Written by Lauren Geall
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.
Understanding the inner workings of your body can transform the way you approach self-care. Here, a trauma specialist explains why the nervous system is such a powerful tool for dealing with feelings of stress and overwhelm – and outlines three techniques to help you get started.
We’ve all had those days when trying to relax proves more difficult than usual – when your body feels charged with electricity and you struggle to shake off the excess pressure in your chest. It’s frustrating, to say the least – especially when you just want to rest after a busy or stressful day.
But just because relaxation feels farther away than usual, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You just need to tackle that stressed-out feeling at its physiological source – aka your nervous system.
While a lot of anxiety-reducing techniques focus on the power of the mind (mindfulness is a prime example of this), shifting your focus to the body can make a big difference when you’re feeling frazzled.
After all, your autonomic nervous system is the driving force behind your fight-or-flight response, so knowing how to regulate that response can help reduce your stress levels when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
“Beginning to understand how our nervous system state influences the way we think, feel and behave can be a total revelation because it allows us to see ourselves through a far more compassionate lens,” explains Aimee Rai, a trauma specialist, integrative therapist and founder of the International School of Holistic Healing (ISOHH).
How does the nervous system influence our stress levels?
To understand how the nervous system influences our stress levels, you first need to wrap your head around the two ‘branches’ that make it up – the sympathetic, which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ state, and the parasympathetic, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ state.
“When stress begins to accumulate in the system, the sympathetic branch becomes dominant and we experience feelings of anxiety and worry and tend to feel overwhelmed by small things and be quite emotionally reactive,” Rai explains.
“Our body cannot sustain this level of stress well over time, so without fostering an ability to soothe our nervous system and regulate our emotional states in healthy ways, it can go into collapse – causing symptoms such as depression, fatigue, hopelessness and many more.”
Rai continues: “When the nervous system is in this acutely stressed or collapsed state, we have diminished executive brain function. The executive brain is responsible for empathy, intuition and what we call ‘response flexibility’, which allows us to keep our cool and respond to demanding situations in a mindful manner.
“As such, a stable nervous system and access to higher brain function are the keys to a sense of emotional balance and wellbeing. So if we learn to practice a little nervous system care when we begin to feel over-stretched, it is easier to gently move ourselves back toward calm and self-command.”
How to soothe your nervous system
While there are plenty of ways to tap into the power of your parasympathetic nervous system when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, Rai recommends starting with these three simple techniques.
1. Take a few deep breaths
Deep breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system – not only is it easy to do, but it can be done almost anywhere.
“It is important not to breathe high and tight into the chest but instead take a nice deep belly breath in through the nose and then let it go from the mouth with a long, slow exhale,” Rai says. “It will feel like a gentle sigh of relief. This activates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system and has a calming and settling effect.”
2. Relax your muscles
When we’re feeling stressed, our muscles tend to hold a lot of tension – especially in our shoulders and back. As such, making a conscious effort to relieve that tension can help you feel calmer.
“By softening your muscles and consciously releasing any tension in your body, you can turn the nervous system back towards a more relaxed way of being and switch your executive brain and sense of perspective back on,” Rai says.
“Drop the shoulders and relax your jaw – just soften everything. It will feel like you’re melting the tension down into the ground. A quick intuitive stretch is another simple way to break the tension.”
3. Get rid of excess adrenaline
If you’re feeling particularly jittery, a good way to soothe your nervous system is to rid your body of excess energy.
“Often with stress, anxiety and regulation we think about techniques that seem more soothing and slowing, but we forget the fact that these states involve a lot of adrenaline that has nowhere to go,” Rai says.
“As such, one of my favourite tips is to run on the spot – hard and fast for 30 to 60 seconds. Then stop, breathe and feel. Lie down on the floor afterwards if you can and take a moment to surrender. It is not uncommon to feel a little shaky or for tears to follow as the system releases.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support.
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