How To Take Care Of Your Nervous System
Over my years of teaching, the most common complaint I’ve received from students coming to my meditation classes or restorative workshops has been that they find it difficult to wind down, let go of physical and mental tension, feelings of anxiety and not being able to sleep. These difficulties can be summarised with one expression: autonomic nervous system imbalance.
In yoga we often talk about the unity of mind, body and emotions, but too often this concept is left unexplained and it is rarely properly explored. Understanding how the nervous system works can help us gain an insight into this union.
The Nervous System
The Central Nervous System is made of two parts: the brain and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous transmits information to and from the body and the brain, and is itself divided into two: the somatic (in charge of voluntary control of the body) and the autonomic (in charge of the involuntary functions of the body) nervous systems.
And here comes the part that concerns us: the autonomic nervous system is further divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Every organ in our body has a sympathetic and the parasympathetic nerve supply. We can think of the SNS as the mechanism that prepares the body for stressful or dangerous situations (the fight or flight response). The PNS keeps the functions of the body running in normal non-stressful situations when the body is at rest. When overstimulated for a certain period of time, the SNS keeps working even when not necessary (when we are not in dangerous or active situations). It’s like it cannot switch itself off and the PNS is not able to counterbalance its effects.
So what happens when the functions of the SNS and the PNS become imbalanced? Well, we are all way too familiar with this. The body’s responses keep working as if there was something stressful going to happen: increased heart rate, shallower breathing, muscular tension, etc. This is mirrored by the mind which keeps working even when we want it to slow down and relax.
When we are in this condition, our emotional response is ruled by a general anxious state that makes us perceive what’s happening to us as difficult, dangerous or even impossible to deal with.
4 Practical Tips For a Healthy Nervous System
- Slow down and be still. Take time to physically slow down and pose. When you stop and allow your body to stay still for a while you are allowing the natural healing capacity of the body to kick in. Your reservoir of energy begins to be replenished.
Focus your Attention on the breath and the body. When you stay still you begin to notice how your mind works. It jumps from one thing to another (monkey mind) or becomes preoccupied with one thing, or event generates an uncontrollable cascade of thoughts. So what do you do? Simply bring attention to your breath. I don’t mean think about your breath, I mean feel your breath in your body. The sensation of the belly rising and falling, the air against your nostrils…and you can focus on the sensations in your body. Feeling the contact of your seat bones with the chair or feeling your feet on the ground, the sensation of the air against your skin if you are outside, etc.
Breathe slowly and deeply. When you consciously slow down and deepen your breath you are actively stimulating a nerve called the Vagus nerve. When you stimulate your Vagus nerve, you counteract your sympathetic nervous system, the one that causes stress by activating your fight-or-flight responses. This nerve becomes stimulated when we breathe into our belly (rather than into the chest) and when we make our exhalation longer then the inhalation.
- Move slowly and consciously. Slow, mindful movement allows us to become aware of the sensations in the body. It helps us remain connected to the present moment and to what is happening right here and now. The benefits of taking some time aside to feel the body moving are very similar to that of meditation (in fact, mindful movement is a form of meditation…it is meditation while moving!).
It helps us to keep our mind focused and at the same time stimulates the PNS so that the activities of the body begin to slow down.
If this resonates with you, come along to my next Love Yourself Mindful Yoga & Meditation Workshop on Sunday 15th May or my Restorative Workshop on Sunday 22nd May . Check them out and feel the amazing benefits for yourself!