How our body relays messages to and from the brain are based upon two branches of our nervous system: autonomic and somatic. The somatic system centered around thought to action like brushing your hair. The autonomic system is for everything we don’t need to think about: heartbeat, digestion etc.. Within the autonomic system is two further branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Once again these are hard-wired mechanisms in our brain that create an automatic reaction. Sympathetic, often known as fight or flight, whereas parasympathetic is rest or digest. The amygdala, two small almond shaped parts of our limbic brain act as smoke detectors, sensing out danger and sending out messages to either react or not. This is happening all the time. The more the amygdala is called to action, such as the case in repeated trauma, PTSD and chronic stress, the amygdala actually shrinks in size and has a tougher time performing its intrinsic role to warn the body against threat. In survival mode, the brain/body assume everything is a threat all the time and is kept either in high alert (hypervigilant/anxious) or shut down (dissociation/depression), essentially prolonged periods in sympathetic activation.
Our autonomic nervous system relies on sense impressions from the body to navigate the environment. This is both from the physical and internal environment. Whether we are experiencing tightening in the stomach and the heartbeat quickening from an argument at work or the same physical sensations from simply thinking about the argument, our brains don’t know the difference and will move into a protective state (high cortisol, digestion ceased, increased blood pressure) keeping us in a dangerous feedback loop. Build upon this our over stimulated environments and multi-tasking lifestyles and we are truly setting ourselves up for negative physical, emotional and mental consequences or chronic pain, depression and stress based disease.
We have the power to deregulate this system by training our brain to spend more time in our parasympathetic nervous system when at rest. One of the ways is through coherence of heart rate variability (HRV). This maps out the space between heart beats as its related to our breath. The most common known way is through meditation. Related to this, is breath regulation. Practicing pranayama exercises from yoga or simply noticing our breath as it moves in and out of our body, filling our lungs and softly pressing into our bellies. Yoga, in particular restorative yoga allows us to train ourselves to rest and find ease in stillness. Taking time to rest throughout the day, sitting down and quietly eating our lunch or taking a walk outside can go a long way in reminding our bodies how to relax. The more time we spend in parasympathetic, the easier it is to think clearly and rationally. We will also experience better sleep, better digestion and an increase in overall energy and vitality. If in an attempt to practice any of the above suggestions, you become frustrated or anxious stop immediately and try something else. These are only a few ideas of many. If you have a history of trauma seek out someone trained in somatic awareness or psychotherapy to help in this process. The more we think we can’t relax, the more we need it. Your health and well-being are depending on it.