Upper Limits and Your Nervous System
By: rachel hardy
Upper Limits and Your Nervous System
Have you ever found yourself running into “upper limits”? One of the interesting things about how our nervous systems are wired is that they are set up first and foremost to keep us safe.
To our nervous systems and primitive parts of our brain, the “known” feels safe, while the unknown feels like a threat. Over the course of our evolution, our brains and nervous systems developed powerful systems to keep us alive and out of danger. One of those is an alert response for anything that feels “different”
It’s part of the paradox of being human: we have these strong instincts to grow, expand, and evolve; while there are also more primitive parts of our brain that are just as strongly wired to keep us safe, and keep us in the familiar states.
Even something that is painful, if it’s well known and familiar, actually feels “better” to parts of our brain than the unknown. (This is one reason why I believe true healing is a journey that requires change at the very core of who we are).
It’s also why sometimes we seem “stuck” at the same limits of things. Have you ever noticed how the same patterns or situations (dressed up in slightly different variations) seem to present themselves over and over? Or, that you find yourself wanting to make a breakthrough (whether in our career, financial state, relationships, or anything else), but never going beyond the same stopping point?
What’s happening here? You know you are brilliant, accomplished, learned, hardworking, and giving it your all to move forward… so why do things keep stopping at “that” point?
Again, the answer often lies in the mechanisms in our nervous system that keep us in a familiar feeling state. “Different” is threatening.
Even if something is difficult or painful, the painful-familiar actually feels “safer” than the unknown. This is true both of what’s happening in our bodies and emotional experiences, as well as the circumstances playing out in our lives, and the situations we somehow keep finding our way into over and over again.
So,how do we change this?
This is one of the primary reasons that nervous system healing work is so exciting to me- because it gives us the tools and the building blocks to re-wire the “stopping points” and to repattern our capacity for the goodness and joy and aliveness we can hold.
We reset the levels of how much goodness, ease, freedom, and joy feels “normal” to our systems.
To begin to feel and sense this concept, I invite you to explore with me for just a couple minutes. To start, let’s feel into this idea of capacity, by playing a bit with the breath.
- Sitting comfortably, take a moment and notice your breath without doing any thing to change it. (As you notice it, it might shift organically – if it does, that’s fine-allow that!)
- For the next few breaths, simply feel the sensations of what happens in your body as the breath goes in and out. Hang out with that for several breaths.
- Does it start to expand? Does the chest capacity start to organically expand?
- Now, try gently expanding the upper ribs and chest capacity just a tiny bit with your next breath. And allow the next few breaths to be just a bit deeper. Notice what that feels like in your whole body. Take several breaths at your natural rhythm here.
- And then, allow the mid and lower ribs all to expand outward as you breathe. Gently pay attention to the next few breaths and allow this natural expansion. Continue with this for several breaths, feeling the fuller capacity of the lungs and torso. Stay here and feel this for several breaths.
- Now, pause, and just notice how you feel. Notice your whole body. What are you aware of? What feels different? Notice what happens just from the shift of taking more oxygen into your lungs and system.
Can you imagine how much more capacity you have in so many ways to take in all the goodness of life?
Just as we habitually tend to settle for way less oxygen than is available to us, we also can settle out of habit (including subconscious “habit” in our nervous system’s wiring), for what we think we can have.
You might explore this practice with the breath throughout the day, today. If it feels good, practice noticing and allowing the breath to deepen and expand.
(Make sure to let it be a gentle allowing rather than anything forced or pushed. That may take a little more time- you’ll often need to really pause and be with the current level of breath for a minute or two in order to allow it to organically deepen. Give yourself the gift of that couple minutes of attention. You’re worth it).
Now that we’re feeling into the idea of capacity and expansion on a body level, let’s explore a simple exercise you can do today to begin shifting your brain in new directions: your resource list.
(This is a practice that’s so simple it’s easy to discount it; but if you actually put it to work, you’ll see how powerful it is).
- Make a written list of the things that bring you goodness, joy, ease, support, happiness, or peace. (Or, any other experience you want to bring into your life). Let quite a few of them be small things: the view out your window that makes you feel good; the taste of your favorite tea and the comfort of your blanket as you curl underneath it; the feeling of the air against your face as you walked today. Look for the small things. You can add bigger things as well: people, pets, spiritual practices, places that make you happy, adventures or experiences that bring you joy.
- Post this list where you can see it easily, and refer to it frequently. At least once a day, pause and read through your list. Notice all the little things you could do at any time.
- Just the reading of the things you could do will put your brain in a slightly different state; and as you begin to consciously bring more of these things into your life, you’ll start to feel the connection and the power you have to make these little micro-shifts.
- And, guess what: micro-shifts add up, because our life experience is made up of individual moments. And when we start to bring in some consciously different ones, we start to change the trajectory of our overall experience.
- Make it a practice to add to this list regularly. Let it become a game to notice all the little things you can find: the sunset, the fresh air, how good you felt after chatting with that friend, the comfort of your bed at night, the taste of your favorite meal. As you notice and appreciate these things, they appreciate; writing it all down on an ongoing basis simply wires it in faster and stronger.
I invite you to take a few minutes today to give yourself the gift of up-leveling your energy just a bit. Take five minutes to play with the breath as described above, and another five to create or add to your resource list. As you do these practices, you might set the intention of opening up to your greatest good. Allow your energy to begin to move in new directions.