Three Pathways to Nervous System Regulation

We don’t have to wait until a crisis ends in order to relax. In fact, attending to the natural cycles of activation and de-activation in our nervous system on a daily basis increases our capacity to tolerate higher intensity, and easily return to a restful state. Doing so enhances our capacity to recover from and adapt quickly to challenges and stressors.

Our nervous system is rhythmic. Experiencing safety, our nervous system is in an easy cycle of activation and deactivation, naturally oscillating in contraction and expansion cycles. For example, the heart and lungs constrict and expand to breathe and pump blood and oxygen to the entire body. In optimal functioning, the rhythm is not stuck in either activation or shutdown. When our brains perceive a threat, however, they send neurochemical messages to the body to prepare for survival.

The stress hormones the body releases to prepare us to defend and protect ourselves give us immense energy for fight or flight. This sympathetic nervous system arousal increases heart rate and respiration and sends energy to the muscles. If these energies are not utilized and discharged, they remain stuck in the body as tightness and constriction, increased heart rate and blood pressure, shallow and rapid breathing that reduces oxygenation, sluggish digestion and stomach aches, and headaches.

Under these conditions of undischarged activation, our vision narrows and becomes focused on threat, possibly leading us to become obsessed with negativity and catastrophizing, further increasing the threat response. We might be more reactive and impulsive, or unable to sleep, reason, or communicate effectively. Our parasympathetic nervous system calms us down, slowing heart and breathing rates, and relaxing the muscles and the gut. But if our calming response is not able to engage to discharge stress from the body, it builds in our system and begins to accumulate. This is called an allostatic load, and the cost of this extreme wear and tear on our bodies, mind, and emotions causes our higher order processing to begin to shut down.

When we experience an allostatic load and cannot release, we may feel:

  • Fatigued and burned out
  • Unmotivated
  • Unable to concentrate or problem solve
  • Emotionally stunted and apathetic
  • Ultimately, our immune system also becomes impaired

Every moment you can breathe easier increases your chances of living a happier, healthier, and more fulfilled life.

The good news is that there are simple somatic (body awareness) tools that can activate the vagus nerve, largely responsible for initiating the parasympathetic calming response. The goal is not to be calm all the time, which is unrealistic, but rather to increase capacity and resilience.

You can engage the social engagement system regulated by the ventral vagus:

  1. Vocalization: Om, chant, hum, sing, roar, laugh, growl.
  2. Facial expression: make faces playfully, half-smile, to reduce fixed expressions.
  3. Orientation: allow your eyes to scan your environment, let your neck follow your eyes, let your eyes find something pleasant and stay there, letting your eyes receive the pleasant image.
  4. Create a Zoom meeting with trusted friends to chat, do a joint activity, move, dance, express!

You can reduce the sympathetic high-arousal flight response:

  1. Move your legs, feel the movement if you are walking, or make walking motions while seated.
  2. Do jumping jacks.
  3. Bounce on a physio-ball.
  4. Imagine yourself running in a beautiful setting, feel all the sensations in the image, and notice how your body responds.

You can reduce the sympathetic high-arousal fight response:

  1. If your jaw is tight, gently open to where you feel the resistance, and then close your mouth; do several rounds of this until you feel your jaw is looser.
  2. Grab a hand towel and twist with your hands going in opposite directions, feel the tension in your arms and shoulders, and feel all their strength go into the motion.
  3. Open and close tight fists; squeeze a tennis ball or other item that provides resistance.
  4. If an animal could express your irritation, which animal would it be? Roar and growl or just observe the image of the animal expressing what you feel unable to express.

Most importantly, as you engage in any of the above suggestions, allow any tears, heat, or trembling that arise! The body begins to discharge the excess arousal energies as follows:

  • Tears
  • Warm sweat
  • Waves of body heat
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Deep breaths or yawns
  • Gurgles in the stomach
  • Goose bumps on the skin

Let that release complete and enjoy the resulting state of balance, equanimity, freedom, or spaciousness.

What else can you do? Meditation, mindfulness, restorative yoga, and yoga nidra come to mind. But you can also color, knit, or engage in any other mindful artistic activity that calms and soothes you. Increased vagal function and flexibility translates into emotional flexibility. We no longer need to get stuck in fight, flight, or freeze. A mind that can observe all these responses, without making a shaming story that perpetuates the freeze state, is the key to success. Every moment you can breathe easier increases your chances of living a healthier, happier, and more fulfilled life.

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