Nerves Mean “No”

Nerves Mean “No”


In the early days of psychology, emotional and psychological “disorders” were associated with our nerves. A “nervy” person today is thought to be somebody who either acts without fear (“nerves of steel”) or acts boldly but perhaps thoughtlessly (“she has some nerve”!). But the old timers understood that when it comes to how we face the world, it is largely a matter of the state of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). All manner of nervous conditions were believed, (rightly) to underly most diagnoses.

Essentially, these doctors recognized that we’re not so dissimilar than jelly fish or any other animal. When we’re stressed or afraid we contract. E. Graham Howe calls this contraction a “”protopathic” response to life conditions. Our nervous system, intended to mediate relationships within our body organs and various systems, and with others in the world, is highly attuned to danger and safety. It will “pull” us in under stress, and release us when we’re relaxed. This is why so much of the treatment of emotional and psychological disorders involved weeks and weeks of rest, and not much else. Again, there was great wisdom in this. Go off to the baths for a few weeks, give your nervous system the time it needs to relax, nourish yourself with good food and health is restored.

The fly in the ointment is that when our nervous system is stressed when we are young, we learn that fundamentally, the world out there is to be held at bay. We retreat within, when we’re born to relate outward. Howe uses the analogy of babies being given steak too early. The digestive system rejects it, and then subsequently develops an aversion to all foods (i.e. life). The emotional equivalents of feeding babies beef steak too early include rushing babies and toddlers through developmental phases, shaming them for whatever reasons, hitting as punishment, mis-attunement, emotional neglect, and all manner of deprivation of love. The infant develops a big “no” to life in general, sincerely believing that what’s coming next is just more bloody beef steak. Rest doesn’t seem to help when this unconscious belief is active. You can go on holidays for three weeks, but beef steak is waiting for you when you return to your “real” life.

The upshot is that you’re going to have to deal with all that created this chronic state of contraction, and this goes by the catch-all, “trauma”. If it’s not chronic, it may be that it simply gets in the way too easily and predictably. As Howe puts it “nerves mean no”. No to life, no to relationship, no to new experiences, no to risk, no to moving forward, no to anything new and no to love – as a default response to life.

Naturally, there are conditions under which it makes perfect sense to contract. If we’re in an abusive relationship or if somebody is continually undermining our confidence, why stay connected? But learning to know if we’re actually under a state of siege, or if this is our nervous system working overtime is the key. Over all we want to maintain the condition of the open hand in relation to life and not the closed fist.

Last night, just an hour before bed, I made a terrible mistake in relation to the production of my new book. I actually erased the whole damned file from my publisher’s site. I could barely breathe. I started in to the all too familiar self-flagellation. And then I stopped. Nothing, I told myself, is worth beating yourself up. You’ve done that for too long. And nothing is beyond repair. And on my death bed, this won’t matter one tiny bit. Then I went to bed. And let go, and slept. Without an open hand (a relaxed nervous system) there is no sleep possible. In the morning, I took care of the problem.

Those early pioneers were very astute—in particular in their treatment plan of rest and relaxation. In the end, therapy is all about learning to rest in the presence of another who cares for you and is willing to give you all the time you need to breathe again, to settle down, to relax. Ultimately, that “other” becomes your higher self, your “I” that learns to hold your “me” (contracted ego) with love.

In this state of relaxation you will become slowly aware, (at your own pace), of how exhausted you’ve been by holding yourself in and back.You become less “nervy”. Your “no” gives way to a fundamental “yes” to life. “No” doesn’t go off-line. It simply stands down, and allows life to flow back into your body, soul and spirit.

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Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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2 thoughts on “Nerves Mean “No””

  1. I love your definition of therapy. I’ve experienced that holding by therapists and also by my spiritual practitioner. It has cultivated resources within me that I didn’t have before and it enables me to take those resources into my every day life. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our society were about holding one another in that gentle yet powerful way? We do this in community on private levels. I’d love to see it on a public level. What would that even look like? I wonder…


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