Tune Your Nervous System and Lower Anxiety
Be aware of the consequences of your actions that fire up your physiology.
Posted January 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- When stresses (input) overwhelm your coping capacity (nervous system), your body will go into flight or fight physiology (output).
- You have choices regarding what you input into your nervous system.
- If your attention is on disturbing topics, you'll remain agitated, which fires up your whole body.
- When you focus on disturbing topics, you may be unaware of the havoc it creates in your body’s chemistry.
Anger and anxiety describe agitated physiological states and are sensations generated by your body’s response to threats.
When states of agitation are sustained, your body’s physiology causes physical damage to your tissues, sensitizes your perception of sensory input, and detracts from your capacity to enjoy life.
Mental and physical pain will also increase. To some degree, you are in charge of the information going into your nervous system, and what you choose to input into your nervous system will affect your body’s chemistry (output).
What Are You Choosing to Input?
Living creatures stay alive by scanning their environment and interpreting the resulting sensory input to determine whether a situation is safe or dangerous. Your nervous system coordinates your body’s internal and external responses to adapt and move on.
Much of this adaptation process involves your autonomic nervous system, which regulates your internal organs and the makeup of your body’s chemistry. When you feel threatened, your body reacts by upping its rate of energy consumption (preparing to fight or flee) and kindling inflammation (putting the immune system on guard against wounds).
When this physiological state is sustained, you have a significant chance of becoming ill, as you are consuming resources to survive.1
Humans have the additional input of consciousness. Any threatening thoughts or concepts will cause your body to go into fight or flight. Consider the various ways we upset ourselves that we have conscious choices about. Simply recognizing the effects and choosing different calming inputs can significantly change your body’s physiology to a healing state of safety.
A common means of becoming and remaining upset is focusing on situations we have no control over. It is an effective way of maintaining an unpleasant physiological threat state. Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good,2 has a term called “the unenforceable rules.” His point is that it is fine to wish people would behave better, but you can’t control others’ behavior, especially at a societal level.
It is easy to complain about politics, abuses in almost every arena of life, the unequal distribution of wealth, human trafficking, blatant misuse of power, the educational system, and bullying. There are endless societal problems to be upset about, which is a deeply justified reaction.
When these unpleasant thoughts rise to the level that you are reacting to them, you are consuming energy that you could otherwise use to actually make a difference in your sphere of influence. Unfortunately, when you are agitated, your inflammatory markers are elevated,3 which increases the speed of nerve conduction;4 the brain is sensitized, and any pain will be magnified.
Here is a letter from a person who has been suffering from chronic pain for many years.
...violence in nature is difficult for me, but human cruelty to others is incredibly upsetting. I have been this way since childhood. I am very sensitive, and I almost do not feel at home on this planet. I feel wired and tired at the same time.
Her outlook is understandable, and I think most people feel this way. However, she is “wired and tired” from being in a sustained flight or fight state.
Healing occurs only by stimulating your physiology to move into a state of safety. It is almost impossible to accomplish while remaining agitated about situations you have no control over.
Another way we remain agitated is by complaining, engaging in malicious gossiping, being judgmental, and giving unasked-for advice. How can this input bring your body’s physiology into that of feeling safe?
When you are suffering from chronic pain, your overall life outlook may be clouded, and these behaviors may become more frequent. Although you have legitimate issues to be upset about, you are also reinforcing unpleasant neurological circuits in your brain. A better alternative is choosing to place your attention on more functional or more positive neurological circuits.
What Are You Watching?
What about what we choose to watch? Violent movies and video games fire up your nervous system and, consequently, your whole body. You have to ask yourself why you would choose to do this to yourself? It is a surefire way of being in a heightened state of flight or fight. Unfortunately, with repetition, it may become normalized, and you may not appreciate your body being in this state, although it has detrimental effects on your mental and physical health.
Another behavior to consider is how much time do you spend watching the news? It goes without saying that most news is upsetting. Although it is fine and important to have a feel for current events that affect our daily lives, watching the news for hours is counterproductive. You are sedentary (exercise is anti-inflammatory)5, and you are not viewing material that is creating a sense of relaxation and peace.
Understanding the effects of what you are inputting into your nervous system is important in calming it down. Initially, they may be so ingrained that you can’t see them or the effects they are having on the quality of your life. It takes practice to notice and is also challenging to change. How much of your life has been consumed by them. Are they productive?
