A balanced nervous system is central to our overall health and well-being. However, the majority of us have an over-active sympathetic nervous system — living in a near continual state of flight, fight or freeze (a.k.a., stress).
The sympathetic nervous system is one branch of the autonomic nervous system (which is responsible for the involuntary, vital functions of the lungs, heart, circulatory and glandular systems). The sympathetic nervous system quickens your heartbeat, narrows your arteries, dilates your pupils, activates your adrenal glands, releases glucose from your liver and contracts your muscles in preparation for physical exertion all within seconds of perceived danger or excitement. This staging is necessary if you’re being chased by a bear, but not sustainable or healthy for long periods of time.
Unfortunately, our sympathetic nervous systems are constantly being stimulated by our surroundings, activities and mental processes, creating a recurring stress response that begins to wear us down not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Thankfully, we can begin to interrupt the cycle and combat the ill effects of stress on the body by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (the second branch of the autonomic nervous system), which down-regulates everything, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and blood sugar levels, and releases muscular tension (known as the relaxation response) in preparation for rest and digestion.
The next time you find yourself feeling stressed out, over-tired, anxious or just plain tense, try one or two of the following techniques to calm your nervous system and bring your entire mind-body network into a state of balance.
Practice Deep Breathing
Taking a deeper, fuller breath is one of the fastest, most effective ways to trigger the relaxation response and calm the nervous system. Here’s why: the lower lobes of the lungs contain many of the parasympathetic nerve receptors, whereas many of the sympathetic nerve receptors are housed in the upper lobes. Rapid, shallow breaths stimulate the sympathetic nervous system; while deep abdominal breathing brings air into the lower lobes of the lungs, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and inducing an overall state of relaxation.
Additionally, inhalation triggers sympathetic activity and exhalation stimulates parasympathetic activity. (Ever catch yourself holding your breath when you’re stressed? It’s always on an inhale. Exhale, and you immediately feel slightly more relaxed.) With every cycle of breath, heart rate increases on the inhalation and decreases on the exhalation. When you deepen your breath, you allow for a much fuller exhalation, lowering your heart rate, signaling to the brain that you’re safe, and triggering the parasympathetic nervous system.
TIP: Five to 10 minutes of full abdominal breathing does wonders for restoring an overstressed nervous system, along with lowering heart rate, decreasing blood pressure and releasing muscular tension, while helping you build resilience.
Release Shoulder, Neck and Jaw Tension
Whether you’re indeed stressed out or not, the brain reads tension in the body —particularly the shoulders, neck and jaw — as cause for alarm, triggering the sympathetic nervous system and perpetuating the stress response. Releasing deeply held tension allows the brain to know that it’s safe, signaling to the parasympathetic nervous system and inducing the relaxation response.
There are many different techniques for releasing the shoulders, neck and jaw, including shoulder shrugs, neck rolls, passive and active stretches, and restorative yoga therapy techniques. Simply reminding yourself to relax your face and shoulders throughout the day will help calm the nervous system; and if you’re a chronically tense person, you may want to consider getting a massage, taking an Epsom salt bath or using a soft tissue release technique to help reset the relaxation response from time to time.
TIP: An easy and relaxing way to release tension in your upper traps, neck and jaw is to spend five minutes lying flat with a small blanket roll (or towel) under the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Start by lengthening out the blanket and tightly rolling it three or four times then lie the blanket roll across your mat perpendicularly. Sit facing away from the blanket roll with your feet flat on the mat and your hands supporting you on the other side of the blanket. Slowly lower yourself down onto your elbows and onto your back until the blanket roll is under the very bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Your arms, shoulders, head and neck should all be above the blanket.
With the blanket roll moving the bottom tips of the shoulder blades slightly forward, lifting the sternum, the tops of the shoulders and neck have the opportunity to release back. Spend five minutes breathing (without moving your head).
Gentle, Rhythmic Movements
Gentle, rhythmic movements (like rocking when you were an infant) soothe the nervous system, especially when they involve the spine.
Think about it. When you’re in a state of fight or flight, the muscles along your vertebrae tense for protection. Rocking stimulates the relaxation response, while gently releasing the muscles along the spine sends additional signals to the brain that you are safe and able to relax. Add deep breathing to the mix and you have a complete formula for re-balancing your nervous system.
TIP: Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, wider than your hips. Open your arms to a t-shape across your body with both palms up. Take a few deeper breathes.
On an exhale, slowly lower both of your knees to the right; inhale and bring them back up. On your next exhale, slowly lower both knees the left; inhale and bring them back up. Gently go from side to side. Notice if there’s the tendency to speed up, slow the movements down to match the length of your inhales and exhales.
Restorative yoga is the practice of using props to support the body in various seated and supine postures, passively opening targeted areas of the body, and is particularly beneficial for rebalancing the nervous system.
Regulating the breath, quieting the mind and completely relaxing the body, restorative yoga is one of the greatest tools for fighting anxiety. Everything about the practice — the specific poses, position of the props, duration of each pose, deep breathing, etc. — is designed to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and it does the trick. Layer in self-compassion and the practice can truly be healing.
TIP: While there are many restorative yoga poses, passively opening the chest by lying back over blankets or a bolster is an ideal way to help deepen the breath and relax the shoulders, releasing tension in the neck and face, without over stimulating the nervous system. If you like, you can place the bottom of your feet together in Reclining Bound Angle Pose and support your outer thighs with blocks or blankets. As best you can, you also want to reduce sensory stimulation, so use something to cover your eyes.
Spend 10 minutes in a passive chest opener, releasing into the props, quieting your mind and breathing, and then take the time to notice the effects, physically, mentally and emotionally, when you’re done. Part of the healing process is acknowledging the shifts your restorative yoga practice helps create.