Highly Sensitive Nervous System and Anxiety

A program that helps people overcome panic attacks said that people who suffer with anxiety and panic have more sensitive nervous systems than people who don’t have anxiety and panic. Based on your experience, what is your opinion about this?

I’ve (Jim Folk) heard others talk about anxious personalities having a more sensitive nervous system than other people. There have also been books written about highly sensitive people making this connection.

While it may seem anxious personalities have a more sensitive nervous system than others, it’s not because we actually do, but because we trigger our nervous systems off more often by our overly anxious and reactive behaviors, in my opinion.

When I was struggling with anxiety disorder, my nervous system was firing all the time. But it wasn’t because of my sensitive nervous system. It was because of my behaviors and what I was saying to myself about my life experience.

After my recovery, and after doing a lot of personal work, I find that my nervous system now is just as settled as anybody else’s. In fact, I think it’s more settled because my internal dialogue is drastically different now than it was back then.

Marilyn, my wife, is another example. When she was struggling with high anxiety, her body was so upset it was physically sick on a day-to-day basis. But after she did a lot of underlying factor work, it’s no more upset than anyone else’s.

So while I understand why people would arrive at the conclusion that anxious personalities have a more sensitive nervous system, I think that opinion is based on a misunderstanding of anxiety rather than the actual facts.

Because we’ve worked with so many people over the years, we’ve seen countless examples of people who have come to us with highly reactive nervous systems. But after they’ve done their work, their nervous systems function as well as the next person. In fact, we’ve had some examples of where the recoverees are much more settled than their mates and other family members. In one instance, one of our clients told us that her family had a crisis and everyone looked to her for guidance and support because she was the only calm one.

So again, it’s not that anxious personalities have a more sensitive nervous system, but that our behaviors keep it going much more so than someone who is not anxious. This can all be turned around by doing the right behavioral work. Marilyn, our other coaches/therapists, a great many of our coaching/therapy clients, and I are all living proof that the ‘more sensitive nervous system’ notion is misguided.

It is important to note, however, that this level of success only comes about by addressing Level Two recovery – dealing with the underlying factors that cause overly apprehensive behavior. We talk more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Unless the underlying factors work is done, our unhealthy behaviors can continue to stir up the nervous system, making it seem like it is overly sensitive in comparison to others. Accomplishing Level Two recovery makes all the difference.