fbpx

The Little-Known REAL Problem: Nervous System Dysregulation 🧬

Manifesto: Part 2 of 2

The Little-Known REAL Problem: Nervous System Dysregulation 🧬

When it comes to feeling stuck, tired and miserable with negative thoughts that never stop… the mind is NOT the problem.

People call it “mental health”… but as we’re about to discover, “mental health” is far from just “mental”.

That’s why we can meditate, make gratitude lists, write in our $49 Moleskine journals and pray to God that Mercury starts drinking some Gatorade…

…and still feel like nothing makes much of a difference.

The question is…

If the mind is not the problem, what’s the real problem?

Nervous system dysregulation.

More on that in a second.

First, let’s see what Albert Einstein has to say about the situation (because it turns out Einstein knew a thing or two about negative thoughts and feeling stuck).

Albert Einstein on How To Stop Feeling Stuck, Tired and Miserable

When someone asked Albert Einstein what helped him the most when developing the theory of relativity, he said it was “figuring out how to think about the problem.”

In other words…

Before we look for solutions to feeling stuck, tired and miserable with negative thoughts that never seem to stop, we should first look at how we’re thinking about the problem.

The best way to illustrate this is with a story about a river, a broken bridge and a few blood-curdling screams 😱

One day, Bob found himself walking beside a river.

All of a sudden, he heard a scream.

Thirty seconds later, he saw a person floating face-down in the water.

He sprinted to the shore, jumped in and swam out to rescue this person. They were still breathing… but barely.

Bob got them to the shore safely and took a moment to catch his breath.

That’s when he heard it — another scream.

He jumped up, swam out and brought the next person back to the shore.

Just as he started to relax again, he heard another scream.

And another.

And another.

“What’s going on?” he thought to himself.

He tried new techniques for rescuing people to see if that stopped the relentless flow of negative thoughts and feelings people.

He threw life jackets for the people who were still awake as they floated down the river.

He ran a rope across the water.

He tossed out floaties and even a few snorkels.

He meditated for a few minutes, wrote down three things he’s grateful for and wrote in his journal.

He even laid out some crystals from his super spiritual hippy friend (just in case the colorful rocks knew how to swim).

But while some of it helped, it wasn’t enough to stop the flow of screaming people.

While Bob could rescue some of them, he didn’t have the tools or the capacity to save everyone.

After several hours of this madness, a curious thought popped into his head:

“Maybe I should see what’s happening upstream?”

Bob called another hiker and told him to rescue people while he ran upstream to see what was happening.

5 minutes later, he stumbled across the real problem:

A bridge across the river was broken.

That’s why people kept falling into the raging river.

Bob looked around and noticed some planks of wood nearby. He saw a hammer and nails.

“Perfect!” he thought.

He fixed the bridge… then jogged back to where he started.

He didn’t see a single screaming person when he looked out onto the river.

Problem solved! 🥳

This is an example of upstream vs downstream thinking.

We can focus all our time on what’s happening downstream (the screaming people floating down the river), but it’s like playing Whack-A-Mole.

We can be the best Whack-A-Mole player in the world…

…but we’re still stuck playing Whack-A-Mole instead of enjoying our walk by the river.

Or we can go upstream and focus on the root cause of the people floating down the river. If we solve the upstream problem (the broken bridge), we solve the downstream effects (the screaming, drowning people).

Then we can stop with the exhausting Whack-A-Mole game and get back to actually enjoying our life.

This is what Einstein meant when he said figuring out how to think about the problem is the most important thing.

Well…

Negative thoughts and uncomfortable feelings are the screaming people floating down the river 🤔

They’re not the root cause.

They’re just symptoms or downstream effects of an upstream problem. Keep reading to see what I mean.

This means…

Until we fix the “broken bridge” that is the root cause of our negative thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, we’ll keep playing Whack-A-Mole with them, feeling like nothing makes much of a difference.

