Four Secrets to Confidently Hack Your Nervous System


Remember that you have access to your nervous system. It doesn’t have to function like a runaway train.

Part three of a four part series

Do you ever feel like a hostage to your nerves and a stranger to your body?

It feels terrible to be nervous. It's hard to understand and feels like there is little you can do about it. I know. Think about it, if you could really trust your body, wouldn't you live your life a little differently? If you knew that you had more influence to help yourself through difficult times, wouldn't you feel more confident?

You probably have a dream, a little or large wish for your life that you’ve wanted for a long time. These dreams often get pushed to the back of our lives, replaced by “realities” that feel safe and practical but tight and uncomfortable. Over time, the cycle of fear gets stronger. You push your dreams away because you don't trust yourself in the world. The body feels this lack of trust and insecurity increases.

Is your best life right in front of you but you’re afraid to reach out and try it?

You can start today to re-establish the trust you and your body need. In Part Two of this series I talked about taking care of basic physical needs. You might be surprised to know that you can also take care of your nervous system. Never fear, it just takes a little practice.

When people feel insecure, anxious or depressed, I get curious. You can do this for yourself. Breathe and ask yourself: What is my deepest longing at this moment?  A quick answer might be a longing for change, happiness or for pain to stop. As we look more deeply, though, the source of change and happiness is often surprising. 

What would life actually look like if you were happier?

I would:

  • be loved and supported.
  • make music (or other art).
  • feel safe and secure in my relationship, (world, home or finances).
  • be seen, heard and accepted.
  • run my business; be my own boss.
  • know I’m a good parent.
  • play and dance more.
  • travel, see the world and have adventures.
  • have more time to myself and figure it out.

Honestly, stress is an essential part of life.

Problems, discomforts, and pressures whether large or small, arise all the time. Questions and frustration are a natural part of growth and creativity. Think of the adversity the bud on the tree has faced before it blooms. However, unnecessary worry makes it even more difficult to move through struggle with enough consistent confidence to realize your dreams. Bursts of confidence followed by hopelessness and a sense of failure derail your plans, your health, your relationships and mood.

When you feel a lot of worry, it’s easy to believe that you are broken or faulty in some way. Truth is, your nervous system is wise and capable. There is nothing wrong with a nervous system that responds when it senses danger. The difficulty arises when you don’t understand what you’re feeling, cannot communicate with your body and therefore, have no way to intervene to help yourself.

Here are four mindset shifts to help you understand, check in and strengthen your nervous system in a healthy way. These techniques, layered with your responsible physical care provide a renewable source of strength and confidence, even when times are tough.

Give your nervous system credit where credit is due.

The body is made to respond to cues of danger. This is normal and healthy. Without the ability to feel our sympathetic nervous system which triggers us to fight, flee or freeze, we would never be alive today. The sympathetic nervous system is not intended to harm you. It is intended to save your life. However, your mind can become confused, reacting to lots of cues in the environment and signaling danger even when there is no danger there. When you feel chronically worried, you are essentially living in the sympathetic nervous system. It is natural (and inevitable) for life to appear more difficult and frightening from the sympathetic nervous system state. By recognizing, embracing and then calming this natural body process, you can stop this “danger” cycle. Here’s how:

  1. When you’re calm, learn more about your unique cues of danger. Notice when you feel anxious. Write down what you felt, thought, saw, smelled or heard that you think caused this feeling. Begin compiling your personal list. For example: I had a sense that I made a mistake. I smelled smoke, reminding me of our house fire. An ambulance passed by. The person beside me gave me a scowl. I thought my dog ran away.
  2. Get to know what happens in your body when a cue of danger is detected. Your body is not trying to harm you. Why not be curious about what it feels like when your sympathetic nervous system gets charged and ready to react?
  3. Breathe and familiarize yourself with your body from the inside out. Write down what is going on in there when you feel upset or anxious. It may look something like this: heart races, thoughts spin, tight chest, pulsing hands and feet, heavy pressure on my shoulders, etc. This is simply the nervous system causing a feeling. Remind yourself of this fact: It’s just a feeling. It is not trying to harm me.

Don’t ignore it, tone it!

You can actually tone your nervous system so that when stress presents, your most advanced internal resources are strong and available to help you. Your ventral vagus nerve is key to a sense of calm and confidence in the world. This nerve (Cranial Nerve 10) extends from your diaphragm and heart up to your lower brain. This is your nerve of connection to others in a safe and social way.

  1. Each day, find and feel the sensation of ventral vagal energy in your body. You can bring this up by simply imagining something you love, a place where you feel happy or at least okay (if happy is not accessible), your favorite time, activity, friend (human or animal). Allow the sensation to be pure pleasure as much as possible even for a few seconds. Hold as long as you are able.
  2. Practice moving between a sympathetic nervous system feeling and a ventral vagal feeling. Start with your calm, pleasant state from above and then allow yourself to sense a little more nervous energy with a worried thought or image. Breath and move back into the sense of wellness in your ventral vagal system as you imagine your calm state. Feel the difference in your body.
  3. Use your senses to strengthen your ventral vagal nerves. When we listen deeply, laugh and breathe, we are also working our vagus nerve. Use your senses each day with awareness that you are innervating and strengthening this nerve. How far can you hear? Can you take long deep belly breaths? What range of sound can you make in your throat that feels good to you?

Say “Hello, I see you!”

Remember that you have access to your nervous system. It doesn’t have to function like a runaway train.

  1. Use your breath to connect you to your nervous system. Breathe in slowly several times a day and just check in. Are you feeling anxious, alert, pleased, safe, worried? Be open to all that is happening with your nerves with as little negative judgement as possible.
  2. Imagine yourself as a competent and kind guide to your nerves. Celebrate the sensations in your body while providing calm and reason. Considering that these body sensations could, when needed, provide the energy to save your life, take some time each day to thank your body for this most amazing ability.

Remind yourself that you are a competent caretaker of  your nervous system.

Create your own personal system or tools to use when stressed. Now that you actually feel the nerves within your sympathetic nervous system for what they are, you can harness this information to use when you begin to worry. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Write in a journal, post-its, note cards and/or lists to remind you of the sensation of safe and calm for when you need it later. Capture these feelings of wellness in as much detail as you can and keep them easily accessible. Do the same with any cues of danger so that you can remember these feelings are simply the body checking out your environment.
  2. Use your Imagination to feel or picture your ventral vagal sensation of social, calm, belonging, and okay in the world. Memorize “body bookmarks” of this good feeling and hold these feelings in your body.
  3. Let all your senses get involved! Use movement, dance, touching or tapping the body, music or other sound, laughter, and deep breathing. Remind your nervous system that it can trust you to be there.

Remember that small consistent change leads to great growth. For the techniques above and much more to help you calm and live your life: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence. 

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