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How To Make Your Nervous System Your Friend Instead Of Your Enemy

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Long story short: we need to feel physiologically safe to be able to adapt to change, become the leaders we want to be, and prevent/recover from any type of burnout. Let’s do this in three steps:

  1. Make the implicit explicit

  2. Focus on the 80%

  3. Be mindful of hyper-individualizing systemic issues

1. Make the implicit explicit

Since our nervous systems are our inner filing systems for danger and are consistently working to protect us, naming situations and experiences exactly as they are helps the system settle by lowering or eliminating uncertainty.

For example, explicitly naming that part of us that feels anxious because we’re doing an activity for the first time, that helps our system understand where the anxiety is implicitly coming from. If you’re a leader in your organization and you give clear instructions about what needs to happen, that helps your colleagues’ nervous systems settle by lessening the level of uncertainty. If you’re feeling burnt out, making the unconscious/implicit experience conscious/explicit can help you realize the extent of your exhaustion. By explicitly naming the situation, you lower uncertainty and gather previously implicit information about what needs to change.

2. Focus on the 80%

When making our nervous system our friend instead of our enemy, we’re talking about understanding a key ally: our vagus nerve. This is the largest cranial nerve in the body running from the brain stem to part of the colon. It plays a vital role in sensory functions in two ways: sensations on the skin or muscles *and* sensations felt in the organs of the body. It plays an integral role in the autonomic nervous system’s proper functioning and our overall well being. To learn more about the functions of the vagus nerve, check out this article.

So, what’s this 80% business? It’s estimated that 80% or more of the information telling the brain whether or not we’re in danger is sent from the body to the brain through the vagus nerve. When focusing on the 80%, we’re focusing on the input or information our body receives about the world around us.

By understanding what helps our body feel physiologically safe, we can also understand the environmental and relational conditions that help us thrive. For example, eating nutrient-dense foods and drinking water regularly helps the body know that we’re not starving. By getting enough sleep, we help the body make the most out of its rest window. By being in meaningful relationships where we feel seen, heard, and understood, we give our bodies the opportunity to know that it’s safe to be in relationships with others. By moving our bodies through dance, Yoga, cardio, we help our body complete stress cycles. As the Nagoski sisters share in their book “Burnout”, small, everyday efforts can keep us from swimming in our own ‘stress juice’ for prolonged periods of time.

These cue safety about the world around us. It’s less about doing all of the above all the time at all times. It’s more about intentionally setting up the conditions we need to communicate safety to the body by being intentional about our environment and the relationships we engage in more often.

3. Be mindful of hyper-individualizing systemic issues

One of the risks that you run as a person who wants to take care of themselves is to fall into the trap of thinking that all the challenges you face are ‘you’ issues. Yes, we all have a responsibility to own our life choices and be the least harmful version of ourselves to ourselves and others. And. Depending on how you move through the world, you’ll be faced with an added level of challenge to the baseline challenge of being a multi-faceted human being existing in this time and place. Depending on where your identity intersects with other identities, you’ll face racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia, fat phobia, xenophobia, machismo, ableism, ageism, and more. Oppression causes a level of stress that goes well beyond anything a single mental health walk can address.

I invite you to be careful with any practitioner, activity, or initiative that doesn’t address the fact that we exist within a wider web of connections, challenges, and systemic issues. You do not exist in a vacuum. I do not exist in a vacuum. Our nervous systems most certainly do not exist in a vacuum.

And. *The* (outside) world’s oppressive systems represent real mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical danger. So, I invite you to practice loving kindness by discerning what’s yours and what’s society’s.

And. *Our* world, including our inner world, our environment, and our relationships, can add to our vitality no matter what *the* (outside) world has to say. Ironically, this act of resistance, community, purpose, and connection in *our* world can create massive ripple effects of change in *the* (outside) world.

For coaching support on developing the capacity to adapt to change in this complex world, book a Discovery Call with me today. So excited to chat with you!

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