Have you experienced a panic attack? Racing, negative or fearful thoughts? A sense that you or the world around you isn’t real? Have you had strange, unwanted thoughts that seem to get stuck about disturbing things that make you question your character, morality or sanity? Physical sensations that keep you running to the doctor only to be told that everything looks good? Have you started to feel a loss of confidence in yourself? Do you find that you have a harder time letting things go, spend more time worrying and focusing on problems? Do you feel like you are white knuckling it to get through lunch with friends, a business meeting or even a conversation with your spouse?
If any, some or most of these ring true then you may be struggling with a sensitized nervous system. I would say anxiety, but I feel that the term anxiety has become almost a wastebasket term to describe stress or feelings about anything going on in our lives that we don’t like. But, yes to be fair — I am describing various forms of anxiety. However, I feel what is more important than simply saying “I have anxiety” is that we actually understand a bit about WHY we are having these thoughts, feelings and sensations. This leads us to looking at our nervous system.
Decades ago a wonderful Australian doctor by the name of Claire Weekes wrote several books about what she called “nervous suffering.” Nervous suffering encompassed many of the scenarios I described above. What Claire brought to the table that was unique (and often discarded) was that these feelings, thoughts, and sensations were the result of a sensitized system and that the way through them was to stop fighting, stop resisting and to stop being afraid of the state we are in. While that is easier said than done, I feel it is the gold standard for how to deal with “anxiety” in all of its various forms and manifestations.
When our systems have become sensitized due to chronic or acute stressors, we often become bewildered and confused at why we are feeling so bad and thinking so strange. We begin to turn inwards, scanning ourselves for more of these bad thoughts and feelings and guess what happens? We find them! As we become more insecure and uncertain of ourselves we begin to feel like we are losing ourselves. Our worlds can begin to feel very small, we can feel isolated and alone in our own minds. We may begin to have thoughts that emerge that terrify us because they are out of character for us, things we would never want to have happen or do. We may begin to feel like our bodies and our voices feel like that of someone else or like a puppet on a string. The world around us may feel creepy, scary, or simply unfamiliar. We then may begin to feel less interested in our lives as we are so focused on our discomfort and the strangeness we feel. We may begin to fear that we are becoming depressed and, in fact, we can be so worn down by our nervous, worn out body and mind that we do in fact experience a sort of depression – a true depletion.
This is the trajectory many experience as they grapple with what it means to have a sensitized system. So, how can a sensitized nervous system wreak havoc on some of us mentally, some of us cognitively, some of us physically and for some of us all of the above? Well, with 7 trillion nerves in our body and our nervous system serving as the electrical system that communicates between all of our cells, tissues and organs — it is easy to see that a worn down, sensitized nervous system would, in essence, be a bad communicator. In being a lousy communicator, our sensitized system cannot send the appropriate messages for us to process information, regulate emotion, navigate stressors appropriately, get the message that its okay to rest and digest or recreate and procreate. Our power grid is malfunctioning. Its not down, its like an old time phone operator trying to keep up with the calls but plugging cords into the wrong slots — instead of talking to your grandma you are plugged into a call with a stranger in Omaha. That is what it is to have a sensitized system — and it is the backdrop for how we can understand anxiety.
What we tend to get bogged down with when we are experiencing anxious thoughts, feelings or sensations is WHY? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? WHAT IS CAUSING THIS? I WANT THIS TO STOP! We tend to say a lot of things like ‘Oh no!’ or “Not again!” or “What if?” and those statements and questions just keep us fighting, fearing and resisting the state we are in. We are afraid of our own minds. And once we begin to fear our own minds, the world around is can no longer offer reassurance or a sense of safety – at least not for long.
So, what do we do? Well, I think Claire had it right forty years ago. We stop resisting. We stop fighting and fearing. We realize that by pushing things away, fighting them back, hiding our heads, and avoiding situations we are simply growing the distress. Once we have had a thorough check up to rule things out, we have to begin to move in the direction of recognizing that we are dealing with a case of (as my Grandma used to call it) “the nerves.” Our weird thoughts are simply strange thoughts in a tired mind, our bizarre physical sensations are being kept alive by our fear of them and our worry and obsessional behavior is thriving as a result of our constant rumination.
We don’t have to try harder. We have to try smarter. We have to let go of the rope and stop trying so hard to figure it out, solve the problem, make it go away, wish it away, pray it away, meditate it away, breathe it away. If you are doing something in an attempt to GET RID of your distressing thoughts, feelings or sensations you will find it will not work – at least not for long.
While I had certainly had my fair share of stressors and some anxious times in my life, I had my first real taste of these issues a few years back. While a medication injury kicked off my ultra sensitized nervous system, many things can cause it. We can have a predisposition to a more “sticky mind” or anxiety. But that alone doesn’t necessarily create major problems. Typically there is a precipitating factor or factors such as an acute stress like loss of a job, death of a loved one or pet, a surgery, an accident or trauma of some sort. Or the precipitating event might be a more chronic stress such as burn out in your role at work or home, living in an unhappy marriage, being bullied, growing up in a chaotic or neglectful environment, or simply living in the age of Covid while trying to work, raise a family, take care of yourself and remain vertical and breathing.
Once I came to understand that my system was, in deed, massively sensitized and raw, I realized I needed to learn a new skill set. My old skill set as a clinician of interpreting, seeking to understand, problem solving, and analyzing my feelings and thoughts was doing nothing but making things worse. I began to really study Claire Weekes and apply her philosophy to my own life and I found it to be incredibly helpful.
Her approach in a nutshell is to first have a good check up and make sure that what you are dealing with is really nerves. Once you have been told it is anxiety, then the next steps are crucial: identify the thought/feeling/sensation as an offshoot of a sensitized nervous system, allow and accept for them to be there while you float on in your life and allow enough time to pass. Stop struggling. Drop the rope. Stop interpreting, researching, seeking reassurance and put down the struggle. In time (and for some it can be a long time), if you stop adding fear to fear, things will eventually settle and in the meantime you will have adopted some amazing coping strategies so that you no longer have to fear your own mind, no longer run from or fight the state you are in.
If you found this helpful, I would highly recommend checking out the works of Claire Weekes. Keep in mind she was writing decades ago, so some of her verbiage may be a tad outdated – but her work was pure brilliance. I have found her books on Audible to be incredible as she narrates her own work and I feel I am being read to by a wise old Australian aunt.
As always I need to add my disclaimer that this blog is informational and educational only and not intended to provide or replace clinical or medical advice, care or intervention.