The Nerve Of It All

Embodied Self-Care for the Nervous System

A 1543 woodcut by Andreas Vesalius illustrating the human nervous system

Ten years ago, in a time of relative personal adversity and general emotional funk, I ran across the following quote, and it sent weird shivers of recognition down my spine. It read:

“You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust; what do you have to be scared of?”


Crude, and funny in an absurdist way, this string of words speaks to the ineffable state of being we find ourselves in, as a nebulous collection of feelings and awareness, housed in a physical body, itself hurtling through a vast and rather mysterious space-time… It is a state of being that is at once awe-inspiring and embarrassingly real; it is unutterably profound and completely banal. But the thing I most like about these words is that they encourage me to be more playful, and less afraid, when I consider my own relationship to myself, the body I exist in, and the world around me.


The provenance of the quote is hazy. While variously attributed to prominent social media figures with handles like Porkbeard, Shadowmat and Wizard1953, a fuller investigation suggests the quote is a kind of collective multi-authored statement, bubbled up through shared human consciousness, and mutated into refinement over several decades. A series of antecedent quotes indicates likely origins in philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s concept of ‘The Ghost in the Machine,’ a criticism of mind/body dualism issued in 1949.


According to many notable contemporary scholars in the field of neurobiology, psychiatry, and all manner of informed and concerned health practitioners, it is this split- between ‘mind’ and ‘body’- that is responsible for the failure of many of our health approaches and treatments. If we are to listen to their urgent messages, ultimately, we must accept that to honor our physical wellbeing, we have to also honor our emotional wellbeing, and vice versa, because there is no (more) denying they are linked. And in order to do that, it’s critical to learn about- and perhaps even make friends with- your nervous system.


The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.

Turned upside down, many depictions of the human nervous system bear an uncanny resemblance to a tree. Arching, fractal branches reach outward and upwards, tethered to a long trunk, which is itself anchored by a kind of tightly wound, pale ‘rootball.’ The branches grow slimmer as they reach out further from the trunk, each division stretching to maximize its unique connection to outwardness. A kind of protective bark encases the trunk, which guards a vulnerable center of filament and spongy textures leading back down to the base of the tree and the crown of the roots. The rootball of a tree, much like our human brains – is a serpentine and mysterious force, living and working in darkness.


Ok, let’s turn ourselves right side up again, and reorient- something the nervous system can really help us out with. Firstly, the nervous system consists of two interlocking components: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Together, the brain and the spinal cord form the CNS. Like a long, glimmering ocean fish, the sinuous ‘white’ and ‘gray’ matter of our central nervous systems courses through the very cores of us, in a bath of saltwater. If this calls to mind the ways in which primordial beings crawled out of an ancient, primordial sea- well you’re right, and good on you- I send you a shiny gold star. Prehistoric ancestors of ours left the seas, but we continued to carry the sea within us. And within that sea, our awareness. Epic and wondrous as it is that we still bear this ancient aquatic connection within our bodies, there is another critical aspect of this salt solution that surrounds our brain and spinal cord: it’s ELECTRIC! (boogie-woogie-woogie). The salt content, acting as a conductor, is what allows thoughts and feelings to travel through us as electrical impulses.


The peripheral nervous system is tripartite; it includes the somatic, autonomic and enteric nervous systems. We can visualize this as bundles of nerves connecting our brain and spinal cord- our CNS- to all other systems and organs, and vice versa, so all the actors can clearly communicate; the arrangement is not unlike the various wires and plugs that connect our appliances. The voluntary actions of our bodies- actions we are aware of taking in the moment we take them, like moving our legs to walk or holding a glass of water- are the territory of the somatic portion of the peripheral nervous system. Our gastrointestinal functions are the responsibility of our enteric nervous system and are considered involuntary.


