21 Sep Nerves
Let’s talk autonomic nervous system.
Because anxiety, that’s why. And because you’re a body and you have a nervous system and it’s nice to make friends with yourself, all the parts.
Your body and brain’s number one job is to keep you alive. When your body senses a threat to your survival, your sympathetic nervous system activates and, before your mind is even aware of what’s happening, puts in motion a life-saving reaction. You may have heard this called Fight or Flight.
When your sympathetic nervous system is active, your body floods with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol (“the stress hormone”) and increases your blood pressure to bolster your ability to ensure your survival.
All systems primed for protection, your energy is channelled away from functions like digestion and the immune system. The time to digest and fight your cold will come when you’re no longer under threat of annihilation.
Once your body/mind ascertains that you are no longer under imminent danger, your parasympathetic nervous system activates, setting in motion the Rest and Digest functions. Your parasympathetic nervous system response calms the sympathetic system to bring you back to equilibrium.
With your nervous system balanced, your body transitions into a relaxed state of safety and security: your blood pressures lowers, digestion picks back up, immune system goes about its business keeping you well, and all those stress hormones dissipate and leave you with a sense of well-being.
At least this is what is supposed to happen. It probably comes as no surprise that many of us don’t have an entirely balanced nervous system. Who feels more familiar with their Fight or Flight response than their Rest and Digest?
If you remember back to the blog about mismatch diseases, in these modern times our bodies and brains are under new stressors that aren’t necessarily fights for our survival, even though our primitive and subconscious nervous system treats them as such. Fighting with our partner is not the same as fleeing a bear, yet our body is built to react in much the same way.
Many of us are persistently in a sympathetic state – operating day-to-day with an overactive Fight or Flight response and increasingly distanced from our Rest and Digest physiological state. The good news is – we can train our nervous system.
We can use our practice to jumpstart our parasympathetic response to bring about the Rest & Digest balanced state. Just like you train a muscle to get stronger, you can train your nervous system to calm your body.
I’m only scratching the surface here. If you’re interested further, here’s a 10 minute YouTube video with Stephen Porges on Polyvagal Theory, which adds the Freeze and super interesting Fawn response into this mix. Plus the interviewer has a great accent. I also highly recommend The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
The point of what I’m telling you is this: our anxiety, depression, calmness and happiness live in our bodies and are interpreted by our minds.
Moving from Fight or Flight into Rest and Digest is not just a mental process of positive affirmation and rationally convincing ourselves that there’s nothing to worry about. We have to feel it.
Saying it a different way, our bodies need to feel safe to heal. We’ve got to get into our Rest & Digest state and relax there for a while. This state, not tension and stress, must become our resting state. When we find balance in our nervous system, we open the doorways to heal our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain.
Nervous system regulation is built in to embodiment practices like somatics and yoga. Practices where we tune into our bodies, move and breathe with mindfulness, and pay close attention to our felt sensations.
If you’ve ever felt relaxed after a yoga class or massage, you know what it feels like to be in Rest & Digest. You truly can practice to feel relaxed more often. A worthwhile effort, indeed.
It’s not always easy. Just like any athletic or professional goal, this stuff takes persistence and work. The wisdom is within you. Your will is the way.
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