Stressed? Yeah, it happens to the best of us. But wouldn’t it be nice if stress were just an occasional guest rather than a constant companion? In today’s world, that might seem like a distant dream, but understanding the connection between stress and how to calm your nervous system is the first step to turning that dream into reality.
Stress and the nervous system
Your nervous system is like the conductor of your body’s orchestra, controlling everything from your thoughts and emotions to your behaviors and bodily functions. When stress enters the scene, it’s your autonomic nervous system (ANS) that takes charge.
The ANS has two main components: the sympathetic or “fight or flight” system, which gears your body up for action, and the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system, which brings you back to calm.
In an ideal world, these systems would exist in harmony, but when you’re dealing with chronic stress, your sympathetic nervous system can become overactive, leaving you in a perpetual state of high alert. This can lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, and a range of other health issues.
But the good news is that there are a handful of things you can do to calm your nervous system and build resilience to stress overall.
1. Get outside.
Spending time in nature is like hitting the reset button on your nervous system. Studies have shown that spending at least 20 minutes in a natural setting can reduce nervous system arousal by lowering cortisol levels (the body’s primary stress hormone). So, make it a habit to embrace the great outdoors regularly; a quick stroll in the park or leisurely lay on the beach can work wonders for keeping stress at bay.
2. Play with weight.
Weight-bearing exercises like lifting weights, climbing stairs, or even jumping up and down stimulate proprioception, which is our sense of body movement and position in space. Proprioceptive input has a calming and organizing effect on the nervous system because it allows the brain to create a map of the body, reducing the perception of danger in the environment. If you’re not a fan of weight training, you can also get proprioceptive input from things like weighted blankets or tight hugs.
3. Take deep breaths.
Taking a moment to focus on your breath is a simple yet effective way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system anytime, anywhere. Deep, slow breaths can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, signaling your body to relax. Try inhaling for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for a count of four. Repeat several times whenever you feel stressed.
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4. Incorporate mind-body practices.
Meditation, yoga, mindful movement, and other mind-body practices are incredible tools for calming the nervous system. They encourage relaxation, increase self-awareness, and improve our ability to manage stress. Adding one of these practices to your weekly routine is a great way to stay grounded in this fast-paced world.
5. Connect with loved ones.
When you’re stressed, you may feel like you need alone time – but don’t underestimate the power of social connection. Positive social interactions support the release of oxytocin, a hormone that activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes relaxation. Meaningful conversations, warm smiles, good hugs, and simply being in the presence of people you trust can be a potent source of stress relief for the body.
The bottom line
Understanding your nervous system is crucial for managing stress in your day-to-day life. Incorporating these five habits can help you calm your nervous system during times of stress. However, it’s important to remember that everybody is different, and it may take some experimentation to determine which tools work best for your individual nervous system.