Do You Only “Relax”?

I over someone in a webinar mention the other day that we human beings can be stuck in the sympathetic nervous system for decades, and my first response was – really? Really? And then I thought about it for half a minute and realized… yeah. High baseline of stress? Never really coming down? Only “relaxing” and never really relaxing? 

Sounds like my twenties, honestly. (And my thirties.)

If you’re not really clear what I mean by sympathetic, let me throw you an image.

This is the fabulous polyvagal theory from Dr. Stephen Porges. It’s an expansion on the straight up sympathetic and parasympathetic, or if you like fight and flight vs. rest and recoup. It accounts for those situations that are worse than fight or flight, when we just freeze. 

But the first point here, is that while ideally we cycle back and forth between the green zone and the red zone (and here the standard parasympathetic is labeled ‘ventral vagal’) which means we’d get stressed, then calm down again, handle another stressor, then let it really go, back and forth, back and forth, stress, relax, stress, relax…

Some of us don’t actually relax. Not really. Not significantly. And when I read the long list of disorders, dysfunctions, and disease that can be caused by existing for too long in the parasympathetic, in fight or flight when you never really calm down again… it’s daunting. From we get this list: problems with sleep, anxiety, blood sugar issues (even with a blood-sugar-balancing diet), sexual dysfunction, brain fog, memory issues, fatigue, difficulty recovering from exercise or stressful events, getting sick easily, and chronic pain. From comes this list: Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Worrying and fear increase our mental load and can put further strain on the sympathetic nervous system; physical symptoms persist, recovery via beneficial rest and sleep does not happen. And tells us that persistent sympathetic can lead to chronic inflammation.

And that’s just a brief survey. So… stress is killing us. Did we kind of already know this? I think we might have intuited this one a while ago, even if western medicine is just in the past decade or so explaining exactly how and why that is.

So. How do we get out of the sympathetic and back into the green? How do we master a frequent return to the Ventral Vagal, or Parasympathetic? 

Lots of things will help, including the absolute simplest thing you can institute right now: Exhale completely. ( Whether you want to try to exhale for a little longer than you inhale, regularly engage in box breathing (where your inhale and exhale are the same length, but so are the gaps at the top and bottom, after the inhale, and after the exhale), or you just want to start relearning how to do diaphragmatic breathing (how we all breathed when we were babies, with the stomach going in and out, not the upper chest). Take a complete and deep breath right now – but don’t focus on the inhale. Focus on squeezing out the very last air on the exhale. Then the inhale will take care of itself.

Other things that can help? Mild exercise. Petting an animal. Listening to calming music. Meditation. Splashing cold water on your face. Practicing gratitude. Doing qigong, or gentle yoga. Chant, whether you’re religious or not. Hum, if you don’t know how to chant. Let your jaw relax – don’t let your teeth touch unless you’re chewing something. And always an option: talk to a professional therapist or counselor, because some of us are stuck in sympathetic because of trauma or Trauma and our bodies are keeping us there for self-protection; in these cases we need professional help to calm down, but it works, so go for it, if you need it.

But for right now, breathe.

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