Stress and the Autonomic nervous system part 2.

Last week I wrote about how to dial down the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to help with stress. This week I want to write about activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is relatively easy but unless we have decreased the sympathetic drive it is often like putting a band aid on a laceration that requires suturing. It might help a little but eventually we need to treat the root cause, which is the sympathetic overdrive. No amount of meditation and mindfulness can help in some situations and especially if we are burnt out or have adrenal fatigue we need to address the stressors at the same time as activating the PNS

To activate the PNS the following will help.

  • Meditation

Meditation is great for calming the sympathetic system and engaging the parasympathetic instead. If you’re like me you might get a little anxious in formal meditation! “I’m not doing it right, my mind won’t stop thinking, I can’t concentrate on my breath because I’m worried about something that has happened to me.” Sometimes our brains are just thinking too much.

I prefer a walking meditation or a guided visualisation exercise. But many people find formal meditation very calming and centring. Any form of meditation helps you get in touch with your inner self and its wisdom.

  • Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focussing your awareness on what you are doing in the present moment. It involves being aware of what is happening right now and not thinking about the past or future. It is like meditation in that it calms the mind and helps to de-stress.

It is relatively easy to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. You can do the dishes mindfully; paying attention to what you are doing rather than being off in your head thinking about everything that you think you need to be worrying about. You can eat mindfully, drink a cup of tea mindfully, exercise mindfully, you can do any activity where you focus your awareness on that activity.

Mindfulness helps us live more in the present moment.

  • Spend time in nature

Getting closer to nature and the earth helps calm the ANS. It helps if we connect with nature mindfully. Sometimes I go for a walk along the beach but am so much in my head thinking about everything that I hardly pay attention to where I am. When I realise this I try to bring my awareness to the waves and the wind and the sky and my brain starts to calm down a little. Of course even when my brain is in overdrive while I walk I am connecting with the earth but when I bring my awareness to my surroundings and am present this is even more grounding and calming.

To actively ground yourself will decrease the electrical charge in your body which helps relaxation and healing. To do this you need to be in direct contact with the earth; walking barefoot, sitting on the ground or hugging a tree are all good ways to earth yourself. You can also buy earthing devices, which may help if you live in an apartment or can’t get out to actively earth yourself.

  • Deep breathing

Many of us breathe on a shallow level. This is both a result of being anxious and wired, and a cause. If we do some deep breathing, into our bellies, this activates the parasympathetic system and slows things down. Some people just don’t know how to breathe deeply so if you find it hard to take a deep breath and feel your belly expand then you might need to practice. It is best to practice when you are feeling calm.

Lie down with your hands on your belly and slowly breathe in through the nose. Let the air expand your rib cage and feel you diaphragm descend and your belly expand outwards against your hands. Slowly breathe out feeling your belly descend and your chest compress. Let these deep breaths flow in and out with your belly rising and falling. You might like to sigh the breath out your mouth and feel the stress leaving your body as you do so.

Once you have mastered the deep breathing you can do some anytime. Taking a few deep breaths will calm you if you’re anxious or hurried. Even when you’re not anxious it helps to take deep breaths to centre yourself and bring more calm into your day.

  • Relaxation

Any form of relaxation can turn on our PNS. I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV with a glass of wine although this may help for some people. I find the best way to relax is to lie on the earth and just sink in. Other people like to do relaxation exercises and there are many of these available on phone or computer. Or you might like to just lie and listen to calming music while you relax. Combining relaxation with deep breathing is great.

Whatever way works best for you will help in your healing. And if you’re busy just stopping for a few minutes to consciously relax will bring some calm back.

  • Exercise such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi

Yoga, Qi gong and tai chi are all wonderful for calming the SNS and activating the PNS. They work with the energies of the body and help us balance our ANS. There are so many options available to practice these programs that we really have no excuse for not incorporating them into our wellness routine. Classes can be taken locally or online and the benefit from even a few minutes a day is that our nervous system becomes calmer almost immediately.

  • Rituals

Many rituals can have a calming effect. Lighting a candle or incense in a mindful manner can be a useful ritual that gets the body ready to relax. A warm bath before bed or for children the ritual of a bedtime story calms the ANS down. You can make up your own rituals and they have a way of imbedding in your life so that as soon as you begin the ritual the body knows it is relaxing.

  • Sleep

Sleep down regulates the SNS and up regulates the PNS so I have put it in both lists. Sleep is just really important to healing and particularly if stress is a big component of your illness it is vital to be sleeping well.

  • Play more

Not many of us spend much time playing as we get older. But play is wonderful for decreasing stress especially when we do it mindfully and pay attention to the play rather than what else we think we should be doing.

Playing with children helps remind us that play is a great way to learn and also to relax. There are many ways to play including board or card games (although not those that make you highly competitive which activates the SNS) and creative play such as pottery, woodworking, painting, sewing and other crafts.

