Also see revised version, Protect Your Irritated Nervous System.
Your nervous system interprets sensations and enables actions. It contains two parts:
- Central nervous system – brain and spinal cord
- Peripheral nervous system – branching network of nerves throughout the body
Your nervous system constantly transmits electrical and biochemical signals back and forth between your brain and the rest of your body.
Physical irritation is defined as inflammation or pain in response to a stimulus. When the nervous system is chronically irritated, it transmits sensations more strongly and is more likely to interpret strong sensations as pain. In addition to pain, the body can interpret irritation as anxiety, frustration, uneasiness, and fear.
Why seek irritation?
An important technique in CranioSacral Therapy is to move in the direction of ease. If a client’s neck turns more easily to the left, we move it to the left first. The body relaxes because the motion is familiar. At the same time, movement brings heightened awareness to tension patterns that prevent turning to the right. After moving in the direction of ease, gentle movement in the opposite direction becomes possible, and the range of motion increases.
Similarly, seeking irritation can be easier than seeking calm. We become aware of our responses to increased irritation, which gives us information about how it might feel to be less irritated. With gentle humor, we can acknowledge the ways we unintentionally increase our exposure to irritants.
If you notice a strong visceral response to reading these suggestions, you may already have explored your body’s reactions to irritation thoroughly. You can reverse the suggestions to move in the direction of calm.
It helps to start with an innately sensitive nervous system. If you have a more insulated system, it simply takes more stress to irritate it. Add some difficult life experiences, perhaps outright trauma, or perhaps the “normal” stress of the modern harried lifestyle. When your nervous system is overwhelmed, it stores experiences until the resources are available to process them. The stored experiences act as hidden irritants to your system.
When you find an environment that is irritating for your system, push yourself to spend more time in that environment. Definitely do not take breaks or try to tone down intense stimulation. Force yourself to ignore symptoms of sensitivities to foods, chemicals, or noise. Use addictions or dissociation to deaden your responses to difficult environments.
Deny your experience
Denial is a useful survival tool to slow overwhelming change. It shades into self-gaslighting when your internal doubts constantly question your perceptions. The ongoing conflict between direct sensory perception and contradictory beliefs acts like sandpaper on your nervous system.
Almost all of us unconsciously deny our physical experience through our inaccurate internal maps of our bodies. Did you know that your heel is not directly under your ankle, but behind it by a couple of inches? Touch your heel and the knobs above your ankle to check. Rock your foot at the ankle and feel where the movement occurs. To continue irritating your nervous system, do not explore inconsistencies in your body map.
Criticize yourself relentlessly
Give your Inner Critic free rein to tell you everything that is wrong and bad about you. Work hard to fix yourself. The harder you work, the less rest your nervous system receives. Look for someone to fix your system for you. If their method irritates your system, do it twice as much.
When you feel shame, cling to it. Blame yourself for everything that goes wrong for yourself and the people around you. Focus on what you think you should have done differently, starting with the actions in this article.
Find people who get on your last nerve and spend more time with them. Seek out people who blame, criticize, doubt, and undermine you. Allow your commitments to other people or organizations to take priority over your health.
If you find yourself worrying about feeling invaded, tell yourself you are too defensive rather than asserting your boundaries. What seems invasive is really on your side, helping your system get more irritated. Definitely do not take action to protect yourself based on “silly concerns.”
Physical and emotional pain can be both a symptom of irritation and a direct cause of further irritation. You can respond to pain with denial, self-criticism, and efforts to fix it, making it even more powerful as an irritant.
As you gain awareness of the ways your nervous system responds to irritants, you can make informed choices about allowing additional irritants in your life. Over time, you can interrupt cycles of pain and add gentle motion in the direction of calmness with self-compassion, support, and protective boundaries.
I highly recommend What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body, even if you are not a musician, as a playful, engaging guide to exploring an accurate body map.
Nervous system diagram from Wikipedia’s Peripheral nervous system article.