Do you have a sensitive nervous system? [quiz]

from the old blog Dec 08, 2016

When I ask you “Do you have a sensitive nervous system?” you may not know your answer right off the bat. So let’s do a quiz…

Imagine that you’re getting up in front of people to perform or give a speech, and the stakes are reasonably high. Answer the following four questions:

How nervous do you feel?

  1. Not too nervous.
  2. I’ve got nerves but they don’t overcome my ability to perform.
  3. So intensely nervous that I can’t focus or think straight.

What are you seeing (presuming you’re not blinded by theatrical lighting)?

  1. The people in front of me and their reactions to my delivery, and I’m perhaps also peripherally aware of people coming and going through the doors or the scene outside a window.
  2. A few select people in front of me who it feels easy to focus on.
  3. I’m really not sure.. my eyes are darting all over the place, and a lot of what I see is the inside of my own eyelids.

What do your body and breathing feel like?

  1. My movements feel easy and my breathing feels free.
  2. I’m not totally sure what to do with my hands, and I sometimes hear myself gasping for air.
  3. I feel completely trapped.

What does your voice sound like?

  1. Basically the same as my everyday voice… it flows out of me.
  2. Sometimes my voice wobbles a bit.
  3. A squawking penguin.

Got your answers? Awesome!

Now that quiz wasn’t designed for total mystery, so it’s likely you already have a sense of what I’ll share next. A bit of context before we dive into the results though…

When we step into a high stakes situation where people are looking at us, a large surge of energy charges through our nervous system. If you’ve ever been to the Body Worlds exhibit, perhaps you’ve seen the type of display like in the picture above, where you can see the amazing branching network of the nervous system. When you present, a pulse of energy (corresponding to the level of the stakes of the situation) flows through this tree-like network in your body. Think of it like a surge traveling through telephone wires.

According to the quiz, here’s how YOU respond to that surge:

Mostly 1’s: Your nervous system is able manage a surge of energy without going into extreme fight-flight-or-freeze mode. You’re good at what I like to call “stay-and-play,” which is when your nervous system calibrates to allow you to stay present and find enjoyment in the challenge.

Mostly 2’s: Nerves are an issue for you, but they’re not totally debilitating. The main thing to focus on to help you progress into stay-and-play mode is this: allow yourself to be nervous! There’s nothing evil about shaky knees or hands or a slightly wobbly voice. If you start to mentally think the explicit thought: “There’s nothing wrong with being nervous, and I’ll take my nerves right along with me while I perform” you’ll start making big progress towards letting performing be easier. It’s only when we unconsciously resist our nervousness that our nerves persist.

Mostly 3’s: It sounds like you do, in fact, have a sensitive nervous system. When that super-charge of energy pulses through your neural network, your system becomes flooded and overwhelmed. There is nothing wrong or evil about having a sensitive nervous system, and you too can make progress towards stay-and-play. The first step to changing your response is acknowledging that it’s happening. Can you feel your eyes go out of focus? Can you feel your breath seize up? An extreme fight-flight-or-freeze response means that on a primal level, your body doesn’t feel safe and thinks it really needs to protect you. The likelihood is that at some point in your life, that was true! However being up in front of a group performing or presenting is not a life-threatening danger situation, so it’s time to start slowly but surely training your nervous system out of this extreme response.

Try these steps:

  • Notice and acknowledge that your nervous system has gone into hyper-mode.
  • Gently work on bringing your eyes back into focus. When we’re sensitive, one of the best places to pay attention to is the eyes, because they’re a window into the whole nervous system. Are your eyes darting around wildly or hiding behind closed lids? Can you try to let yourself see what’s in front of you?
  • Observe your breath. Without trying to control it, can you allow it to do what it wants to do to catch up to the present moment?

Based on my experience with many clients with sensitive nervous systems over the years, I’m guessing that today’s quiz might have been very helpful for you and that you might have some questions. Please comment below and I’ll be happy to chat!

And hey, it’s the holidays. So if you get into a situation where your nervous system gets super-charged, don’t feel badly. Yes performing can send us into fight-flight-freeze, but somehow our loved ones have an uncanny ability to do that too… so breathe! 😉


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