How To Calm Your Overactive Nervous SystemFebruary 23rd, 2021
When was the last time you ran into a wild bear? Remember the last time you faced a pack of angry wolves? You don’t? Okay, so why do you feel like you’re constantly amped up and on edge, ready to flee?
The answer might surprise you.
It all comes down to something that you would be thankful for if you ever actually do come face to face with a grizzly bear but something that isn’t helpful in our everyday lives.
I am talking about your fight flight freeze response. Fight flight freeze response is a built-in evolutionary process that prompts your body to leap into action when faced with perceived danger. When faced with this perceived danger, your body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline; prompting your heart rate to increase, your breathing to become faster and your temperature to drop; amongst a plethora of other unconscious responses. Essentially, your body puts all of its non-urgent processes like digestion and repair on the back burner while it deals with the huge threatening bear in front of you. These are just a few examples of how your body tries to prepare you to fight the bear, run from the bear (take flight) or freeze so perhaps he won't notice you.
However, the problem for many of us is that our nervous systems are behaving as if we are continually trying to outrun a giant bear. This is harmful because you cannot actually outrun a fictitious bear. Over time, when this response is triggered over and over again by the daily stressors of life, our body is constantly in a fight flight freeze state which leads to exhaustion, burnout and chronic illness.
You can, however, help your nervous system to return to a neutral state by gently reminding your body that you’re not in need of this drastic response. Follow the steps below to calm your nervous system and body:
The next time you feel panicked, try some deep breathing. Find a comfortable place to sit. Exhale all of your old air, then breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts and breath out for four counts. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. You might want to focus on slowly and gently filling up your lungs and expanding your belly. Do this for seven or eight rounds and see if you can feel a difference in your body.
This word can evoke fear and confusion in some people but the good news is, there truly is no right or wrong way to meditate. Try placing one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest while you notice your breath. You could see if you can notice the rhythm, depth and pace of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Often this is enough to turn your focus inward. In an eight week Harvard University study, physician Dr Herbert Benson found that meditation was the key to eliciting the body’s “relaxation response”. By simultaneously activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our body’s rest and digest system (the one which is put onto the back burner when we are in fight or flight mode) and deactivating our "fight or flight" stress mode, mediation was proven to reduce anxiety. There are many wonderful free apps and YouTube videos available if you’d like to explore meditation in a little more depth.
Exercise has been proven to reduce the levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Working out also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. You don't have to run a marathon, a short walk will do the trick.
You could say that yoga encompasses all of the above. In yoga we use conscious breath, we meditate and break a sweat. Additionally, when we are in fight flight freeze mode we tend to clench our muscles, ready for action, but moving through a few simple yoga stretches can help you to release some of that tension, from the outside in.
So, perhaps now with this understanding, you can allow yourself a little more compassion and reassurance next time your fight flight freeze response leaps into action. Maybe you can thank your body for trying to step in and help while using these techniques to let your body know that you’ve got it covered.
Yasmin Harvey is a New York-based yoga instructor writing as a guest writer for The Isbourne.