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5 things I learned about healing my nervous system

We were in the middle of Kmart on a Saturday morning. For those living anywhere else other than Australia, imagine a retail space that is the lovechild of anything trending on Instagram and a discount megastore – a consumerist dream. A nightmare for the hypersensitive aka me. Though the kid was loving it, and as she examined each and every Barbie doll on display with intense scrutiny her Dad casually let me know of a fancy work event coming up in the next couple of months. “Ooh, I’ll have to find a dress!” followed by “Hmm, but I think I might have something I could wear already.” To which he replied, “Yeah, how about fifty?”


A row of Barbie like dolls lined up on a supermarket shelf wearing different dresses

My reaction to this was as one would expect.

Intense fury which I visibly showed through my facial expressions, body language, and verbal outbursts! Sentences starting with “How could you…”, the delivery of the ‘facts’, as well as how he had made me feel, all said at a volume/rate/tone beyond which was really necessary.

But I was aware that I was not reacting to this offhand comment in a busy superstore. I knew I was reacting to a gamut of other things, very little of which was from the present moment.

There was a time when I thought that my aim for healing my nervous system was to come to a place where I no longer got triggered. Where I no longer reacted. As I have continued on my journey I have learnt that:

  1. A healthy nervous system isn’t always calm.

  2. There will be times when I contract and resist and react and this is ok. In fact it is an opportunity to understand what might be really going on underneath it all.

  3. That my aim of being calm all the time, itself came from wounding - a belief of being ‘too much’, ‘too emotional’, ‘too sensitive’…’too reactive’.

  4. That the expression of my emotions is healthy and accepted.

  5. What I can do is learn more regulated ways to respond.

Regardless, my response, healed or not healed, is the result of an incredibly intelligent system built to keep me safe.

It is not malfunctioning. It is not broken. It is doing it’s job.


 

You may already be aware that our nervous system has two main branches: the sympathetic system (which gets us ready for action) and the parasympathetic system (which helps us relax and rest).

 

Within these 2 branches are 3 key states:

  • Social Engagement: Parasympathetic or Ventral Vagal

  • Fight or Flight: Sympathetic or Mobilisation

  • Shutdown (Fawn/Freeze): Dorsal Vagal or Immobilisation  

The ventral vagal complex is part of the parasympathetic system, and it allows individuals to engage in social interactions, build relationships, and respond adaptively to stressful situations. In contrast, when the ventral vagal complex is not effectively engaged, individuals may experience social withdrawal, heightened anxiety, and difficulties in regulating emotions as we tend to move up and down through these states.



 

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.”


Rumi


 

Understanding my nervous system allowed me to gain some perspective in this Kmart moment. Nurturing and healing my nervous system has provided me extended periods of time in the ideal ‘Ventral Vagal’ state, and I recognised that I wasn’t quite being my ‘self’. If I was, I probably would have simply responded with a similar jokey remark about the state of his wardrobe for instance, and moved on.

 

In recognising this I became the observer. I noticed that I was disconnected from my ‘self’ and instead of getting caught up in the blame, pain, shame, complain…whatever it is that is occurring in that moment, I had the choice of employing one of the many tools I now have on hand to get me back to me.

 

In that moment in a busy shopping centre what I chose to do was merely witness the emotions and energy coursing through my body. I didn’t try to work it all out there and then of course but just took a moment to notice, noting that it was something to explore later either through self inquiry or in a therapeutic space. In doing so I dropped out of my busy overstimulated, tired mind and into my body which helped to bring me some regulation.


The author practising mindfulness and meditation

I have used a mild example of what is commonly experienced, but regulating the ventral vagal complex is accessible to all and can be achieved through various practices that promote relaxation, social engagement, and overall well-being.

 

Here are some strategies that may help you regulate your ventral vagal complex:

 

  1. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing: Engaging in slow, deep breaths that expand your diaphragm can activate the relaxation response and stimulate the ventral vagal complex. Take long, slow breaths in through your nose, allowing your belly to rise, and exhale slowly through your mouth, or rapidly through your nose. This can help calm your nervous system and promote a sense of relaxation.  

  2. Mindfulness and meditation: Practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques can help regulate the ventral vagal complex. By focusing on the present moment and observing your thoughts and sensations without judgment, you can reduce stress and promote a state of calm. Regular meditation practice has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, including the ventral vagal complex.  

  3. Engage in positive social interactions: The ventral vagal complex is closely associated with social engagement. Connecting with others, engaging in meaningful conversations, or participating in social activities can activate the ventral vagal pathway. Cultivating healthy relationships and spending time with loved ones can have a positive impact on your overall well-being and regulation of the ventral vagal complex.  

  4. Self-care practices: Engaging in self-care activities that promote relaxation and well-being can help regulate the ventral vagal complex. This can include activities such as taking warm baths, practicing gentle yoga or stretching, getting enough sleep, spending time in nature, or engaging in hobbies and activities that bring you joy.  

  5. Somatic therapy: By identifying and releasing energy and experiences from the past, you release stored stress and tension, assisting in regulating the autonomic nervous system.  

It is not that his comment doesn't irk me even now! But my response at least will come from a place that is more authentic. That is more 'me'.

How do you even recognize it in the first place?

 

By meeting your true self first.

By knowing who she is.

 

 

Peace to you all,

 

Monica x

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