
Yes, our nervous systems manifest in various ways. I have written before about people who bounce their feet constantly. But there are hundreds of manifestations of our internal energies. Have you ever met someone you knew was just totally wound up? Have you ever met someone who just seemed relax regardless of the external circumstances? That is the nervous system at work.
And most people I know are living with their nervous systems in high gear. It is why dis-ease is rampant, pain is everywhere, and somehow it is October when it feels as though the year started last week. Most of us are all running on nervous system fumes. This is, in many ways, a different way of looking at the fight or flight response. We are living on high alert. But the nervous system is what then starts to fire differently, and it changes how we see the world.
The nervous system is our connection to the rest of the world and to ourselves. It is how we feel. If we had no sciatic nerve, for example, we would be unable to walk. It is not just our muscles and bones that hold us up, but our ability to feel our feet that allow us to stand. Serious trauma to the nervous system can paralyze us. And our nervous system allows us to connect to others as well. Neurons are the transmitters that help our brain understand what is happening in the world around us. We need our nervous system to function at its peak, or else we stop being able to function at all.
When we are being chased by a wild animal, we need our nervous system to be on high alert. We need to have a single-track mind to protect ourselves from the imminent danger. But we do not need that singular focus the rest of our lives. In fact, it can get in the way of our relationships and our ability to live a full life.
When we are in a calmer state, we notice the world around us. We notice the people around us. We are able to give more of ourselves to our work and our lives. It is the biggest paradox of our culture that we think by working more we can get more done. But deep within our core, most of us know that it is really when we take regular breaks to recharge that our ability to work strengthens. Modern science is finally making these connections as well. I’m still trying to implement naptime at work, but I’m having difficulty.
Unfortunately, without regular breaks, without taking time to breathe, or sometimes as a result of dis-ease, the nervous system goes awry. It takes over and goes into overdrive, and getting it out of that state feels impossible. Doctors give us medication that is supposed to stop that overdrive, but instead of actually calming the nervous system, those medications simply block our response to it. Sometimes that is the boost we need to calm down ourselves, but sometimes it just makes it more difficult.
The good news is that the body/mind/soul do not want to rest in hyperactivity, so getting back to calmness is actually their natural state. We just have to get out of our own ways enough to make that happen. And that can take years of training. Or it can take a few minutes of breathing every day. There are so many tools to calm ourselves: Walking in nature, deep breathing (most accessible and easiest but somehow one of the more difficult to do), being with good friends, going to a calming yoga class (this means no Bikram when the goal is to calm the nervous system), meditating, massage, energy work, acupuncture, etc.
But those are all “just” tools. They are absolutely amazing tools, and all of them will help us get on the path to calming the nervous system. They are not, however, panaceas. In order to fully calm our nervous systems, we have to want them to be calm. We have to step out of the mindset of the modern world and recognize that we need not be nervous wrecks in order to function. We do not have to go 100% all the time. We are allowed to stop and take a walk in nature. Until we allow that one thought, nothing is going to change long term.
Have you noticed your nervous system has gone awry? Are you willing to allow yourself to calm? What are your tools?
© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, The Nervous System Gone Awry, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.