Written by Jan Müller
Our body is immensely complex. 30 trillion cells function in synchronicity and harmony, without us needing to spend any thought on the organisation of this masterful symphony.
Indeed, oftentimes we notice our body only when the music becomes increasingly disharmonious and unpleasant. In the severest instances of these disharmonies, dissonances may be expressed by autoimmune diseases, chronic conditions, cancer and mental or emotional problems among many others. Despite the variety of cells and their inconceivably large number, they all have one thing in common: they are all––directly or indirectly––influenced by our nervous system.
Looking at our bodies, it is not difficult to realize which parts nature considers especially valuable. By principle, our body organizes the most precious structures deep inside, protected by surrounding layers. In some even more extreme cases, it covers the most important parts in thick bone to make sure they are kept safe.
The latter is definitely true for our central nervous system. The key structures in the brain and spinal cord are buried in a solid bony skull and a spine, which masterfully combines flexibility, stability and resilience to outside forces. Following this logic, we can observe that nature considers the center of our nervous system the most precious of all structures. Even our heart does not enjoy such protection, and despite its undoubted vital importance for sustaining life, it ranks in this comparison only second and behind the central nervous system.
Do We All Have the Same Nervous System?
Our nervous system shows great variation in the way it receives, conducts and processes stimuli. A stimulus can be described as any piece of information derived internally or from our environment. It may be a sound, a touch, a light shining in our eyes or the sensation of warmth and cold. It might be an internally derived sensation like success or love––on the positive side––or sadness or fear––on the more negative one.
For normal functioning, it is crucial that only important information reaches our conscious mind. We need filters and mechanisms to distinguish between important and unimportant information, as well as ways to determine how intensely a stimulus is felt at any one time.
The psychologist and author, Dr. Elaine Aron, found that 15-20% of our population has a nervous system that is significantly different from the rest of us. The filters of these individuals are much less developed, which means both that more information enters their consciousness and that it enters with a much greater intensity.
In her 40s Dr. Aron was confronted with this issue first-hand, after she underwent a medical procedure to which she reacted unusually strongly. Her doctors could not find any physical reason for her condition and sent her to psychotherapy. Even though the psychotherapy was not helping her get better, her therapist told her that she seemed to be hypersensitive. However, when Dr. Aron probed a little deeper to understand what that meant, the psychotherapist could not provide any meaningful answers. This was the starting point of Dr. Arons journey into this area, a research journey that has now been ongoing for over 30 years and one that has taught her much about herself and people like her. Up until that moment, Aron had suffered for her entire life from thoughts and feelings that gave her the sense that there was something wrong with her. Through her research she relaxed more and more into her inborn structure and increasingly learned to value the gifts of her constitution, while also learning not to focus on the long list of things that are difficult for her.
When you belong to the group of hypersensitive people, realise that your structure is first and foremost a gift of nature. It gives you the opportunity to appreciate the subtle aspects of life, this is to be cherished! However, in order to fully enjoy and appreciate your gifts, you will need to learn how to take care of yourself. Protect your nervous system from overstimulation, know when you need to be alone and rest, use the soothing effect of music and nature and plan in time each day for recovery and rejuvenation. Especially in our Western materialistic society, dominated by the drive for achievement, you are highly needed to manifest and demonstrate other qualities worth living for. Do not get me wrong, your sensitivity is no excuse for withdrawal from the world. Reclusion may be natural for you, however, be encouraged to participate in the world, bring your qualities and find your own way to achieve, influence and inspire.
Filters of the Nervous System
You might think at this point: ”This description has nothing to do with me”. However, you will be surprised to discover that even the least sensitive person can temporarily slip into hypersensitivity. For many of us, it is already enough to go past our eating time by a few hours or to sleep much less than usual for one or two days, to end up with a hypersensitive nervous system. Quite quickly you experience irritability, have trouble concentrating and may avoid interaction with others. Simultaneously, ordinary stimulation like the sound of cars rushing by, the bright luminescent light in your office or an overcrowded mall may be too much for you. Some of this stimulation may even feel painful under these circumstances. It is like an overload of information rushing into your brain, as if a veil was removed from your nervous system that usually enabled you to deal with these stimuli.
