Our bodily systems, the ones that keep us alive and the ones that allow us to achieve great things, are very complex.
The systems I would like to look at today are part of the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS), the set of nerves and sensory regulators that control our bodies’ automatic responses. Like breathing and swallowing. Within the ANS are the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS) nervous systems.
The first of these, the SNS, is in charge of reactions to high stress situations, It is the mobilizing aspect of the ANS, it responds with various impulses, like the “fight or flight” mechanism. This is a very helpful aspect of out brains, it gets us out of danger, it can save our life and the lives of others, but due to the high stress lives we lead today, the SNS is constantly activated causing our day to day stressors to be much greater than they need to be.
Why is this?
There are three recognized theories on why our stress levels are so high, even on a mundane day-to-day basis.
The first is that we live in a fast paced world. Doesn’t it seem like there isn’t enough time in a day to get everything you need to do done? We also take on too much, juggling work and family and exercise and social activities. Have you ever gotten sick and felt so grateful to have a day or two to do absolutely nothing but rest and marathon a TV series on Netflix? I certainly have.
The second theory has to do with the fact that we are in an age of sensory overload, we are overstimulated by everything. We are so saturated with sounds and images that we have become a bit immune our own sensitivity. And advertising has become louder and bolder as a result. Smart phones don’t help either. The constant availability of information, games, gossip, news, potential romance, and on-line shopping have become the new drugs of choice.
The third theory has to do with the sensationalization of the news. The way advertising has become louder and brighter and flashier to get your attention, so has the news. The intense dramatization of world events, though they are dramatic and frightening, has amplified out fear levels and we constantly feel close and threatened by situations that are sometimes halfway across the world.
One of the ramifications of our modern lives is constant anxiety, constant feelings of high levels of stress, real or imagined. We have our ancient brains all messed up.
Okay, so, since it is unlikely that any of us will re-arrange our lives to slow down a lot, there are other things you can do to engage your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), the brains’ compliment to the SNS. The PSNS is the Yin to the SNS’s yang. The PSNS is in charge of the parts of the brain that help you relax and feel calm and collected.
It is difficult to control the PSNS with the conscious brain, so it needs to be accessed from the “backdoor.”
How does one engage the PSNS?
1)Breathing. Deep, slow, even breathing. Deeper than you normally would and extending your exhale slightly can calm your PSNS. Sitting down for 10 minutes and breathing slowly and with the sole intention of watching the breath can shake off a bout of anxiety. Or try a session of mindfulness meditation, noticing what each of your senses are picking up on, one at a time, and keeping your breath steady and deep.
2)SLOWING DOWN… bring that mindfulness into your minute-to-minute activities. Just do what you need to do a little more slowly, and give yourself a little extra time to complete your tasks. If possible take one or two of your list of things to do. Do less to live more.
3)Touch your upper lip, play with it for a few minutes.
The nerve endings found in the lips are connected to the PSNS and will help you relax. I suspect that this is why nail biters find this act so comforting.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be something you live with, you can rebalance the aspects of the Autonomic Nervous System without drugs or distractions.
By Jessica Olson