Friday, February 01, 2019

Taking time off can be difficult in this day and age.  Our culture doesn't support it nor does it encourage it.  Slowing down, getting perspective, and finding peace is not something you see often in our society or reflected in our media.

Instead there is an incessant need to go go go.  Our bodies are not meant for this pace.  They are indeed hardwired to meet the challenges and stresses of life.  Yet, they need to find equilibrium and down time as well.

Too often we do not find the later.  The time to slow down, integrate, and breathe are not only essential for our survival, but for our quality of life as well.

Two Branches, Not One.

Our nervous system is regulated by what is called the Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS.  It is responsible for the involuntary functions of our nervous system, such as our heart, expansion or contraction of our blood vessels or pupils, and some muscles in our body.

There are three branches of the ANS, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, as well as the enteric nervous system (a fascinating branch we can explore perhaps another time.)

The two branches I would like to bring your awareness to are the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.

The sympathetic branch is also referred to as the "fight or flight" part of our nervous system.

The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, is referred to as the "rest and digest" part of our nervous system.

Both branches are essential, not just one over the other.

The sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight, is what is activated when we or a loved one is in danger, or perceived danger.  It is essential for urgent situations and emergencies.

In less extreme situations, it is what is activated when you need to get ready for a test, a wedding, an argument with your boss, buying a house etc.  It helps you prepare and contend with life's challenges.  The up curve.

It originates in the spinal cord, specifically the thoracic and lumbar regions.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is what is activated after a threatening life event has passed.

Or, again, in less extreme situations, it is brought online after various stressors in our life have been resolved and brought to an end.  You passed the test, you are now a newly wed, the fight with your boss is over, and you have yourself a new home.  The down curve.

It can be found originating near and around the sacrum, medulla and various cranial nerves.

A couple of other things to keep in mind about the two branches of the ANS.

The sympathetic nervous system is meant to be activated for short periods of time, not leaned on indefinitely day after day.

Also, while the sympathetic nervous system is quick to activate (it is meant to) the parasympathetic nervous system is slower to activate.  Meaning it takes time and patience to allow it to slowly unfold.

Meet the Parasympathetic Nervous System, Your Friend.

It is safe to say there are a myriad of ways in modern life to activate the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight.  What is a mystery to many, is how to mobilize the parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest.

In this day and age, we are hard pressed to find ways to rouse, enjoy and relish the parasympathetic nervous system.  How can we become reacquainted with our parasympathetic nervous system?

Rolfing.  I couldn't resist.  :).  Rolfing, especially when using Visceral Manipulation, can help the body find balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  It's always delightful when a client begins to slowly but surely relax and find ease in their bodies once again.

Beauty.  It's everywhere, you just need to look for it.  Seeing beauty helps stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system.  Try putting the iphone down, and simply look out the window for a while.  Let your eyes wander and linger on what you find to be beautiful and satisfying.  Allow your eyes to be lazy, rather than using a hard focus.

Walking.  Ahhhhhh...  Go for a walk.  Again without the iphone.  (I see a theme developing here.)  Meander, follow your curiosity.  Walk gently.  Slowly.  No rush.  Meet your neighbors, say hello to a cat, look at the shape of the clouds, see the new early spring growth.  No agenda.  Just walk.

Sad/Glad.  We are emotionally complex creatures.  Our bodies are capable to feel a rich variety of emotional states.  Two expressions that should embraced, and not shunned, are crying and laughter.  Both stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

First up, crying.  Yup.  A good cry.  It is ironic and sad that one of the most human expressions of emotions can carry so much shame around it.  It is an exquisitely vulnerable place to be.  Yet, at the same time, when we allow ourselves to cry, there is a feeling of relief and clarity that often times follow.  Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system, releases oxytocin, and cleans out stress hormones.  We might feel exhausted afterwards, but more relaxed and in our bodies.  The parasympathetic nervous system now has room to breathe.  Make sure you feel safe and supported, then allow yourself a good cry.

Next up, laughter.  One of my favorites.  Laughter helps improve the cardiac vagal tone.  I.e.  when we laugh, our diaphragm is activated in a very round and full fashion, which in turn, influences the heart, telling it to slow down.  Also, endogenous opioids are released when we laugh as well.  These help create the feeling of happiness and well being.  Laughter is usually spontaneous, so if it rolls through you, go with it.

Friends.  Friendship is essential.  Being with close friends creates a sense of warmth, ease and relaxation.  Unfortunately, it seems, we often find ourselves to be too busy to reach out and find the time to be with a dear friend.  Make room for this.  Our parasympathetic nervous system finds space in this place to unfold and find delight.  Who is it that you love and have not seen in a while?

Mind-Body Practices  Yoga.  Meditation.  Tai Chi.  Martial Arts.  All of these, and many more, are practices that have been around since antiquity.  When we have a deep somatic practice, we are committing ourselves to an exploration of the deeper reaches of psyche and soma.  With practice and patience, we can learn a variety of techniques to help soothe body and mind.  Finding balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is just one benefit among many.  We might enter a practice agitated, yet after we are done, we may feel more grounded and at peace.  Over time, this becomes more and more embodied.  I highly recommend finding a practice that best suits you.  I have seen some of these traditions change people's lives.

There are of course many other ways to reawaken the parasympathetic nervous system.  Perhaps cooking a nourishing meal, being out in your garden, taking your dog for a walk, going camping.  To find what best suits you, explore and be playful. 

In doing so, your body will be eternally grateful.