This veil exists in all of us, it is indeed crucial for our physical and psychological health.
When a stimulus works on us from the outside, like the hot sun on our skin, nerve endings in the skin get aroused, the information travels to the spinal cord, and from there it goes up to the brain. At all three locations of this chain, our body can adjust its sensitivity, turning it either up or down, thereby creating a protective shield that regulates the inflow and guards us against too many stimuli entering our system.
We can use this example to understand what a stimulus needs in order to “make it through” and actually be noted and considered by us. The stimuli can be light, temperature, pressure, touch or from any other such source. While it clearly depends on the intensity of the stimulus, whether or not it can overcome our shield, it simultaneously depends on the strength of our shield whether or not it is noted. Some of us have naturally weaker shields than others, leading to different strengths and challenges connected to them. However, all of us can also strengthen or weaken our shield by decisions we make and actions that we take.
Five Ways to Desensitize Your Nervous System
There are many ways to strengthen our protective shield. Here I am going to outline five ways for you to balance your nervous system:
Sleep 7-8 hours per day.
Sleep is of essential importance for the proper function of our nervous system. Having too little sleep, or too little quality sleep, will change the way we perceive and interpret the outer world. Research suggests that a single night of no sleep makes us experience about 15% more pain. Our deeper knowledge of the protective shield tells us that 15% more pain, resulting from equal stimulation, means nothing other than a strongly increased sensitivity of our nervous system, which is unable to reduce the inflowing stimulation.
Plan time for meditation.
Recently, meditation has received more and more attention. Originally designed for spiritual purposes, we are learning increasingly more about the extensive physical effects of this ancient practice. In an impressive demonstration, Harvard University researchers showed that 20 minutes of meditation causes our brain waves to change significantly. In fact, some brain wave activity reduced immensely. In our terms, meditation reduces scattered brain activity, which normally may lead to an aggravation/overstimulation of the nervous system.
Spend time in nature.
Nature is one of the most powerful balancers for our nervous system. In a study looking at the effects of spending less than half an hour in a forest, researchers found such soothing effects on the nervous systems of participants that any pharmacological company would be proud of their accomplishment, if they were able to produce such a wonder pill. Participants showed a reduction in stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure, thus providing us with a striking instance of the complex workings of the most intimate circuits of our nervous system.
Embrace the power of music.
Music differs vastly in its essential characteristics, like beats per minute, pitch, tempo, melody and harmony, to mention just a few. Therefore, we need to distinguish what music we are referring to, when we talk about its soothing effect on the nervous system. Research found it to be especially beneficial to listen to Mozart, and while research participants showed no longtime IQ rise, it did rise temporarily. It is assumed that the effect derives from a reorganization of the firing of electrical impulses in the brain. Synchronization of the electrical activity creates clearer signals, leading to a more harmonious functioning of our brain.
Do endurance training.
Scientists still don’t precisely know how exercise actually reduces anxiety and depression. However, it is well established that moderate endurance exercise regimes have exactly this effect. They seem to impact our nervous system by triggering greater production of morphine in most central areas of the brain, thus raising our protective shield, while also directly affecting our psychology. This is the same mechanism thought to be responsible for the so-called ‘runners high’, which runners may experience in long-distance races. As they push themselves to the limit, they experience a temporary relief of any discomfort and feel truly ‘high’.
Recognize your gift and be practical.
When you belong to the group of hypersensitive people, realise that your structure is first and foremost a gift of nature. It provides you with the opportunity to appreciate the subtle aspects of life, and this is to be cherished! However, in order to fully experience, enjoy and appreciate your gifts, you will need to learn how to take care of yourself. Protect your nervous system from overstimulation, know when you need to be alone and rest, use the soothing effect of music and nature and plan in time each day for recovery and rejuvenation. Especially in our Western materialistic society, dominated by the drive for achievement, you are highly needed to manifest and demonstrate other qualities worth living for. Do not get me wrong, your sensitivity is no excuse for withdrawal from the world. Reclusion may be natural for you, however, be encouraged to participate in the world, bring your qualities and find your own way to achieve, influence and inspire.