Resetting our Nervous System

How big is your sensing radius these days? For most people, after the last year-and-a-half, their circle of sensation has gotten bigger. We necessarily got used to taking in lots of information and adapting the patterns of our nervous system in order to be more vigilant. There’s some irony there, because since there were so many restrictions on activity, on in-person contact, on gathering with others, we might have really quieted and settled, even become under-stimulated. But it is a rare person I meet today who speaks about the pandemic time in truly restful terms. We might have been doing less, but we were sensing more, and it was mostly an anxious sensing.

Now, in the medical practice, that shift of sensing activity shows up over and over again. There are a whole set of organs which are usually accessible to consciousness, but not part of our wakeful awareness the majority of the time. Think of the bladder—if you need to go to the bathroom, that’s usually when you are aware of your bladder, but (hopefully) most of the rest of the time you don’t even realize it is there. Similar patterns exist for our stomach, our lungs, our skin. These are all organs that interface with the outside world and we turn them “on” when they have an important task, but then they go back to sleep when the task is done. But I’ve been seeing lots of people where there is extra sensation (pain, irritation, cramping) in those different boundary organs. Sensing has progressively shifted so that those places do not properly go back to sleep. So bladder irritation, dry coughs, panic attacks with shortness of breath, stomach cramps, itching or buzzing sensations can be supported in good ways by working with them as excessive variations of a healthy sensing process that needs to go back to sleep.

Recognizing these patterns is not completely new, because related changes often happen for people who have experienced trauma. An innately-wise-but-too-strong protective reaction happens in those extreme experiences; a person “turns up” their sensing capacities so that they won’t be caught off guard. I think we can honestly say that for many people the last eighteen months have been traumatic, beyond experiences of illness, loss, loneliness. And that is because our nervous systems changed.

What to do about those sensations? Well, a great way to re-educate your nervous system is to spend time in nature. Artistic activity also helps, because then we are moving our sensing processes in all kinds of ways, which brings more flexibility (the effect is even greater if we, ourselves, are creating the artistic activity, not just passively experiencing it). Also scheduling time to say “things are in a good place and I can just let go of my vigilance for ____ (a week of vacation, 24-hours without looking at a screen, two hours for deep rest and breathing). If things are then still stuck, rhythmical massage or therapeutic eurythmy are very helpful (both available in the Denver/Boulder community). Anthroposophic medicines, of course, help too, which why I’ve been seeing so many people in this situation. 

So let’s make a collective pledge: it’s time to reset our nervous system. Let’s work to move, practice, and re-educate our sensing capacities. It will also help us trust more in the goodness of the world.

Be well,
Dr. Blanning

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