  • Music and dance

Both listening to and playing music help activate the PNS. Although some music, such as hard rock or heavy metal may stimulate the SNS in some people. It’s the same with dance, which mostly activates the rest and relax response but if it’s too hard rock or the like it may stimulate the SNS for some of us.

Most of us know which music and/or dancing is good for us to de-stress with. I have found that my stress levels are much lower if I listen to music when I drive rather than talk radio or podcasts. We seem to want to fill our lives with information and don’t always take time to just listen to music. Try to just sit and listen to some music rather than doing something else at the same time.

Dancing is a wonderful release and we can do it by ourselves and just move to music any way we want. Some people take classes or go to dance groups but for many people this adds an extra stress to their life – either making life busier or adding a competitive nature to the dancing.

  • Calming herbs

If we need more help calming our SNS down and ramping up the PNS then sometimes herbs will help. Simple everyday herbs such as chamomile tea and lavender oil have been shown in some trials to help with anxiety and stress. Other herbs also shown to be useful are passionflower, kava, lemon balm and valerian. Growing these herbs in your garden is also great and their plant spirits will help bring calm. Picking their flowers or leaves and placing them in your house is a lovely way to bring more of their spirits inside. Of course you can purchase teas or oils and these will help but a close connection to the actual plant brings a greater intensity of action.

I hope you can use some of these techniques to help bring a greater sense of calm to your life and lessen the stress. Just remember to work on ways to decrease the stress to begin with rather than just managing the effects of stress.

Transformation 4 – the mind

Transformation 4 – the mind.

Having begun the transformation of the physical body I decided that my next step would be to begin to transform my mind. I decided I needed to look into meditation and I came across a free meditation course that was included with my membership to a particular college. I had mostly rebelled against meditation in the past and felt that I meditated in a certain way when I exercised so I thought that was enough. I had done a little meditation and relaxation in yoga, in a hypnosis course I once did and as part of my job at times but I had never really embraced it.

I decided it was time to embrace it.

Not only did I decide to begin meditating but I also decided it was time to take up yoga again.

I began the meditation course and because I had already done some of the exercises I found myself getting impatient and wanting to jump ahead. I hated the progressive muscle relaxation practice so I skipped that week but otherwise I tried to practice every morning before work. I found it very hard to quiet my mind but gradually I began to improve.

I had been meditating for a couple of months and I was still such a beginner – my mind was reluctant to cease its chatter. Focus on the breath. Focus on the gap between thoughts. The gap between my thoughts was so brief as to be mostly non-existent. But gradually I was learning how to sit and enjoy the practice of just sitting. I was learning how to allow thoughts to come and go, noises to come and go, everything to just come and go. It was as the Buddha observed, everything comes and then it goes, nothing is permanent.

We are so used to doing and doing and doing that to sit and breathe and spend time with our inner self is alien. Initially I would sit there paying attention to the breathing and thinking way too much about what I would do when the meditation was finished. Eventually I was able to just sit and focus on my breath and try to find the gap between my thoughts. I was learning how to focus on the peaceful place inside me that has been overrun by my outer life. I was learning that the peaceful place inside of me is deep and seemingly unknown. Yet it is also the essence of myself that has been covered up with layers of ego and too much thinking.

My work in medicine and my writing are both pursuits where thinking is useful yet my mind is so full of thoughts that they crowd out the part of my brain that doesn’t think in that way. The left side of my brain thinks in words and sentences, it is the incessant monkey mind that chatters away all the time. The right side of the brain thinks in pictures and concepts and is often drowned out by the left side. I think the meditation was helping me quiet the left side of my brain and allowed me to hear more from the right.

I have written quite a bit about the way the two sides of the brain work in my book Holistic Medicine and although it is something of a metaphor it helps me pay attention to what is happening with my thoughts. When I am overrun with thoughts that often go around in circles I become aware that I am paying too much attention to my logical left brain and too little attention to my intuitive right brain. While meditation can help my quiet the left side of the brain unless I consciously pay attention to my over thinking I often get stuck in the logical and physical side of my life.

What I really hoped to achieve with the meditation and yoga practice was to become more attuned to my inner or higher self. To tune into that part of me that is connected to everything else – the source energy, universal consciousness, spirit, god. In connecting with this inner self I hoped to be able to better align my inner and outer selves in order to live a more authentic life. To keep becoming the best version of myself I can be.

After meditating for some months I gradually found myself feeling less and less inspired to practice. Somewhere I lost the momentum and ended up going backwards. I struggled to do my meditation, going some days without even sitting and trying. The days I did try to practice my mind just didn’t want to still, my body felt anxious to be up and doing. My yoga practice was also more difficult; my back got sore, my left knee hurt. What was happening?

