Do you have a hard time calming down once your body is in high gear, whether it be from stress, fear, or excitement? Do breathing exercises not really seem to work for you? In order to move from stress to rest, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with what your body feels like when both your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are at work. Whoa, what does that even mean? Good question. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make up our autonomic nervous system, which controls many of our bodily functions that we often don’t think about: breathing, digesting food, regulating blood pressure, etc.
When we are in a relaxed state, the parasympathetic nervous system is doing its job. But we can’t live forever in that state – our body needs to adjust in response to stimuli. Think of a dog’s ears perking up when it hears a sound – that’s our sympathetic state preparing to kick into high gear. You may have heard it described as our fight or flight response. When we are in a state of arousal, our sympathetic nervous system is doing what it needs to do so that we can rise to the occasion. Our body adjusts and responds based on the stimuli it’s receiving and the information the brain is giving it. Ideally, we should be able to transition in and out of these states without thinking about it. However, if we have experienced trauma or chronic levels of stress, it may be difficult for our bodies to return to a state of relaxation. In order to move from stress to rest, it may be helpful to become familiar with how your body feels and responds when in both the parasympathetic and sympathetic state.
The following mindfulness-based exercise can help with that familiarization process. You’ll first want to find a comfortable place – maybe on your living room floor, a yoga mat, or sitting up in your bed.
Bring to your mind a memory or place that makes you feel relaxed. Is it the ocean? Is it the kitchen of your grandmother’s house? Is it an embrace by a family member or loved one? Is it sitting under a large tree in a national park? Wherever or whatever or whoever it is, go there. Go there fully. Let your body feel the embrace, smell the food your grandmother is cooking, feel the waves crash over you. Sit in silence for as long as you can so that your body has enough time to really adjust to this state. Now begin to notice what is happening in your body. What does your breath feel like? Where do you feel your breath? How slow or fast is it? Are you rocking or staying still? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Take note of any and all sensations in your body during this time.
When you’re ready, begin to transition to a more negative memory or place. Do not choose a particularly traumatic memory, but something that is more benign. Maybe it’s a difficult interaction with a partner or a toxic work environment. Whatever it is, make sure it’s not too terribly triggering. Once you’ve chosen something, let your body go there. Recall the sounds of your office, feel the tension in your body when you were arguing with your significant other, etc. What do you notice? What’s your breathing like? Do your fists clench up? Let yourself stay there as long as you need in order to take note of those physical sensations and experiences.
Now, transition back to the relaxed state as described in step one. Notice again what is changing. What feels difficult or easy for you during this transition? Do you feel leftover tension in your jaw? Does it feel difficult to get your heart rate or breath to slow down? How long does it take? Do you find yourself rocking or moving your body to focus on slowing your breath or are you still? Practice going back and forth between step one and step two as a way of familiarizing yourself with what your body feels like in those different states.
Practicing this mindfulness-based exercise can help you understand what you need to move from stress to rest. The hope is that you can begin to notice when your body needs to feel safe. Often times, feeling safe is not a gushy relaxed feeling, but more about control or empowerment. And sometimes, feeling completely calm may feel triggering for those who have experienced trauma. What does calmness feel like in your body and what memories or images help you arrive there?
There is no right way for our bodies to go from stress to rest. For some, the image of being warmly hugged might help the body relax and for others it might feel unsafe or triggering. And so, this exercise is not about reaching an abstract notion of calm in the body, but learning what your body needs and how your body responds while in both the sympathetic and parasympathetic state. This will hopefully give you insight into how you can ground yourself and return to a place of rest in your body.
If you are interested in speaking with a mindfulness-based therapist call 215 922 5683 x 100. We have offices located in Philadelphia PA, Ocean City NJ, Mechanicsville VA, and Santa Fe, NM.