I’ve been thinking a lot about relaxation and the nervous system. I just had a week off, and I tried to focus on actually taking a break. Sounds kind of weird, but I have realized I don’t really know how to really give myself a break. I spend so much time go-go-going that this is my default mode. Activated. And I don’t think I’m alone, which is what inspired me to write this article.
A friend of mine who is a therapist remarked that many people don’t even realize how much anxiety they have. It just seems normal. Our autonomic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that regulates our body functions that we don’t have to consciously control) has two modes: parasympathetic, or rest and digest, and sympathetic, or flight and flight.
When we are in sympathetic mode, our heart rate is faster, our eyes focus in the distance (where the “danger” is), and the bronchioles of our lungs dilate so we can get more oxygen. We are activated. When we are in parasympathetic mode, our heart rate slows, our blood flow is shunted to our digestive system and central organs, and we calm down. This yin and yang of our nervous system is in constant interplay, a dynamic balance that affects our entire body and our mental state.
If we are constantly in sympathetic mode, we never actually rest. I noticed that even during my week off I was rushing down the street, head down, worried about being late. I felt stress about how much I accomplished in a day. Lying in bed at night my whole body is still surprisingly tense. And while it is essential for me to be able to be productive so I can achieve my goals (and I have big goals!), it also serves me to slow down, rest, and recuperate, so I can return to my work with renewed vigor, a strong body, and a clear mind.
So what does it take to relax the nervous system? Calming your nervous system involves setting aside specific time to give yourself the opportunity to downshift, but also requires setting the intention to relax and release tension, both muscular and the sense of deeper internal tension. Even if you look still, you might not actually be relaxed. You have to choose to relax, as well as do a relaxing activity. Neither is enough without the other.
Here is my list of ten possible ways to give yourself this opportunity:
- Do a yin or restorative yoga class. Set a clear intention. The slow poses allow lots of time to practice releasing and relaxing your body. I went to a yin class this week and afterwards felt almost intoxicated. I was in an altered state, largely unfamiliar to me…. relaxation!
- Deep breathing. You can do this anywhere, and at any time. As one of my mentors, Dr. Dana Barton, says: deep breathing is a way of sending the message to your body that everything is OKAY. When your body is in panic mode, but you consciously know you are fine, this is a simple and profound way of letting your body know you are safe.
- Shivasana. Aka just lying on the floor. Let your body release into the ground, imagining that you are sinking. Turns out, when I am REALLY relaxed, my head flops to the left because the back of my head isn’t flat! Took me ‘til I was about 25 to learn this about myself. What happens when you really relax?
- Listen to music. There was a period in my life where after final exams I would listen to David Bowie’s album Let’s Dance. There is certain music I find deeply nourishing. Lately it might be this or this (LINK). Some people like binaural beats.
- Forest Time. This is probably my favourite. The key here is to go outside just to be there. Not for a hike or a run, but just to BE. This isn’t about exercise, but rather about the smells and sounds, deep breaths, and calming down. I think there is something about being in a forest that actually makes releasing tension in your system easier than it may be elsewhere. It is more of a reflex, it just happens without you having to try. And you invariably feel grounded and invigorated afterwards.
- Get a massage or some other kind of body work. Go see a professional or find a loved you. Giving and receiving can both work.
- Go to a float tank. This is a great way to calm down in the middle of a busy city. You get 90 minutes in what is essentially a cocoon of sensory deprivation. You float in an Epsom salt bath in a dark tank, and the magnesium in the water helps your muscles relax. The tank is a neutral temperature, with no light, no sound. To be honest this sounded intimidating to me at first, but I have found it a surprisingly easy way to drop into a meditative and peaceful state.
- Give yourself a little extra time and take a detour through a park. Walk slowly. Take big deep breaths. Sit on a bench and watch the wind in the leaves for a little while. Relax your body.
- Go on a retreat. If you can, take a few days for a conscious holiday. You could go away or do this at home. Shut your electronics. Rest lots. Eat good food. Be quiet. Be alone. Be with others. Journal. Meditate.
- Take five deep breaths before eating a meal. This is a nice daily practice. Relax your body, feel the ground, get present, say thank you. Then eat.
Most importantly, find things that work for you. Don’t go for a massage if you know you will be self-conscious the whole time about exposing your skin to the massage therapist. You can’t go for a walk in the forest if you live in the middle of a big city and don’t have a car or other way to get there. Perhaps you hate yoga. Do what works for you! Perhaps you already have an idea of your favourite activity to calm your nervous system. A meditation. A therapist you see. Just remember to do it, and to do it fully and with presence. This is an essential practice, just like exercise, drinking water, and sleeping. This is the other side of being human… chilling out.