The autonomic nervous system has quite a lot going on and merits a more-in-depth look. This is especially true in the context of a notion of ‘befriending’ our nervous systems to feel more at home in our bodies, if we wish to cultivate physical and mental health. Within the autonomic nervous system, there is further differentiation, a kind of ‘dueling banjos’ situation- and the banjos are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated when we are in a relaxed state; it is our ‘rest and digest’ mode. The longest, largest nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve, which connects our brain to our stomachs, lungs, and many other organs (‘vagus’ derives from the Latin word for ‘wanderer’). The vagus nerve, and Polyvagal Theory, have achieved a kind of cult/celebrity status in health and wellbeing circles over the last several years, following closely in the wake of our cultural fascination with the brain-gut connection in the several years prior. While the properties of the vagus are remarkable, and extensive, I’d encourage you to think of the vagus as a part of, but not ‘the key’ to the health and function of the larger neurological system. The vagus, however, is crucial to the ability to relax, as are all the rest of the parasympathetic components.


In contrast, the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system switches on when we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode- during heightened emotional states, like fear, when we suddenly may need more energy and focus. Sometimes things get out of tune or get stuck too long on a song. But the banjos are always playing, one or the other, whether we want them to or not- their functions are involuntary. They are as difficult to control as tears or sweat. We can, however, care for them, and be nice to them, and they’ll probably sound a lot better, more harmonious.

Waves of electrical impulse move through our nervous systems, conveying critical data to and from our nervous systems and the other systems of our bodies.

Seen as a whole, the nervous system contains, within its networks, all the parts of us that house what we typically aggregate and think of as our ‘selves.’ It hosts what we feel about the world around us, and how we respond to it; it is a container and a vessel for our memories, and the memories of our ancestors and communities; it is a command center for processing new and old information; and it is tasked with balancing and holding space for all of this, and then somehow forming opinions and issuing executive decisions about all of it.


If we consider the ways our brains store and continue to accumulate information, and then, when needed, process large amounts of it for specific tasks- we can see that our brains function much like the operating systems of computers. That similarity is fairly predictable because those operating systems were created by our nervous systems. Like our laptops, we archive, we inventory, we deduce- but we do with it another influence, much harder to encapsulate or anticipate- we produce narratives laden with emotion. Our nervous system tells us stories, and sometimes listens, like a fussy computer.


So- ghost in the galactic vehicle, upside-down tree, or long glimmering ocean fish? Emotional, meaty computer, or competitive stringed instruments, how shall we think of our nervous systems? I have found it most useful to think of my own nervous system as a landscape, a place that is made of my being, a place made of all that I am. It is a stormy electrical forest, with salty marshes and tidal seas, and bursts of impulses lighting up the sky like lightning and fireworks happening together. Ancient brine holds ancient memories and laps at the shores and tributaries. Wild flowers and fruits discover the memories and transmute them, adapt them. Occasionally, clean-up crews emerge to collect the debris from broken ideas for the never-ending bonfire. Everywhere is the fecundity and wonder of life emerging from decay, embers, and failed things.


Oh, and over there is an upsidedown tree, some meaty wires, and a couple of banjos.


This distinct internal world of mine is connected to other landscapes, the landscapes of others. At the edges of your landscape is my landscape. They are different, and also not so different. Here and there- much like neighborhood parks, or shared gathering spaces within communities, there are also communal neurological landscapes- those which unite our needs and sense of purpose. They’re not to be ignored. Sometimes we can only heal ourselves and our broader communities when we occupy these shared conceptual and feeling places.

Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, nervine

Damage to the nervous system can occur in a number of ways and present itself in various forms. The damage could be a result of genetic or metabolic factors such as Parkinson’s or diabetes. Or it could be the result of direct physical injury, such as might occur in a sports accident. In some cases, the neurological system can be harmed through infection, as in Lyme Disease, or shingles. Heavy metals and other toxins can also negatively impact us neurologically, as can vitamin deficiency. Additionally, the protective barriers surrounding our nervous systems, particularly the fatty myelin layers surrounding neural networks, can be compromised and lead to increased nerve pain or more serious conditions like multiple sclerosis.


That said- of the many ways our nervous systems can become harmed, one of the most common, pernicious, and overlooked is emotional trauma. According to the Dutch-American psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk,

“One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.”


Neurobiological research has increasingly indicated that emotional and physical pain travel the same neural pathways and are remarkably intertwined. van der Kolk, coming from a different but intrinsically related discipline and perspective, one based on the hands-on experience of directly treating humans with PTSD and related conditions, is undeniably clear on the palpable effects of trauma on the human body: “The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”


Van der Kolk goes on to say, “Nobody can “treat” a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone. But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul: the crushing sensations in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.”


