We can fully address anxiety and understand why we experience it by utilizing our scientific knowledge of the body. If we just try to change our mindset or only medicate without looking at the nervous system we might miss the underlying cause. An overly stimulated or up-regulated nervous system is the common thread among many mental struggles including anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and more. If your nervous system is in a relaxed state it is not going to panic or be hyper-vigilant. When our nervous system gets trapped in an elevated state it can be difficult to feel calm because of all the physiological responses we experience.
Think about what happens when we feel stressed or when we are anxious. Our muscles tense, our breath is often rapid and shallow, and our heart rate quickens. We can become hypersensitive to our body and feel like our heart is out of rhythm or like we can't breathe. Sometimes our stomach acid can spike causing indigestion and chest pain and our tensed muscles might cause pain throughout our body. This feeds into our fear and ramps up that nervous system response.
Everyone can relate to a fight or flight response at some point in life, but believe it or not, there are people that can move through a stressful event and return back to a relaxed state without getting stuck. When we are chronically stressed we aren't always aware of our nervous system being unregulated. If we have trapped emotions and energy and continue certain behaviors or remain in an environment that reinforces the stress response we can feel like it is impossible to be calm. We might say things like "I don't know how to relax", "I can't shut off my mind", "I'm so overwhelmed", etc. At the same time, however, we might be addicted to screens and sugar that is overstimulating our system. This means we are likely to stay stuck in our stress response and that our sympathetic nervous system is in control.
Our goal is to learn how to calm our nervous system by having the parasympathetic nervous system in charge more often. The autonomic pathways including parasympathetic and sympathetic systems work mostly unconsciously to regulate bodily functions, but we can control certain actions that will help us shift to our parasympathetic nervous system. By doing this we can not only create habits to help us relax regularly, but we can also learn to calm down in the moment.
Here are my top 7 steps to calm the nervous system!
1. Shake it out. Turn up your T-Swift and literally shake it off. Stand up and shake out your arms, legs, and your whole body. Just wiggle and even make whatever sound feels good. You can scream or sigh it out, but keep it moving for 30 seconds to a minute. The physical movement will help you release tension and it just feels good!
2. Diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing and slowing your breath can help relax the body and slow the heart rate. Learning to control your breath is the most easily accessible way to calm down. This is an important regular practice, but it can also be done when you are feeling highly stressed, anxious, angry, overwhelmed, etc. Start by taking 3 deep slow breaths. Think about expanding your ribs, belly, and mid-low back as you inhale and softening the body with each exhale.
3. De-stimulate. Overstimulation and constantly multi-tasking is not our natural state and will increase anxiety. Do you feel like you have to be doing something all the time? Do you need the TV on to 'relax' or while doing other activities? Try spending time focusing on one thing at a time, be present, and avoid sensory overload. Other than trying to limit multi-tasking, my favorite ways to surrender and find peace is to sit quietly in nature, practice Yoga Nidra, or do a sound bath.
4. Touch. Physical therapists use proprioceptive input for a variety of injuries, but it can also be used to calm the mind. A hug, a weighted blanket or pillow, wrapping yourself snuggly in a blanket, or even being in water can help you feel safe and allow you to relax. Getting a massage can offer similar benefits and more as well.
5. Laugh. Laughing is known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. You might be able to think of times when a joke broke the tension or a time when you laughed after a scary or intense situation passed. Your body is smart and if you notice, it does many of these things on its own to calm you down. When you are feeling stressed or panicked try having a go-to comedic relief. I like cat videos, but you choose!
6. Exercise. Moving your body is a wonderful way to relieve stress, but make sure it's the right type for you now. Taking a walk, especially outside, can help you clear your mind and shift your attention. Weight training is a great way to use exertion to get out emotions and add more proprioceptive input. Yoga often combines breathing with movement and flow to help you feel centered. A regular practice of all 3 can allow you to be better prepared for stress and keep your tension in check. In the moment you can stretch, take a walk, or do some push ups.
7. Inversion. You don't have to go completely upside down to see the benefits. Legs Up The Wall Pose is a great way to try this out at home without needing an inversion table. With your legs above your heart the blood returning slows your heart rate and increases circulation in the brain. This position relieves tension and is ideal when you feel stress or to help you relax before bed.
Give these a try and let me know your favorite by commenting in the FB group!