Let's start off by looking at a simplistic version of what happens when you face stress. The nervous system which I will separate into 2 parts - the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves which are all communicating with the body via neurotransmitters, bio-chemicals, essentially what I will from now on call hormones.
The sympathetic nervous system is the first responder: The brain decides there’s a danger, it sends nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands and they release the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline increases the amount of sugar in your blood, increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, causes you to sweat, and increases muscle tension – getting you ready for fight or flight. Signals are also sent to your pituitary gland, telling it to release hormones that within a few minutes have traveled through your blood stream and stimulated your adrenal cortex to produce a stress hormone called cortisol. This process also shuts down unnecessary systems such as digestion, reproduction, immune protection, and cognitive (rational thinking) processes. These systems are unnecessary in the immediate presence of danger. Problem is, we perceive life’s stressors as continual and our nervous system is unable to regulate itself properly and turn these systems back on to ideal levels of functioning.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the adjuster – this is what we have to learn to control and in controlling it, we get the systems of long term survival (digestion, etc.) turned back on to normal, healthy functioning and get the muscles, blood pressure and that fight or flight response back to a normal level. The parasympathetic is meant to adjust the initial stress reaction to an appropriate level once it's no longer needed. At bedtime, the brain should be telling the parasympathetic that all is well and we can sleep now. Instead, we are still fuming about the incident at work, or worrying about the next day's schedule. The parasympathetic doesn't know what's real and what's perceived danger, so the stress response continues.
So, how do we communicate better with the parasympathetic nervous system? It's not that hard really, but you have to actually DO it - regularly and maybe, probably, every single day.
· Breathwork - Breathing is a process you have to do and yet you pretty easily can have some control over. Deep breathing stimulates the relaxation response, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. Belly breathing: Breathe so far into the lungs that the diaphragm drops into the belly, expanding it. If you place your hand on your belly, it moves outward as the belly expands. Full yogic breath: Belly breath + breathing all the way up to the collar bones. After breathing into the belly keep inhaling, feel the rib cage lifting up and then expanding outward toward the insides of the arms as the breath fills the lungs.
Visualization – Learn to control the mind with visions of calming places and/or memories. It's easy to think about how worried we are about something, how we dread the stress of the work day, the irritating drive through rush hour traffic, etc. This thinking is what causes the stress reaction in the first place. So, why don't we then think about the beauty of the sunrise, the calm color of the sky, the peaceful sound of a favorite song? Taking your mind to a calm place should be the automatic opposite reaction to stress. And yet, it isn't. The mind doesn't know the difference between the real thing and a vision or memory. Sports psychology has used this method for years. Before a race, skiers visualize the slope they have only practiced on 5-6 times. Going over the activity in the brain, makes the brain better at it. Visualize calm and peace and train your brain toward calm and peace!
Meditation – Meditation is like weight lifting - it teaches the brain to focus and teaches it to ignore distractions, so it gets stronger. If I want to make my bicep stronger, I do bicep curls. And yet, we don't do exercises to strengthen the brain! What the brain spends the most time on, it gets good at doing. Thinking over and over about stressful situations, makes the brain really good at stress. Meditating allows us to control what the brain pays attention to and makes it stronger at thinking about what we choose. A simple meditation technique is mindfulness. Mindful breathing is simply focusing on the breath. Any other task such as cleaning, driving, playing, walking, etc. can also be mindful meditations.
Relaxation – We often think that flopping on the couch in front of the TV with a bowl of chips and a beer is relaxation. But, it isn't usually. Because what we watch is often stressful - the news, crime dramas, etc. tension continues to exist in the body. In addition, we are putting stressful substances into the body. Learning to identify when tension is present in the body and letting it go, is true relaxation and is the response the body and the mind need to make sure we've turned stress off.
Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc. – Conscious/aware movements that combine breathing, movement, relaxation, and focus and teach the body and mind to function in a state of ease. These activities require the mind and body to connect through movement which makes for a meditative state. Many other forms of exercise can do this as well, but only if done so mindfully. If running with an iPod is your normal way to go, you are not being conscious and aware of the exercise. The benefits will not be the same. In most, but not all, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc. classes teaching how to breathe and when is part of the class, as is relaxation. There is also a certain focusing of the mind for many of the movements. This combination teaches the mind and body to work together in a state of ease sometimes known as flow.
Start training your nervous system away from the stress response and reap the benefits in improved physical and mental health!