Disentangling Our Nervous States

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A heightened state of anxiety seems to be the norm. But have feelings really taken over the world? Is it enough to just calm down?

While reading an extract from Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World by William Davies recently, I was led to reflect on the differences between thoughts, feelings and nervous states, and how necessary it is not only to calm down but to discover, and use, a more subtle kind of feeling.

Davies presents a compelling argument that 17th century rationality as a governing paradigm, in certain parts of the world at least, has had its day. Objective marshalling of evidence by people trained and experienced in doing so seems these days to be, if not the subject of outright derision, simply too slow to be effective. The general base-state people are in now seems to be one of heightened anxiety, and in this state, decisions need to be made immediately and on a gut feeling, informed by limited and biased data.

Everyone appears to feel that a state of alarm is being created by the media and political or financial interests behind it — and everyone also appears to assume that this applies to other people but not to them.

Acting on feelings, in the sense of herd instincts, is a very dangerous thing. Most people agree with this too, on a rational level, but few are immune when they feel endangered themselves. Davies gives examples of conflict situations which were exacerbated by the use of Facebook to quickly spread and reinforce a certain mood. The same happened with radio broadcasts in Rwanda before the massacres.

Davies makes a distinction between feelings — “physical sensation, including pleasure and pain, which is crucial for navigating our environment” — and emotions, experiences which we notice and can be noticed, and, apparently, “captured and algorithmically analysed (‘sentiment analysis’) thanks to the behavioural data that digital technologies collect”. But I want to reclaim a more subtle sort of feelings, without which I fear we’re at the mercy of our nervous systems or the thought processes and emotions influenced by them.

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The balance may have tipped from rationality to feeling, but the problem, within which the solution is hidden, remains the same as it was set out in the 17th century. The problem is the dichotomy between thought and feeling, mind and body. This dichotomy still stands despite the fact that circumstances have changed, and it would appear that all the previously opposed things are now spread out and muddled up, now our minds and bodies are understood to be inextricable and we are no longer ever entirely at war or at peace (with terrorist threats), at work or playing (with remote working and online, entrepreneurial work), alone or with others (the constant presence of social media).

On the front line of anxiety, in the counselling room, the dichotomy appears starkly in most of the kinds of distress that people bring. An existence driven by thought processes, by obsessive comparisons, analyses, judgements and ruminations on past and future is extremely common, despite the global cultural trends. So is an existence ruled by feelings with no ability to use a rational perspective — to use comparisons, analysis, judgement, etc. in a constructive way.

All these problems occur with a heightened anxiety baseline, which feeds into the over-thinking and over-feeling alike. I do also notice, though, a heightened awareness of that state of constant anxiety, within and around, and hence of the necessity to calm down. There is a movement towards taking control of the nervous system, towards understanding what is happening (advances in neuroscience make such understanding actually appear possible), and unplugging from the mass hysteria to take back your personal domain.

The thing is that calming the nervous system can become an aim in itself, or simply a way of calming one over-active side to make room for the other. We still seem to be in a dualistic model, which leaves us ill-equipped not only for the ‘new global reality’ but simply for being human beings on the planet. The really interesting, fulfilling, creative capacity we have hooks together thoughts, feelings and the nervous system that filters them and provides the base. It’s that subtle kind of feeling, a thinking-feeling, a knowing-feeling, often but not always a body-feeling, a sense of something true despite the fear, pleasure, general state of arousal, or thinking judgements that apply.

Once we’ve calmed down, that’s not the end-goal, and it’s not a vacuum either. It’s the time we can ask the question: so what am I actually feeling, and what do I think is the best thing, in the midst of all this mess, to do…?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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