by Laura Nalin, MA, P-LPC, CADC
Many of us are living each day with our nervous systems activated without our knowledge. We live in a society that has taught us never to rest, so much so that even in states of what we believe to be relaxation are quite the opposite. For example, if you find yourself coming home from work, turning on the television, and simultaneously doom scrolling social media to avoid thoughts of the work day that will follow, it’s likely that your nervous system is still activated to some degree.
Since the onset of the global pandemic in 2020, many of us are experiencing collective fatigue and a looming sense of overwhelm which we can’t always seem to kick. Pair this notion with the fact that outside stressors impact our adult lives intermittently; our autonomic nervous systems, which are responsible for the physical response to stress, may be consistently activated a bit more than we’d like or even be aware of.
When our bodies are living in a state of activation, our autonomic nervous system splits up its response into either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. When under stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which leads us into what is called ‘fight or flight.’ As this happens, our parasympathetic nervous system attempts to soothe and our endocrine system releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which can hopefully lead us into what is called the ‘rest and digest’ state. However, if we aren’t giving ourselves ample opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, or we are living under chronic stress, our bodies will just continuously cycle through the stress response with little or no counteraction from our parasympathetic nervous system.
We all deserve to relax! Here are some quick ways to reset your nervous system.
Deep breathing or a mindfulness practice When we are able to take slow, deep breaths, we are able to signal to our parasympathetic nervous system that it’s safe to ease into restoring our emotional state. If you have the time, try to sit either quietly or with a guided meditation (there are so many free on YouTube!) for as long as you’d like. If this isn’t an option, try box breathing. Essentially, find a square-shaped object wherever you are (a window, a poster, a laptop screen, to name a few examples) and follow each of the lines with your eyes. As you’re doing so, count to four while breathing in following one of the lines, and out for four exhaling one of the lines as your eyes trace the shape. Do this several times until you feel you heart rate, racing thoughts, or any somatic sensations begin to regulate.
Take a cold shower While deep breathing and meditation are surefire ways to reset our systems into this rest and digest state provided by the parasympathetic nervous system, it isn’t always an option. However, starting a day with a quick cold shower can work wonders on the nervous system. Some research suggests that by doing so, individuals are able to reset their vagus nerves, aka the main nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system. As your body adjusts to the cold temperature, it will allow your body to enter the restorative ‘rest-and-digest’ phase. If a cold shower seems too intense, wash your face with cold water or rub your face with a frozen cucumber or ice cube for a couple of minutes.
Challenge your thoughts This is easier said than done, but if you’re in a situation where you’re feeling activated due to intrusive thoughts or worries for the future, remember that you are not your thoughts. Say you’re fearful of a potential outcome and stressing out about it. One thought can begin to roll around in your mind and collect all sorts of other thoughts, which can feel overwhelming as the thoughts get louder and louder. Write down each of your thoughts either in your phone or in a journal (or literally a piece of paper or even a napkin nearby) and ask yourself if you have evidence to back up any of these predictions or assumptions. If not, remind yourself that these thoughts are only generating fear, and that the outcome will be determined simply with time. You are not a fortune teller!
Jump up and down and move your body As mentioned previously, deep breathing and mindfulness is not always an option. Some days you may not want to splash your face or immerse yourself in cold water. It’s winter; that’s okay. Try jumping up and down while shaking your arms for a minute or two. By joining your mind and body, you can shift into the parasympathetic nervous system by releasing muscular tension and burning adrenaline. If you’re at home, you can also try laying down on the ground and moving your feet toward the opposite side of the room quickly and gently, allowing your entire body to move in the rocking motion. This exercise can help move trauma through your body; allow yourself to feel whatever comes up.
Spend time with an animal Research shows that cuddling up with an animal releases oxytocin, our ‘feel good’ hormone, and decreases the stress hormone cortisol. If you don’t have a pet, The Catcade is kitty-corner (no pun intended) from our office, where you can enjoy a beverage of your choice and pet some cats. Maybe you’ll end up falling in love and having your own furry friend!