Your nervous system interprets sensations and enables actions. It contains the brain and spinal cord, as well as a 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.
Awareness of 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, becoming aware of 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.
An innately sensitive nervous system becomes irritated more quickly. A more insulated system can handle more stress with equanimity, but it also has its limits. Difficult life experiences, perhaps outright trauma or perhaps the “normal” stress of the modern harried lifestyle, consume our tolerance for stress. When our nervous system is overwhelmed, it stores experiences until the resources are available to process them. The stored experiences act as hidden irritants to our systems.
We often push ourselves to stay in irritating environments, ignoring symptoms of sensitivities to foods, chemicals, or noise, and using addictions or dissociation to deaden our responses. We may not recognize that the environment is causing a problem, or we may need something the environment provides, or we might not yet realize we can choose to protect ourselves.
When you notice that an environment is irritating for your system, take breaks or try to tone down intense stimulation. Be mindful of the tradeoff between what you get from the environment, and what it costs you to be there.
Denial is a useful survival tool to slow overwhelming change. It shades into self-gaslighting when our internal doubts constantly question our perceptions. The ongoing conflict between direct sensory perception and contradictory beliefs acts like sandpaper on the nervous system.
Almost all of us unconsciously deny our physical experience through our inaccurate internal maps of our bodies. As you learn more about your body map, your nervous system receives more congruent feedback, which is less irritating. For example, many of us are not aware that the heel is not directly under the 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. How does your body respond when you attend to your present experience?
When our Inner Critic has free rein to tell us everything that is wrong and bad about ourselves, we become steeped in shame. We blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong for ourselves and the people around us, and focus on what we think we should have done differently.
The harder we work to fix ourselves, the less rest the nervous system receives. We might look for someone else to fix our system for us, and continue with their method even if it irritates our system further. When we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, we can back away from treatments that our system cannot tolerate.
We all have people who get on our last nerve. Perhaps they blame, criticize, doubt, and undermine us, or perhaps they trigger us in some way. At times we allow our commitments to other people or organizations to take priority over our health.
When we feel invaded, sometimes we tell ourselves we are too defensive instead of asserting our boundaries. Over time, we can take action to protect ourselves even when our concerns seem “silly” to ourselves or others.
Physical and emotional pain can be both a symptom of irritation and a direct cause of further irritation. You might reflexively 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.
- This is a revised version of an earlier article, How to Irritate Your Nervous System
- Irritation at wikipedia
- 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.