It seemed as if my ego was fighting back, trying to regain lost ground and it was succeeding. Why did the ego feel so threatened by my new way of life? And why was it so easy to fall back into the old way of being? They say if you practice a new habit for 30 days it becomes a way of life. I had been meditating for eight weeks and doing yoga for almost four. Yet something within me was trying to sabotage my plans.

Ego is always trying to blind us to our dual nature – the spiritual and the physical. It is trying to have us believe that only the physical is important. It would like us to believe that we are who we think we are rather than a deeper or higher self that is connected to the rest of the universe and to source energy. Ego wants us to believe we are separate beings when really we are all connected via invisible energy connections.

I had fallen for ego’s tricks. I had started to focus more on the physical and less on the spiritual aspects. Despite meditation and yoga and gratitude and thoughts of service to others I had forgotten to connect with my higher self while doing these things and had become task oriented. I was too busy doing (even though I was doing ‘spiritual’ things) and had forgotten to be. Mind you I had also stopped writing despite my aim to write every day.

As I write I begin to reconnect with my higher self and see how much I was driven to do the spiritual thing rather then be my authentic self. To be spiritual isn’t necessarily about doing spiritual things but rather about being the person you are meant to be. How could I connect with my higher self on a daily basis? Obviously the meditation was one way but it didn’t seem to be working that well. Maybe I wasn’t finding the stillness as well as I might. Or maybe it just didn’t carry on into my day’s work. When I write I connect to my higher self but I couldn’t write all day long. I had to find a way to be in alignment while I saw patients and went about my day to day life. So I took a few days off to regroup and see where I was getting off path.

The first thing I did was step right back and try to find the bigger picture of what was happening. Why was I going backwards? While ego is in control then higher self can’t be. This seemed to be the problem. How could I let higher self have control of things rather than ego.

Then one day I had the weird experience of waking up with one thought on my mind – let go. I filed it away to think about later and got up to do my meditation. I chose a guided meditation I hadn’t done in a while and found the whole thing was about letting go. I opened my Facebook a little bit later and there was a cartoon entitled ‘how to let go’ with a picture of a leaf falling from a tree.

There was clearly a message here. I had to learn how to let go.

Let go of what?

The need to control?

Letting go of our need to control our lives is critical to becoming more aligned with our inner self. Our ego would love to control everything and it has us believing that this is possible. And it is partly possible when we are fully aligned with inner self and the source of all that is.

I decided to let go of my need to control my transformation in a logical way. Instead I decided to do those things that brought me joy and happiness and not focus on the spiritual practices that I believed I ‘should’ be doing. I stopped meditating because I reasoned it wasn’t bringing me any joy at all, instead it was turning into something I felt I had to do. Yet another task to be completed each day. I stopped pushing myself to do yoga and instead just did it when I felt like it. I spent time walking in nature and time sitting doing nothing and I let go of the need to transform into a spiritual being. I already was a spiritual being and I didn’t need to meditate or do yoga to get in touch with my inner self and spirit. It was as if walking was my meditation and writing was a spiritual practice.

Sometimes we have preconceived ideas about what we should do to be spiritual or more authentic but really it’s all about being ourselves and doing those things that bring us joy. We don’t necessarily need to meditate every day or go on silent retreats or spend time in prayer. There is no right way to transform into a more authentic person only the way that works for each of us as individuals.

I was finding out the spiritual practices that worked for me. Part of this discovery was trying things that others found useful but I didn’t have to become a slave to things if they didn’t work for me. I suspect I might try to meditate again and I’m sure I’ll be doing yoga on and off all my life but as daily practices they had become a chore and they weren’t bringing more joy to my life.

Sometimes it’s good to just examine the parts of our lives to determine whether the things we do are worthwhile or whether we’re just doing them from a sense of obligation or duty. Even spiritual practices such as mediation, prayer, yoga, silence can become chores if we don’t continually examine how they are working for us.

As I began to relax into my life and not worry about meditating or getting up early or doing yoga every day I began to feel more comfortable with what was happening in my life. I think sometimes we need to just let go of all the achieving to work out what is important to us. Letting go of the need to transform into some preconceived idea of what I might look like if I was well aligned with my inner self. My preconceived ideas where more about my image of what a spiritual person might look like than how I might be if I was well aligned and authentic.

Transforming the mind is an ongoing challenge for me. Trying to pay better attention to the intuitive right side of my brain and less to the chattering monkey mind of the left side. Being aware that I can tune into my inner self through many practices – meditation, mindfulness, walking, dreams, writing, having meaningful conversations, loving people, practicing gratitude, being of service or being in nature. What I learnt most from trying classical meditation was that I don’t have to meditate to be in touch with my spiritual side and that finding joy in all my activities is more important than being tied to certain spiritual practices.