Honouring Differently Shaped Nervous Systems

Whilst we might know that all of us process, or respond to emotions in different ways, all too often we still make value laden judgements about how ‘well’ we deal with our emotions.

It is little wonder, when so few of us have been raised to honour our emotions, exactly as they are, or to cherish the ways in which our nervous systems serve us.

At times when I feel wronged, or when I feel overwhelming emotions, I feel my nervous system shift into shutdown. At these times, before I am able to sit with my feelings, or to consider what they are speaking to, dorsal vagal (shutdown) steps in.

In a mind that never stops whirling, this is my nervous system’s protective response. It is a way of offering my mind and body respite from feeling so much. My nervous system may also have developed deeper grooves towards dorsal. Those of us who feel ‘too much’ in a world that values modest emotional expressions, may learn to find sanctuary here.

In the same way that there is growing recognition of different sensory processing systems, it feels really empowering to engage with narratives that recognise different emotional processing systems, without references to deficit or disorder.

There is such a need to leave behind value laden judgements such as ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, ‘over-reacting’ or ‘being too sensitive’.

All of our individual ways of feeling and responding to our experiences have value. Honouring the beauty of differently shaped nervous systems is also about honouring each of our nervous system states and the different ways each of us move between states.

The state of shutdown can sometimes be viewed as ‘less’. Less connected, less able, less ‘productive’. I have been thinking about how my relationship with shutdown feels.

Dorsal vagal can often be my go to. As well as being a safe haven, it offers me the opportunity to harvest strength. I often re-emerge from dorsal feeling more connected and re-fuelled. Shutdown provides a critical pause from feeling so much all of the time.

After a little time in the resting place of my dorsal vagal nest, I benefit more fully from that walk in the countryside, from that Qigong practice, from spending time writing or from being with my loved ones.

There are times however, when I can get ‘stuck’ there. Times when, like all of us, I need to reach out. A little ventral vagal injection from someone else is often what I need. Today, hearing the warmth and solidarity in a friend’s voice, gave me the injection of safety and connection that I needed, to move forward.

We don’t need to ‘other’ any of our nervous system states. Our autonomic nervous system responses operate in service of our survival. It is OK to process our experiences in our own time, at our own pace and in our own way. And when we are finding it more difficult to do this, it is absolutely OK to reach out for more connection and support.


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By Jessica Matthews

Writer, home educator and Autistic advocate, with specialisations in psychology, polyvagal theory, Autistic / neurodivergent wellbeing.
BACP Integrative therapist, Post Grad training in Clinical Psychology , BSC Psychology Hons degree.

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