You know the feeling of heart pounding, skin flushed and tight chest that you get when you look at your phone and see something that stresses you out?
That’s your sympathetic nervous system kicking into gear, aka your fight or flight response to stress. Your body is priming you to fight, flee or freeze.
Perhaps you decide to put your phone down and notice that your heart rate slows, your temperature lowers and you can take deep breaths again. Ahhh… the sweet feeling of your parasympathetic nervous system kicking in, aka your rest and digest system.
When this happens you are cultivating a healthy nervous system response. One that activates when it perceives a threat, AND can settle when that threat is removed. It looks like a wave that stays within your zone of resilience. We’re suppose to activate, and also relax.
Unfortunately, in our modern culture, the threats are always there.
They come in the form of deadlines, bills, constant micro-aggressions, job related stress and so on. That’s a far cry from a deer who outruns a predator and then relaxes. It’s tough to relax when you know a bill is coming due or a deadline is looming. Those stressors are around for weeks, months, even years.
The routine of looking at our phones upon waking, caffeinating and then going right into your day revs up your fight or flight response before you even leave the house (or get on Zoom)!
If you lead a typical modern lifestyle, the rest of your day is filled stressors that keep your sympathetic nervous system activated. By the end of the day you turn to a glass of wine to help you relax because it doesn’t feel like you can calm down without it.
This type of routine wreaks havoc on your health and wellbeing. In our culture we stay activated until we crash.
Here’s a simplified graphic showing the difference between a healthy nervous system response and an unhealthy one:
What we need to focus on is engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, or as my coaching client Steph likes to say, cultivate the downward curve.
3 Strategies to Cultivate a Healthy Nervous System Response
1.Make your mornings sacred.
A very effective way to stop the activation spike is to keep your morning time sacred. What that means is blocking time off when you wake up for mindful activities that support your physical and mental health. Stop checking your phone and email! Go for a walk, practice yoga, journal or read inspirational content instead. Set aside whatever you can from 5 minutes to an hour of YOU time to start your day on a gentle upward curve.
2.Relax after lunch
I know this is a tough one for a lot of folks. We’re conditioned to cram food into our mouths while we multitask for the sake of productivity. As mentioned above, the parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the rest and digest system. That’s because it’s responsible for digestion. The strength and effectiveness of your digestion is a big part of your overall health and immunity. You can’t effectively digest your food when you’re activated. Taking 10 minutes to sit after lunch will boost your digestion. If you have the ability and time, lie down on your left side for up to 20 minutes after lunch.
This is what Kayla, one of my current cleanse participants said about the practice: “I got pretty cranky and hungry at lunchtime and a meeting ran long. I was breathing through it, but I knew I needed to step away (not something I usually judge well). Now, I just finished my lunch and 20-minute rest (also a favorite thing of this cleanse), and I feel as refreshed and ready to go as I did this morning.”
3.Create a bedtime routine
Think you should be able to naturally fall asleep easily? How could you after a day of nervous system response that’s outside your zone of resilience? Block off time before bed to settle. Dim the lights, turn off all screens and cultivate a relaxing practice that brings you joy. Turn off the activation so you can enjoy falling asleep easily and staying asleep.
You have the power to get yourself off of the spike and crash stress response. Change your behavior to cultivate a beautiful wave instead. A healthy life is one where you can be fully activated when you want/need to be and fully relaxed when you want/need to be.
If you want to learn more about how to regulate your nervous system and build your stress resilience, I invite you to join my virtual ReTreat coming up November 13 – 15, 2020. Together with my friend Sommerville, a Somatic Experiencing therapist, we’ll guide you through the knowledge and practices that help you cultivate the wave, improve your health, your sleep and boost your immunity. CLICK HERE to learn more.