In the past weeks, I have been covering the chapters of my ebook which just happens to follow the same process that I use with my wellness coaching clients and mental health therapy clients. Perhaps the most important aspect of the plan I use for health and healing in mind and body is self-regulation. This is the process of adjusting your mind and your body as needed, according to internal and external stimuli. Think of it as you being able to control the thermostat on your furnace and air conditioning. Things get too hot, you turn down the heat or turn up the air conditioning. Too cold? Turn up the heat or turn down the air conditioning.
Self-regulation is the ability to read what is happening with the nervous system, the mind, and the rest of the body and do something about it. It doesn't include everything, but it includes more than you might guess. Thoughts and senses trigger reactions of the nervous system. You might think of a beloved pet or child and feel a sense of love which is the release of oxytocin, among other hormones and chemicals. You hear the voice of a certain co-worker and feel the stress and tension in your body immediately. A song reminds you of a difficult time in your life and suddenly you feel sad. Again this is a chemical reaction in the body - the nervous system responds, hormones and chemical messengers are released, and digestion, immunity, muscle tension and more are affected!
One way to self-regulate is to be able to control your thoughts, to create thoughts that make you feel good and avoid thoughts that make you feel bad. I will address this more in a future blog on cognition. However, changing thoughts through meditation needs to be addressed here. One of the most powerful self-regulators is meditation. People tend to freak out when I use the "m" word, but there are many ways to meditate and some are really enjoyable and not all that hard. The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind. In doing so, you learn to actually control what goes on in your mind, which, in turn, controls how you feel.
This can happen by learning mindfulness which is a powerful and simple meditation technique for beginners. The goal is to be present and focused on exactly what is happening now. This can be done with mindful breathing, walking, or whatever you happen to be doing. The goal is to keep the mind from wandering into worries about the future or regret about the past. The more the brain connects to worry and regret, the easier it is to stay there.
Also, you can learn to use imagery. Imagery takes the brain into imaginary territory, invoking the senses - see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, and/or taste it. Choose actual memories or create something completely unreal, doesn't matter. What you create triggers the brain, creating a feeling. The brain sends out different messengers and hormones in response to the sensory input you've imagined. And, the brain now finds it easier to connect to all this good stuff!
Breathing techniques are another way to control the nervous system. I spoke briefly about breathing in the previous blog "Let's Get Physical..." Let me say a bit more here about what's actually going on. We have a sympathetic nervous system and a para-sympathetic nervous system. To make it really simple, think about the sympathetic as your hot water and the para as your cold water. Stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc. turn on the hot water/sympathetic nervous system - you might feel sweaty, your heart races, your blood pressure rises, etc. It is then the job of the para-sympathetic/cold water to balance things out as needed. Let's say you have a physical activity or a competition, a little adrenaline is helpful initially, so the cold water isn't necessary until later or perhaps not until the competition is completely over. The energy of the sympathetic nervous system is necessary for motivation. It helps us get things done and keep out of danger. However, the cold water needs to be turned on so we can relax and sleep, so we can slow down and do low energy activities.
When the nervous system gets out of balance, as it is for so many of us, the para-sympathetic doesn't balance out as needed. We can, however, turn it on ourselves, by using the breath. Various breathing techniques can be used to get the para-sympathetic turned on or turn it down when you need energy. Deep breaths are relaxing. Quick inhales create energy. Retaining the breath between inhales and exhales can do both. Experiment with breath and use it as a tool for manipulating these two aspects of the nervous system.
Relaxation is a general term for a variety of ways to turn on the para-sympathetic nervous system and keep it low for the sake of releasing the tension so prevalent in the mind and body. Practicing relaxation techniques such as savasana in yoga, yoga nidra, Yin yoga, guided relaxation audio or video, and progressive relaxation (tensing the muscles on the inhale and releasing on the exhale) all teach you to understand and control your nervous system. Spending more time in a relaxed state keeps the brain familiar with relaxation and makes it easier for the brain to turn toward a relaxed state of mind.
The goal is that you begin to learn to be in charge of the body's responses to stimuli, you learn to create your own stimuli, and you learn awareness of the brain's triggers and the body's reactions. There are more ways yet to do this. I am going to stop here this week. More to come in future posts. In the meantime, try these techniques and see what you learn!