Regulating your autonomic nervous system

In our recent video series #relaxinseconds, we focused on exercises that calm an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system. Regulation of our autonomic nervous systems is a little more complicated than that.

The sympathetic nervous system is often in the limelight because of its well known fight, flight or freeze response. The other part, the parasympathetic, which is responsible for rest and digestion, can also unhealthily dominate our nervous system. This can become evident in lethargy, a lack of motivation, a general blahness about life, or wanting to sleep excessively. The pandemic style of stressful experiences like isolation, grief and uncertainty has meant that the parasympathetic extreme has become familiar territory to many of us.

Ideally, we would like to keep the two in balance so that we have access to our greatest creativity and best logic, and also have the motivation and energy to implement our great ideas. I imagine it to be a bit like two children in a playground on a see-saw. It’s fun when there is a constant back and forth motion as the see-saw tips one way and then the other. When the system gets stuck, the child stuck at the top is a bit like the sympathetic system in overdrive – at first there is an increase in excitement, heart-rate goes up and muscles are ready to go but it becomes scary and exhausting. The child stuck at the bottom is more like the over-stimulated parasympathetic system. The weight stacked against him/her seems too much to move, there is an experience of weakness, even overwhelm. The children show immense skill if they can manage to co-ordinate their movements so that the see-saw is balanced and neither of them touches the ground.

So, how can we keep the two parts to our nervous system in balance in a more intentional way? It all starts with a greater awareness of what is going on in our bodies in different contexts – how tense or relaxed our muscles are, how tired we are feeling, how fast our heart is beating – and then responding to that greater self-awareness with small actions.

In the same way as there are relaxing activities or movements that we can use to calm us down, there are also possible actions that perk us up. We often re-energise with cold water in an icy drink or by splashing it on our faces. Eating a crunchy apple or carrot, or chewing ice can have the same effect. As children, we had access to many movements that we used in a subconscious way. We jiggled or danced about, shook our bodies, pulled faces, made noises. As adults we are more self-conscious, aware of what others might think of us, and have less access to these helpful ways of self-regulating. Perhaps we need to experiment a bit in private to rediscover some useful options?

Practicing the regulation of our autonomic nervous systems is part of our Stress Management Course for busy people on 9 October. More details here


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