While it’s astounding to think of all the nervous system affects within our bodies, it’s equally mind-boggling to consider everything our nervous systems affect outside of our bodies- from revolution, war, diplomacy, and peace-making to climate change, and space exploration. In the extreme case of political dictatorships, it is shocking to think of what a single human nervous system can invoke upon the world; on the other side of things, we have all witnessed what can happen when many individual humans and their respective nervous systems come together to form social and political movements. Seen in this light, the act of caring for our nervous systems slides into greater focus, meaning, and urgency.

Passionflower, Passiflora sp., nervine

Without moments of adversity in our lives, we would have little motivation to learn and grow- both of which are key features of a healthy, functioning nervous system. However, too many challenges to our physical, mental, and emotional safety and wellbeing, and our general health and fulfillment inevitably decline. This shift is not always easy to sense, but can be thought of as occurring on a U-shaped track wherein the challenge is increasingly beneficial for a period of time, levels out, and then begins declining in benefit: if it were plotted out on a graph of benefit in relation to time, it would produce an upside-down U-curve. The opposite of a smile, really.


I have a visceral response to this upside down ‘U’: my heart plummets a little- it makes me think of numerous times in which, after a period of stressful and sustained activism or advocacy work, I faced very real and emotionally painful burnout, and accompanying physical manifestations. When did a challenge become a stressor, exactly, and when did it become ‘too much’ of a stressor? This sort of thing can be difficult to delineate. Furthermore, anger, stress, anxiety, depression, grief, fear, and trauma- these can be impossible to tease apart within our emotional landscapes, and they often overlap. While all serve important biological evolutionary needs that have helped keep us alive, too much of any of these emotional challenges can wreak havoc on our nervous system, and on our health in general.


How do we then best create a roadmap for ourselves, our bodies, our minds? Certainly, there are many answers to this, but one is surprisingly simple: we listen to our bodies. We listen really well. We pay attention and we focus in on our internal landscape, and we try to hear what this place has to tell us.

If we think of our neural networks as a landscape, we can begin to consider the ‘ecosystem’ of this landscape. We start to consider the health of this larger ecosystem. I can hardly think of an ecosystem, or a landscape, without plants- and naturally, plants play an important role here, too. Unsurprisingly, plants have had a long and mostly beautiful relationship with human nervous systems, being, of course, used around the world, medicinally, to treat neurological conditions of all kinds. But as any herbalist worth their nettle will tell you – never forget that plants are the fuel of our entire beings, providing air for us to breathe, and food for us to eat- the material sustenance and energy for us to just simply stay alive.


That said, certain plants communicate much more directly with our nervous systems. Herbs thought of as especially beneficial for nervous system support are generally broken up into the three groups, with some crossover between them: nervine tonics, nervine relaxants, and nervine stimulants. However, further classifications of herbs into categories such as antispasmodic (muscle-calming), hypnotic (sleep-inducing), adaptogenic (helpful in overall adjustment to stress), analgesic (pain-relieving), and antidepressant (mood-lifting) can be particularly useful when discussing herbs that are allies to the nervous system. Some of the most common, and more easily accessible herbs utilized for overall relaxation include Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Oats (Avena sativa), Lavender (Lavandula spp.), Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Skullcap (Scutelleria latiflora), Linden (Tilia platyphyllos), Valerian (Valeriana offinalis), and Vervain (Verbena officinalis).


Again, we can bring it back to our bodies, our embodied knowledge. For instance, does your body feel tense and hyper-alert, are you unable to sleep lately? Does Chamomile sound good to you, does your body want that? When you think of a brisk walk, does your body remember the feeling of being drowsy or more relaxed afterwards, does anything ‘click’ about what feels wise to do now? Or, perhaps you feel routinely exhausted, sluggish, and more sad than usual? In this case, maybe an adaptogen, like Tulsi or Ashwagandha, would be of assistance. You may really want to give yourself some extra doses of highly nutritive greens like Dandelion to help your body digest and adjust.


