Overwhelm, the Nervous System & the Soul
When I was little and couldn’t sleep I’d go sit on a particular step on the stairs. After what felt like hours of tossing and turning, I’d sneak out of my room to sit and secretly listen to my parents watching tv. I still remember the feeling I had in my chest whenever I dragged myself out of bed— turmoil, exhaustion, a squeezing kind of helplessness, and a small flame of hope that hearing my parents would be the magic that finally helped. I thought I was being very sly about my visits to the step— but my parents always knew I was there. In time, one of them would come scoop me up and take me back to bed. Or my tired frustration would get the best of me and I’d expose myself by having a meltdown. I just couldn’t understand…why can’t I sleep?
My whole life I’ve dealt with on-again, off-again insomnia. I honestly just thought it was part of how I was made. When I started studying herbalism I tried all the herbs. They’d help for a time, and then they wouldn’t. I experimented with flower essences, guided meditations, breathing techniques, and stones. Though they all brought some relief, they never fixed the core issue. It took me over thirty years to realize that the problem wasn’t some central defect in me, the issue was that I was overwhelmed… and had been for as long as I could remember.
Part of being alive means experiencing times when our systems get overwhelmed. Accidents, thunderstorms, the loss of a loved one. Since time immemorial our bodies were built to activate in these moments, and then, afterwards, come back to our restful center. The problem is that life is inherently more overwhelming now then it was when our systems first developed. If you are a sensitive, empath or intuitive, your system is even more likely to get overloaded. Symptoms of nervous system overwhelm include: insomnia, an inability to take in new information, fatigue, headaches, difficultly focusing, intense emotions, or an inability to sort out what you’re feeling… any of this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. We are in the midst of one of the most overwhelming eras in recent history.
If the environment in which our ancestor’s nervous systems evolved was like the quiet windswept plains of Africa, then the environment our nervous systems are currently encountering is more like the seven stages at Coachella, each blaring a different, desperately important message. Global pandemic, long-awaited revolution, historical trauma, personal loss, planetary grief. Our nervous systems simply weren’t built to hold it all. And so overwhelm has come to teach us the most profound lesson of all—how to come back home to the soulful earth of ourselves.
At the center of our nervous system is the vagus nerve. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands Resmaa Menakam calls this our “soul nerve,” because it is connected to the deepest, most essential part of us. When we learn how to take care of our nervous system, not only do we sleep better, think clearer, access deeper states of creativity and digest more (literally and figuratively)— but we reconnect to our soul.
Beyond the daily calls-to-action in our news feed, the request that the Earth is making of you right now is to learn how to take care of your particular nervous system— because learning how to settle your body in the midst of overwhelm is nothing less than a training ground for fulfilling your soul’s mission here on earth. Nervous systems are designed to take in information (aka. energy) and use that information to respond accordingly. This is why when our systems get overwhelmed we’re unable to take in any more information. When our nervous systems are spacious and grounded, however, we can literally perceive, and transmute, more energy… and respond more skillfully. Once we become settled in ourselves, all the things we try so hard to accomplish— healing, innovation, intuition—become as natural as breathing. And that’s what the Earth truly wants for us all, to have this revolution of healing be as organic as the wind moving across the grasslands.
If I could go back and tell myself anything as a child it would be this: You can’t sleep because the world is an overwhelming place sometimes. And because you feel a lot, you are sensitive to that overwhelm. But every time you recommit to finding what helps you feel peaceful, held, restful and safe— you are learning the skills you need to truly touch into your soul’s mission, to hear the voice of the Earth and, yes, to finally fall asleep. If you’re anything like me, finding yourself sitting on that same precipice every day, revisiting that same proverbial step every night, check out my new video for a comforting guide on how to relax deeper and sleep better during this powerful moment.
In the midst of tough times, it can feel like taking care of our nervous system is a frivolity. A treat, instead of a necessity. An act of selfishness in a world that needs our attention constantly. But the Earth is saying the opposite. When you learn how to take care of yourself, you learn how to take care of the patch of the earth that is your body, creating a web of peace that ripples out around you.
As Menakem summarizes in his book, “When one settled body encounters another, there can be a deeper settling of both bodies. But when one unsettled body encounters another, that unsettledness tends to compound in both bodies. In families and large groups, this effect can multiply exponentially…as it is passed on and compounded…it becomes the family norm. If it gets transmitted….through multiple generations it becomes culture.” Doing this work of tending to our nervous systems in times of stress can literally create a whole movement of settled healing— one that mends families, shifts cultures, changes systems and dissolves the painful inheritance of intergenerational trauma. So if you are feeling overwhelmed, worn out, fragile, fatigued, or in need of support right now, let yourself explore what it is that makes you feel safe, settled and loved. It is very literally one of the greatest gifts you can give the world.
The Earth is asking each of us— are you willing to learn these skills of self-care and self-compassion? To find the place within you where the knowledge of your essential goodness is unshakable? Can you nourish the earth that is yourself and reroot? Because once we master this individually, the collective healing that is ready to happen will be unstoppable. These, the earth whispers, are exactly the skills we will need to meet the times to come.
Ways to Settle the Nervous System
Part of the problem with overwhelm is that, when I’m in it, I forget about the things that help me ground! This is my personal list of practices that I turn to whenever I get overwhelmed (I keep it handy on my phone so I can look at it when I have no idea what to do). All these practices have been shown to relax the central nervous system, encourage our vagus nerve to settle, and help us come back to center.
I first got turned on to body oiling through Amber of Mythic Medicine (who has a lovely podcast episode about body oiling here). I also deeply appreciate Whitney Popham’s free video guide for anyone interested in the Ayurvedic roots. If body oiling seems too complex, just using lotion intentionally or taking time to touch your feet, squeeze your lower legs or give yourself a hug can help settle the nervous system too.
Walks in Nature
Emotional Freedom Technique
Hum or Sing
Nervines and Chill
Everyone has their favorite nervines (herbs that help our nervous system relax). Milky Oats and Passionflower are two of my go-to herbs. Because I’m sensitive, just working with flower essences can also help my nervous system immensely. I also adore this recipe to soothe summertime fatigue.