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  • Writer's pictureDr Jo Johnson

Your nervous system is contagious

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Last week I had the honour and privilege of visiting my oldest friend. As is the mark of any good friendship, she was happy to leave me rattling around her house for an hour while she had an errand to run.

Only, I wasn’t alone...

I was an intruder to the space of her two new rescue kittens, brother and sister. They haven’t had the easiest start in life and they’re just settling in to their new forever home.

You could SEE their little wired nervous systems, dialed up to 9 and exquisitely sensitive.

When it was quiet, I sat down with a cup of tea and waited.

They trod carefully. If I stayed still, they came a bit closer. If I didn’t move a muscle, they moved closer still.

I imagined the questions written in their wide eyes:

Is it safe?
Is she safe?
Does she have treats?

It felt a bit like that childhood game, Sleeping Lions, except every time they did something to make me laugh (i.e. move any muscle even slightly), they pelted across to the other side of the room.

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched?

After a few moments, they would re-commence their approach again, maintaining unwavering eye contact. I felt the tension, like I was being stalked.

I was cosy on the sofa and made efforts to show I was feeling calm and wouldn’t do anything wild or unpredictable.

One kitten slightly more curious and slightly braver, modelling safety for the other. Driven by the curiosity cats are famous for, using a feedback loop to learn and refine their literal approach in real time.

The photo gives away how the story ends - they moved closer and closer until they curled up on me. The more relaxed they got, the more relaxed I did too - until we all closed our eyes and had a little doze. There was a rainstorm outside, so it turned into the cosiest moment ever.

Co-regulation in action - your nervous system is contagious!

It was like a microcosm of what happens in the first few sessions of therapy. (And, indeed, in any new relationship.)

I need to see if I can trust her, first.

Is it safe to open up?

I’ll share this first, and see what happens.

I’ll open up bit by bit, and see how she responds.

The first task of therapy is always to create a relationship that feels safe enough. To build trust.

And it got me thinking about curiosity again, and what a resource and gift it is when we need something to change. Curiosity helps us learn new things, because it helps us be brave.

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