Taking the Leap
I am fully convinced that the human nervous system is not adapted to modern life. The lights, chemicals, smells, sounds, pace, rhythms, lack of meaningful community and rituals, lack of movement, lack of healthy fats, depleted minerals, and so much more, have created a perfect storm for nervous system pathology. That can be coupled with infections like Lyme Disease, Epstein Barr and others that effect hugely underrepresented numbers of people and also have effects on the nervous system.
Our nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and afferent/efferent nerve pathways innervating the entirety of our body/mind), is a delicate but resilient coordination of fats and conductive fibers that orchestrate the release of hormones, the digestion of foods, the processing of internal and external stimuli, the regulation of body temperature, sleep and wake cycles, movement of all muscles, thinking and reasoning, and so much more.
Our nervous system has both innate and instinctive processes as well as voluntary processes that we can impact with our own choices. The autonomic nervous system coordinates digestion, heart rate and breathing, hormone regulation, etc-and yet we can also impact these functions with our choice. We can slow our breathing rate. We can calm our mind with images, touch, sound, which leads to lower blood pressure and heart rate. We can follow a meaningful sleep routine which helps the nervous system shift into sleeping from wakefulness. We can associate smells with these relaxed states, and then use the same fragrance to recreate the restful, regulated nervous system we seek. (I learned several of these techniques from a dear friend who has been healing her nervous system this way for years-after specialists failed to help her with medications leaving her very ill).
I am finding that as my nervous system begins to regulate itself without constellating around cortisol and norepinephrine as the major driving forces (stress hormones which I've been living off of for years), I am left encountering a nervous system that is deeply depleted and a reservoir of unprocessed emotions, traumas and pain. Because cortisol and other stress hormones and their patner neurochemicals are pain suppressors, I have not been aware of the pain my body carries-physical or emotional. I also have been living with a blunted experience of joy, pleasure and beauty. When we numb anything, we numb everything.
With the guidance of my good friend, I created a playlist called "nervous system," that I listen to several times a day coupled with deep breathing and a relaxing scent that I created to comfort and soothe my nervous system. I am repleting minerals using supplements and herbal infusions of mineral rich plants like nettles. I am enhancing my nervous system's capacity for resilience with adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and tulsi, and with mushrooms like lion's mane, chaga, reishi, turkey tail, shitake, and more. I am limiting my time in artificial light and aritificial temperature control (AC) and spending as much time as I can in natural light, barefoot on the earth, surrounded by the sounds of life around me which themselves are regulating to the nervous system and carry huge amounts of information to my mammalian brain, though I've lost the ability to decode that information.
I am so grateful to have the time and resources to attend to this personal healing. And it has been excruciating. Stopping and turning to face the thawing of my fear, rage, pain and sorrow has made me want to dive headlong back into overwork and productivity more times than I can count. The effort it takes to choose new neural pathways, new ways of responding to the world around me, takes more energy and will-force than I have most days. Reactivity rises quickly and reliably to even the smallest stress or inconvenience. I am wondering if the "Karens" of the world (please, Karens, forgive me), are people whose nervous systems are terribly dysregulated and for whom all gating of stimuli has failed.
Just like any addiction, my brain and nevous system are addicted to cortisol and norepinephrine and other hormones and neurotransmitters that result from stress and anxiety. I am in withdrawal. My brain wants to create more stress to produce the chemicals it has been bathed in for decades. I am choosing not to continue to live that way. And I feel just as edgy, just as irritable, just as lost and angry as I did when I quit smoking, all 14 times.
And just as they say in addiction recovery programs, surrendering to the pain and putting our faith in a higher power, is proving to be extremely helpful for me now. I dream of astrolabes, navigating by star constellations at sea without landmarks or even the sun to guide me. I am finding another way, a new way, to live. I am softening. Opening. Allowing myself to feel and be vulnerable. I am consenting to not knowing, to being enveloped in mystery and wonder. It feels like dying, and in many ways it is.
I am also working with a therapist (her name is Athena and she's amazing), as well as a spiritual director (who I've been working with for more than 12 years). I have a close knit group of friends who are hugely supportive and who have also done this hard work of healing. My husband and kids are encouraging, loving, and gentle with me. I share my story here to help offer strength and encouragement to anyone else who decides to do this deep work of healing. Recalibrating our nervous systems to harmony, rest, joy, beauty and kindness, to me, is the way forward. We cannot access the mind that solves big problems from a state of panic, rage, despair and aggression. And we need to solve a lot of big problems, quickly.
Slowing down, feeling, being gentle with ourselves, allowing not-knowing, vulnerability and mystery-these are all counter-cultural and disruptive to the status quo. They are also deeply mystical and creative qualitites. To every one of us who chooses this healing work, thank you. You give me hope.