Why we should take care of our nervous system

My heart pounded, sweat dripped into my already sticky palms, my face felt on fire. I watched as the door opened and the tall figure approached. Now feeling faint, I could feel the blood drain from my face, my body was paralyzed, frozen in my chair. He towered over me, sat down and asked me my name. My voice let out a little squeak. I couldn’t even say my name! Not a good start to the job interview!

Does this sound familiar?  Either as interviewee or interviewer? A mildly stressful situation quickly escalates to an overwhelming one.

Often life’s adverse experiences can get held in the body preventing it from functioning in its full healthy capacity. When the body has had to cope with long term stress or illness, shock or trauma, the body sometimes loses its ability to rebalance and regulate itself, getting stuck in unhealthy physical and behavioural patterns as a result.

When our autonomic (automatic) nervous system thinks it is in danger it has useful survival strategies, but sometimes these are not appropriate for the present moment situation, such as being immobilised and losing our voice when in a job interview. Peter Levine (2010), eminent trauma-recovery pioneer, has shown that overwhelming situations do not just affect our psychological wellbeing but also our neurophysiology, specifically the sub-cortical as well as the cognitive functions. 

Over the last year of the pandemic, our bodies are likely to have been under greater stress than normal, whether from financial and economic uncertainty, threat of becoming ill with covid-19, or home-schooling while running a business. 

We have all had to adapt to new ways of working and communicating but you might have noticed that your nervous system has struggled to find balance. You might be more agitated than normal, have a shorter fuse with family and work colleagues, experience disrupted sleep, or be feeling more anxious. You might be needing that extra glass of wine in the evening, eating more than usual, or want to hide away from the world.

So how can we support our nervous system to be better regulated?

Our nervous system is constantly responding to our environment, giving cues on how to respond. We touch a hot cup and quickly remove our hand, we move away from an angry dog, or we might move closer to a loved one when they smile at us. When regulated our body knows when to rest, play and make love, or when to get ready to run away or fight. When in balance, the body won’t fight and argue unnecessarily, become inappropriately stressed or become unnecessarily paralysed when an angry person threatens it.

According to Stephen Porges (2011), exercises such as mindfulness practices, close listening to certain types of melodic music and birds, breathing exercises all stimulate particular cranial nerves which help the body to feel more regulated and resilient, allowing more appropriate responses to be made in given situations. 

7 tips to support nervous system regulation.

These techniques will help reduce anxiety and stress because of what’s known as vagus nerve toning. 

  1. Orient to your environment. By slowly turning your head and noticing the room or outside space, you will stimulate a cranial nerve in your neck which helps your body regulate. As you do so, try slowly counting the lights in the ceiling or name the colours of the flowers in your garden. This brings you into present time awareness.
  2. Speak slowly in long phrases. You can do this in-person, on the phone, or online. This helps lengthen your out-breath while also stimulating several cranial nerves. 
  3. Sing. Singing has the same effect as delivering a long exhalation to slow your breath for vagal stimulation. Sing in the shower or the car if you don’t want anyone to hear!
  4. Listen to the body. Scan your body. Where feels more comfortable? Where feels less comfortable? By becoming aware of how our body feels we give it more choice over how it responds. Try noticing the support of your thighs and buttocks on your seat, or the contact of your feet on the ground. The key here is just to notice without any judgement.
  5. Follow the breath. Inhale for 3 counts, exhale for 4. For vagal toning the exhalation should be longer than the inhale.
  6. Listen to the birds. By consciously listening to birds we stimulate the inner ear muscles which feeds vagal toning. Spring is a great time to try to distinguish between the different morning bird songs. You don’t need to know their names, just listen.
  7. Take time to relate to nature. Birds, bees, insects, flowers, water, earth, trees, sun or wind on your skin. Take time to slow down and try to connect with whatever is easily accessible in your natural environment. Notice how it makes your body feel. Often you will feel the breath ease and deepen.

Critically, a healthy nervous system helps us to have more choices over what we say, what we think and how we move. If we can find more balance and regulation it will help not only ourselves, but also our family and our work community. 

If you found this article interesting you might also like this course, Daily sips of wellness

Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory, Neurophysiological foundations of emotion, attachment, communication and self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

**This article was first published in Ambition Magazine by the NI Chamber of Commerce**