You may notice that as you back away from these activities, you may feel more anxious, as you are less distracted. Anxiety is unpleasant, and it takes practice to learn to tolerate it. Eventually, as you quit fighting this sensation, it will be less powerful and integrated into your daily life. It is a stepwise process and a learned skill.
Quit Upsetting Yourself
Here are some suggestions regarding changing your input in order to quiet down your threat physiology.
Create a list of societal issues that are deeply upsetting to you. Feel how enormous and terrible these problems are. Express your feelings on paper – and tear it up. This can be done repeatedly. Paradoxically, you have more energy to take action in some domain you have a say in.
Stop engaging in the following activities:
- Watching violent movies or playing intense video games.
- Complaining on the states of various world affairs that are particularly upsetting to you.
- Complaining about anything. If you can’t do something constructive, don’t spend time with it.
- Giving unasked-for-advice or being verbally critical. Consider how you feel when someone does this to you. Both parties are on the defensive, social connection is compromised, and your nervous systems are fired up.
- Malicious gossiping. Consider why are you engaging in it? You are, in a small or big way, robbing a person of his or her reputation. You certainly are not creating a sense of peace and safety.
- Spending long periods watching the news. Limit yourself to maybe 30 minutes a day or just skim the daily headlines.
Become a Light
Your individual contribution to the human experience lies in creating positive changes in yourself and being available to others you care about. However, you can’t reach out if you are consumed by pain and frustration. You may be so deeply involved in dealing with the negatives of the human condition that it may not seem possible to be any other way. But you have a choice.
Not only is a constructive mindset—not to be confused with mindless positive thinking—attainable, but it is also possible in the worst of circumstances.
Exhibit A is Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl,6 an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the WWII concentration camps. He bore witness to the worst horrors of the human experience, lost much of his family, and still found meaning and purpose amid extreme suffering. The question he kept asking was, “What is life asking of me now?” Few of us could pull this off, but he demonstrated it could be done. Keeping perspective on a given day when the challenges seem insurmountable is in sharp contrast to feeling like a victim.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt7 tells the story set in the mid-15th century of discovering an ancient Greek manuscript. Greenblatt defined “The Swerve” as an event that is so significant that it altered the course of human history. The manuscript written in 60 BC contained the poem, The Nature of Things by Lucretius.
Somehow, Lucretius figured out that matter was made up of particles called “atoms.” The Church realized that if this were widely known, there was a more powerful force than their authority, they would lose their hold on the population. Indeed, after this poem was discovered, it seemed to be a factor in ushering humanity out of the Dark Ages.
The most remarkable aspect of Lucretius’ poem is that he concluded, even while living amid the misery and brutality of ancient times, that all each person can and should do is to live a full, rich, and meaningful life.
Both of these books drive home that the world—then and now—is full of extreme suffering. It is easy to become focused on what is wrong, or we can step up and do what we can to alleviate it. Living life with a sense of purpose improves your quality of life and contributes to happiness.8 It also pulls you out of threat physiology and allows you to refuel and regenerate.
Healing from chronic illness requires your body to be in a state of safety. You can’t heal while consuming your body’s resources while in threat. In a way, accomplishing this by carefully avoiding upsetting input is the easiest aspect of solving your chronic mental and physical pain.
Awareness of the effects of various inputs is the starting point. Then becoming more aware of the numerous ways you engage in these activities is important. As you use your brain’s survival circuits less and nurture more pleasurable ones, you will be able to experience a more gratifying life.
To have a good life, you must live a good life.
1. Smyth J, et al. Stress and disease: A structural and functional analysis. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013); 7/4217-227. 10.1111/spc3.12020
2. Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2003.
3. Shields GS, et al. Psychosocial interventions, and immune system function. JAMA Psychiatry (2020); doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0431
4. Chen X, et al. Stress enhances muscle nociceptor activity in the rat. Neuroscience (2011); 185: 166-173. Evans, Patricia. Verbal Abuse: Survivors Speak Out. Avon Media Corporation, Avon, MA, 1993.
5. Sallis R, et al. Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48440 adult patients. Br J Sports Med (2021); 0:1-8. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080
6. Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1959.
7. Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve. Norton and Co., New York, NY, 2011.
8. Cole SW, et al. Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology (2007); 8:R189. doi: 10.1186/gb-2007/8/9/R189