We’ll have to meditate, journal and make gratitude lists to catch negative thoughts and feelings… but like in the story about the river, we’ll never catch them all (and we’ll have to do it forever 😭).

OR

We could fix the broken bridge that’s upstream and solve the problem at its source 🤷‍♂️

That’s where nervous system dysregulation comes in.

Nervous System Dysregulation: The Little-Known “Broken Bridge” Behind Feeling Stuck, Tired and Miserable With Negative Thoughts That Never Stop 😩

Why do we worry?

Why do we feel afraid or angry?

Why do we feel ashamed, insecure and embarrassed?

Why do we feel numb, disconnected and dead inside?

Why do we procrastinate, self-sabotage and get in our own way?

The answer?

Nervous system dysregulation.

In simple terms, a dysregulated nervous system is a nervous system that’s all out of whack. As a result, it doesn’t function correctly. It’s unbalanced. And it’s stuck in arousal or activation which leads to the problems I just mentioned. More on that soon.

Signs of nervous system dysregulation include:

  • constant negative thoughts
  • trouble sleeping
  • procrastination
  • low or no energy
  • easily triggered
  • feeling numb and disconnected
  • always on edge
  • chronic muscle tension
  • chronic pain
  • burn out
  • constantly overwhelmed
  • highly sensitive
  • addictions (to alcohol, porn, shopping, etc)

How does the nervous system become dysregulated in the first place?

Suppose we perceive a threat in our immediate environment.

When that happens, we’ll feel unsafe, and if we feel unsafe, we’ll try to neutralize the danger and return to safety.

How do we do that?

We either attack the threat (fight) or run away from it (flight).

That’s the fight-or-flight response.

What makes us run away?

Fear.

What makes us attack?

Anger.

In other words…

Fear, anger and other emotions like shame (and the thoughts that go with them) are the “fuel” of our survival (fight-or-flight) response. They motivate us to move away from danger and towards safety (so we can live to see another day).

In that sense, they’re on our side. Our fears, doubts, shame, anger and negative thoughts. They’re all part of an unconscious attempt at protection and safety. We could even call it an act of love… however misguided it might be.

There’s a catch though –

Our survival response is designed to be a short-term thing.

That is…

In an ideal world, a threat appears, fight/flight/freeze activates, we neutralize or eliminate the threat and then we come out of fight/flight/freeze and back into relaxation… all within a relatively short period of time.

Think about a gazelle who gets chased by a cheetah. Fight/flight/freeze activates, the gazelle runs away and then it’s over. The entire experience lasts minutes or even only seconds.

That’s in an ideal world.

But in reality…

We often get stuck in survival mode. Instead of a short-term thing, it becomes a long-term thing. Instead of seconds or minutes, we spend days, weeks, months and years in survival mode. That’s why we feel stuck, tired and miserable with never-ending negative thoughts.

Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., a renowned scientist in the field of nervous system healing and the bestselling author of Waking The Tiger explains how this happens:

…when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness.

When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations.

This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness.

The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system.

…people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word – they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.

What triggers a survival preparation or fight-or-flight response?

ANY threat to our safety, including obviously traumatic events like a car crash or sexual abuse…

…as well as easier-to-overlook threats like parents who can’t emotionally connect with their kids.

Yes, even something as simple as a parent who can’t empathize and understand their kid is enough to put the kid into fight-flight-freeze. More on that later.

Threats can also be bad teachers, mean bullies or even something like falling out of a tree.

These threats trigger the survival response (fight/flight/freeze)…

…and if we don’t complete the “appropriate actions” or “discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations” (i.e., we don’t run away from our abusive parents at four years old)…

…our nervous system stays in an aroused state for an extended period (no, not that kind of aroused 😏)…

…which creates the “broken bridge” of nervous system dysregulation

…and leads to the symptoms I mentioned above:

  • constant negative thoughts
  • trouble sleeping
  • procrastination
  • low or no energy
  • easily triggered
  • feeling numb and disconnected
  • always on edge
  • chronic muscle tension
  • chronic pain
  • burn out
  • constantly overwhelmed
  • highly sensitive
  • addictions (to alcohol, porn, shopping, etc)

As Peter Levine says:

It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.

