If we experience regular overwhelm and have shifted into a state of autostress (experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, headaches, and IBS on an ongoing basis), practicing relaxation is fundamental to feeling calmer. To understand why, we need to delve into the science of what’s happening in our bodies.
The fight, flight or freeze stress response is triggered by a part of our nervous system whose job it is to control our automatic functions (e.g. our breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes). This part of our nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS is split into two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. These branches work opposite each other and only one can dominate at a time.
When we’re autostressed, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. This is what gives rise to the distressing physical responses we experience when stressed. To feel calmer, we need to balance the activity of our ANS by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. ‘the relaxation response’). This demonstrates a highly important fact: rest and relaxation are productive and vital to our wellbeing.
Personally I enjoy enjoying soothing practices – restorative yoga, conscious breathing, mantra and mindful walks. All of these choices are guided by the intention to promote the functioning of my parasympathetic nervous system. I also enjoy writing, photography and filming in the city for creative practices to lose myself in. When it comes to relaxation – and enhancing our mental wellness in general – different things work at different times for different people.
What we need to do is become the scientists of our own wellbeing, trying and testing different methods to discover what works best for us. It’s also important to remember that relaxation is a skill. Finding it difficult to relax is extremely common. Practice makes progress. Here are 4 things I’ve discovered work well for activating my relaxation response:
Peace and Love, Jim