THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

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A deep sigh is your body-brain's natural way to release tension and reset your nervous system. Simply breathe in fully, then breathe out fully, longer on the exhale. Studies have shown that a deep sigh returns the autonomic nervous system from an over-activated sympathetic state to a more balanced parasympathetic state.

Stressed Woman

understanding your body and stress

This page is all about the nervous system and how it effects our being. There are source links and advice of how to improve, reset, your system.

Those days when things don't seem to be going great.

You're running late. Spill your drink. Lose an important document or email. These mini-diasters startle the nervous system—add a rush of adrenaline that helps ready your body for 'fight or flight,' and can make the situation or day more difficult to cope with. You see the startling of the nervous system makes it think it is under threat and in danger, no matter how small the mishap. It is your reaction to the mini-disasters that can put extra stress on the mind/body if not consciously addressed. Luckily, there are some easy ways this can be combated, and many of us do so subconsciously. 

NEURONS

The basic workings of the nervous system depend a lot on tiny cells called neurons. The brain has billions of them, and they have many specialized jobs. For example, sensory neurons send information from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin to the brain. Motor neurons carry messages away from the brain to the rest of the body.

All neurons, however, relay information to each other through a complex electrochemical process, making connections that affect the way we think, learn, move, and behave.

Intelligence, learning, and memory.

As we grow and learn, messages travel from one neuron to another over and over, creating connections, or pathways, in the brain. It's why driving takes so much concentration when someone first learns it, but later is second nature: The pathway became established.

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Closed Eyes

A deep sigh is your body-brain’s natural way to release tension and reset your nervous system.

Somatic intelligence

 

It’s understanding how your body responds to danger and using that knowledge to support your body as you go through life—which, if you’re human, is bound to be filled with at least some adversity.

To better support our natural somatic intelligence, we need to soothe our nervous system through body-based practices—deep breathing, deep sighing, even a kind touch. These moves will help steady our brain’s perceptions of and responses to danger, and help us retain a sense of safety. Once we master some of these techniques, we set ourselves up for more resilient coping, learning, and growth.

Touch

 

 

To soothe the nervous system and restore a sense of safety and trust in the moment, it helps to use the power of touch. Warm, safe touch activatesthe release of oxytocin—the “tend and befriend” hormone that creates pleasant feelings in the body and is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.

Oxytocin is one of a cascade of neurochemicals that are part of the brain-body social engagement system. Because being in the presence of other people is so critical to our wellbeing and safety, nature has provided this system to encourage us to reach out to others and connect.

That’s why touch, along with physical proximity and eye contact, evokes a viscerally felt sense of reassurance that “everything is okay; you’re fine.”

sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sudden stress, like if you witness a robbery. When something frightening happens, the sympathetic nervous system makes the heart beat faster so that it sends blood quickly to the different body parts that might need it. It also causes the adrenal glands at the top of the kidneys to release adrenaline, a hormone that helps give extra power to the muscles for a quick getaway. This process is known as the body's "fight or flight" response.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the exact opposite: It prepares the body for rest. It also helps the digestive tract move along so our bodies can efficiently take in nutrients from the food we eat.

Image by JC Gellidon

hand on heart

Research has shown that placing your hand over your heart and gently breathing can soothe your mind and your body. And experiencing the sensations of touch with another safe human being, even recalling memories of those moments, can activate the release of oxytocin, which evokes a feeling of safety and trust.

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movement

Any time you move your body and shift your posture, you shift your physiology, which, in turn, shifts the activity of your autonomic nervous system. You can actually use movement to shift your emotions and your mood.

For example, if you are feeling scared or nervous, research has shown that taking a pose that expresses the opposite of that—putting your hands on your hips, your chest out, and your head held high—will make you feel more confident. 

Let your body move into a posture that expresses the emotional state you want to develop in yourself to counteract what you’re feeling. 

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Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Decrease Stress and Anxiety

As you progress in your recovery, you may find yourself in a stressful situation feeling anxious and worried.


Sometimes the stress is caused by something psychological, such as constantly worrying about losing a job or a family problem. Other times the cause of the anxious feelings can be environmental, such as an upcoming major deadline or trying to get to work during a busy rush hour.

Regardless of the cause of the stress, high levels of anxiety cause the human body to react by releasing stress hormones that result in physiological changes that include a pounding heart, quickening of breathing, tensing of muscles and sweating. All of the body’s combined reactions to stress are known as the fight or flight response.

Knowing how to use the parasympathetic nervous system to manage your stress and anxiety can promote lasting sobriety by reducing the urge to turn to addictive substances.

The Fight or Flight Response and the Parasympathetic Nervous System


The fight or flight response was intended as a survival mechanism to allow mammals, including humans, to react quickly to a situation that was life-threatening. Unfortunately, today the human body has the same response to non life-threatening stressors that cause high levels of anxiety.

Research has shown that the long-term effects of chronic stress affect a person’s psychological and physical health. According to an article in Harvard Health Publishing, “The repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.”

The body’s fight or flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which is one part of the autonomic nervous system. The other part is the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to relax and slow down the body’s response.

Sweetwater Health describes the autonomic nervous system in this way, “The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems act like the accelerator and brakes on a car. The sympathetic system is the accelerator, always ready to rev up and take us out of danger. The parasympathetic system is the brakes, slowing us down when danger isn’t present.”

How Does the Parasympathetic Nervous System Decrease Anxiety?


The changes in the body when the sympathetic nervous system is activated take place very quickly. Until the brain perceives that the danger has passed, it continues to release corticotropin and adrenocorticotropic hormones that keep the body on high alert and ready for intense physical activity.

Once the threat is over, cortisol levels decline and the parasympathetic nervous system slows the stress response by releasing hormones that relax the mind and body while inhibiting, or slowing, many of the high energy functions of the body.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Decrease Anxiety


When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. People can learn to trigger their parasympathetic nervous system to immediately reduce their sense of anxiety and stress. This also lifts their mood, strengthens their immune system, and reduces their blood pressure.

healing the nervous system

There are many techniques that a person can use to strengthen and activate their parasympathetic nervous system, causing a relaxation response in their body.

 

For example:

Spend time in nature
Get a massage
Practice meditation
Deep abdominal breathing from the diaphragm
Repetitive prayer
Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or peace
Play with animals or children
Practice yoga, chi kung, or tai chi
Exercise
Try progressive relaxation
Do something you enjoy, such as a favourite hobby


A Few More Ways to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System


Gently Touch Your Lips
Your lips have parasympathetic fibers spread throughout them, so touching them activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Take one or two fingers and lightly run them over your lips.

Be Mindful – Don’t Multitask


Try not to multitask and be mindful of what you are doing. Toni Bernhard in her book, How To Be Sick – A Buddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, quotes Korean Zen master Seung Sahn who liked to tell his students, “When reading, only read. When eating, only eat. When thinking, only think.”

Use Visualisation


Use visualisation and imagery to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Picture yourself in a peaceful place that you love. It could be the ocean at sunset, a mountain stream, a beautiful lush forest, a secluded beach, a field of wildflowers, or any place you enjoy and feel relaxed. Use all your senses as you visualize the place in this imagery. Hear the sounds of the waves, feel the breeze on your face, and smell the scent of the flowers. You’ll feel relaxed in no time at all.

by Linda Graham

Yoga Practice
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