Why is it difficult (if not impossible) to function normally when our nervous system is stuck in survival?

Because being stuck in an aroused, “activated” or unsafe state is like living as though there’s a bear nearby all the freakin’ time.

Think about it…

If we bump into a bear while hiking in the woods, our nervous system isn’t going to let us settle down and focus on a work project.

It won’t waste energy on digesting the Granola Bar we just ate…

…or let us enjoy the beautiful sunset.

And it’s certainly not going to let us sleep, relax or laugh.

No.

Instead, it will focus all available resources on ONE thing:

Get us the HELL out of there… AWAY from the threat and back to safety.

And since we’re stuck in this state, it will do this every day of our lives (until we fix it) – even if there is no actual bear nearby.

It will constantly generate fear, anger, shame and more to motivate us to avoid or eliminate the (usually imagined) threat and return to safety.

This is why we worry about money and that person we have a crush on and whether we’re getting too fat or too skinny and a million other things.

It’s why we get triggered, upset, angry and afraid in weird situations… like when Uncle Jed comments about our red sweater at Thanksgiving.

It’s why we procrastinate and self-sabotage on important projects, playing small instead of big, people pleasing instead of being honest, genuine and authentic.

It’s ALL part of an automatic, unconscious drive to get out of the aroused survival state (fight/flight/freeze) and back to safety (so we can finally RELAX).

Because hey –

If we finally got the money that we wanted…

Or the romantic partner…

Or lost the weight that bothers us…

…then we could relax.

Then we would feel safe.

So…

It’s not about the money or the lover or losing weight or getting rid of our thoughts or having more grateful thoughts or analysing our thoughts or all the things we think it’s about.

It’s about safety.

Truly feeling safe so we can finally get out of survival mode and back into relaxation (like a gazelle who relaxes after she escapes the cheetah).

Does this make sense?

So, like I keep saying…

The mind is NOT the problem.

Our dysregulated, “stuck” survival (fight/flight/freeze) response is the REAL problem… the “broken bridge” in the story above.

Therefore…

If we want to change or improve our downstream thoughts, feelings and actions, we have to focus on the upstream “broken bridge” of nervous system dysregulation.

How do we fix nervous system dysregulation? 🧐

To answer this question, I wrote a free 3-part email series.

“It was harder than I expected, but once I got used to it… It silenced my mind like never before.

Logan Hobson

However…

Before I give the link to sign up, please understand that the nervous system approach is not for everyone.

🚫 Still believe the mind is the problem? Don’t sign up.

Keep meditating, gratitude listing and sending Gatorade to Mercury 🧘‍♂️

🚫 Looking for a magic bullet? Don’t sign up.

While this approach packs a punch, it’s not magic.

It requires hard work, commitment and a “never give up” attitude.

🚫 Want the easy path with no effort, challenge or stress? Don’t sign up.

I like to tell people…

This path is not for the faint of heart.

Why?

Because it’s literally and scientifically designed to stir up everything in us that’s unresolved. It’s pretty good at doing this too… often in unexpected and surprising ways.

Our fears and doubts.

Our insecurity and our shame.

Our various coping and control mechanisms (everyone has them).

Plus plenty more.

All the things that keep our nervous system stuck in survival mode with no sense of safety.

All the things most people spend their entire lives avoiding.

As the old saying goes:

Here be dragons.

Still want to know how to fix the “broken bridge” of nervous system dysregulation?

Then click the button to subscribe and get the first email…

Next: [BEAST]: Oh shit! You just woke the beast (Step 1 of 3)

– John “Here Be Dragons” Wood

John Wood, Founder
Feedback