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The 5 Ways I'm Retraining My Cranky Nervous System, and You Can Too!

I have a cranky nervous system. Which is… forrrr suuure a technical term.

My cranky nerves are a lot like having a faulty alarm system. A good alarm will know the difference between someone breaking into the house and a moth landing on the doorframe. My nervous system, unfortunately, fires up the warning bell every chance it gets, including for the moths.

I have this cranky system because I’ve experienced longstanding trauma, which has given me complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This touchiness shows up most noticeably in my body through a racing heart and slow breathing. Then, it quickly interferes with my thoughts. I start to be afraid something bad is about to happen, my mind goes blank, I can’t find my words, and I often cry.

Living with this type of faulty alarm is not all that helpful or fun. I know it is attempting to alert me to danger, in a way that may have been useful to me in the past, but no longer serves me. And while I could write many stories on why my nerves behave this way, that’s not what I want to focus on today. Instead, I’d like to share with you that I have been working on retraining my cranky nervous system. I want to tell you what that looks like, as well as encourage you that if you’ve got one similar to mine, these ideas might help you too!

1. Taking a breath.

I can feel your eyes rolling on the other side of the screen already. Is she really going to tell us to do breathing exercises? No, I am not. I really mean just: taking a breath.

My nervous system is a big fan of having me hold my breath, I often don’t notice I’m doing it until I’m gasping for air. Yes, it’s a trauma thing. Recognizing it is happening in real time is a large part of my problem.

Lately, I’ve been having success in scenarios where I’m stuck in getting stuff done mode. You know the one… body tense, thoughts off, brow furrowed… as you get stuff done. I was taking out my garbage (which was going to be annoying and take multiple trips). As I was stomping my way to the bin outside, I had a brief flicker in my mind that said, “You know you don’t have to hold your breath.”

That thought alone was pretty amazing, and I went ahead and took a breath. Wow, that feels nice. I then made a conscious effort to breathe as I went about my task. I must say it was quite the pleasant change to not be wheezing at the end of my chore. I think with enough repetition I may be able to bring this thought back into my mind when I’m in more triggering situations.

2. Pet sitting.

My nervous system prefers the purring kind, but I’m not picky.

I love animals and they love me; unfortunately, I’m not in a position to have any pets at the moment. So, I do my best to seek them out in the homes of my friends.

This past fall I was going through a new type of treatment, and I often found my nervous system was particularly activated after my sessions. By coincidence, at the same time, my friend and her family were going to be away, and she’d given me her keys to check in on their cat. I often went over right after my treatment, then as Felix and I cuddled together, he would begin to purr and my sense of safety and calm would return. I guess my nervous system is also an animal lover. I hope one day I can have a pet, but until then, I’m happy to spend time with others.

Author holding Felix, an orange cat

3. Using wearable tech.

I wrote this story regarding my use of the Apollo Neuro device, which claims to help with retraining the nervous system to respond better to stress.

Continuing with my super technical descriptions, I would say this device feels like I have a tiny purring kitten on my wrist. And since as we’ve established, I’m rather fond of cats, this really can’t be a bad thing. I don’t have tangible proof if this device actually helps me or not, but I do know I like wearing it and have been using it daily for over 10 months.

4. Listening to and talking with my nervous system.

I’ve found I need to intentionally spend time with my nervous system by actively listening to and talking with it. No, it’s not an actual conversation, and yes it may sound hokey, but it works for me. You see, I easily check out from my body and mind, sometimes to the point of dissociation. This means I miss the cues that may warn me I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, at which point my nervous system gets my attention by being louder (or crankier?).

I truly sit back and have a chat with myself. I ask questions like, “How am I feeling?” Or, “What’s going on in my body?” Once I’ve sorted that, I try figure out what I might need. This all might sound like:

Hmm my head hurts and my lips are dry. Aha, I should drink a glass of water. 

I’m feeling afraid and my heart is racing. I think I’d like a hug.

5. Showing myself compassion.

I’ve deemed my nervous system cranky, because I find it funny to think of it that way, and I think a little humor is a good thing.  The truth is though, some more accurate words might be protective, sensitive, or diligent.

You see, despite the things I’ve been through and my difficulties with C-PTSD, I’m still standing. The adaptations my body and mind made to keep me going during and after the trauma are indeed quite amazing. So, when I become triggered, it is much more productive to show this part of myself compassion rather than thinking I’m broken. Interestingly enough, my insides appreciate this and will often calm down when shown this kindness.

I hope these ideas are encouraging or can provide you with some optimism that things can shift for you.

Keep in mind everything on my list is easier said than done, and in my case, has taken decades of repetition. I’m always experimenting with what works, and what is needed varies over time and circumstance. Sometimes I still end up curled up in a ball crying on the floor, but this now happens less.

I also go to therapy, do therapeutic floats, draw, write, get massages, do yoga, talk with friends, eat a vegetable now on occasion, and all sorts of things. I’m not always successful, nor do I always remember to keep up with my training. Yet, ever so slowly, I’m trying and my nervous system seems to be OK with the workout.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

Original photos by author

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