In this way, we can consult with our nervous systems, our muscles, our guts, all of our bodies- our internal landscapes. We can then directly connect the needs and wants conveyed to us by our bodies to physical, emotional and/or spiritual opportunities in our outer world (like drinking that cup of herbal tea with all your senses, reading a juicy, beautiful poem, or meeting with good friends to mutually unwind and download) (or x, y, or z- it’s totally up to you). One thing is clear- when we shift from the perspective of how we should intellectually handle our health to one of letting our body inform us to create an intelligent response to our health, we can connect to more joyous examples with greater ease and comfort.

Valerian, Valeriana arizonica, nervine (photo by Dara Saville)

Plants and their medicinal applications have much to teach us about the care of our thinking, feeling selves, but there are so many other mentors and modalities we can invite into the picture to enhance healing. Nutrition is also fundamental to the wellbeing of the nervous system, and perhaps more than most of us realize is the case. Concerning vitamins, of particular importance are B vitamins, essential for nerve health- especially B6, B12, and Folic Acid- as well as Vitamins C, and Vitamin D. Minerals like magnesium and zinc and are also key here, and omega oils can help protect critical myelin sheaths around nerve endings to assist in preventing, or at least slowing, the process of memory loss, and the progression of neurological pain. If you are deficient in these nutritive elements, your body will often let you know, because foods containing those nutritional aspects will likely look particularly delicious to you- this is another way our bodies signal to us what we need.


Among the activities we first think of as good for combatting stress are meditation, talk therapy, spiritual engagement, and getting outside to feel more connection and appreciation to nature; all of these are gifts we can choose to give to our nervous system, ways we can befriend this part of us. Interestingly, some of the most effective ways of supporting the nervous system are specifically tactile- they include elements of touch, sound, vibration, and rhythm, which are soothing and fortifying for many of us. The diversity of options in this regard is so large and inclusive- and swiftly growing- that hopefully everyone could find at least one that that they enjoy and feel is truly helpful. Different things work for different people; different strokes for different folks.

Gentle massage that promotes blood circulation to the affected area can be particularly helpful for peripheral neuropathy, while those living with fibromyalgia may benefit more specifically from myofascial release techniques. Sound healing, in the form of sound baths, for instance, sends vibrations through us on a cellular level; many people suffering from chronic pain have reported positive effects with sonar treatments. Many individuals swear by acupuncture or acupressure, others by tapping or rebounding (jumping on a trampoline). Dancing checks a lot of neurological boxes, and so does singing, especially when we do these things with others. Some are happy simply spending time in a rocking chair (not naming names here) (okay, it’s me).


One new form of therapy combines elements of touch and vibration with Polyvagal Theory techniques, and is demonstrating promising potential for maladies as wide-ranging as PTSD, Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes and epilepsy. Vagal nerve stimulation (or VNS) is a way of delivering electrical pulses to the vagus nerve through handheld/implanted devices; this activation can, for some, lead to the noticeable lessening of troubling symptoms. For those who want to take a less jolting approach, there are an increasing amount of instructive references available on simple stretching, movement, and pressure exercises one can do to support the vagus- including merely humming for a while or gargling with water.


Grounding- or ‘earthing’- involves maintaining physical contact with the earth, usually by lying directly on the ground (one must remove rubber-soled shoes and avoid concrete). Grounding again reminds us that we are electrical beings, in an electrical world. If we spend lots of time indoors with computers and other electronic devices, we attract and accumulate positively charged ions, which it turns out is not a positive thing for our health or our mood. But when we make direct contact with the ground, we release positive ions, and scoop up negative ions, which are associated with relaxation. A similar phenomenon occurs when we walk along the edge of the ocean or other waterways; the movement of the bodies of water releases negative ions into the immediate atmosphere, and those in close proximity are calmed.


However we choose to cheer for our celestial ghost, tend to our forests and glimmering fish, comfort our inner computers, or meaningfully strum our banjos, it is an act of care and resolve, and it requires some intention. But it is also something we can do with joy and playfulness, which usually makes things feel far easier. When it comes to the care of our nervous system, it is infinitely expansive that we can choose our own path forward, and it is magical that we can simultaneously share this journey with others.


Take an Albuquerque Herbalism class with Asha – keep your eye out for Herbal Cocktails and Medicinal Plant Gardening and Design classes and sign up before they fill up.

Also check out Asha’s art and activism work on her website.


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