Alex Steiner, LCSW
How Understanding Our Nervous System Can Promote Calmness
I’m a big believer that in times of uncertainty, knowledge is power. If one can understand the “what, why, and how” of things, it helps us to step into our power and recognize we may have more control over the situation than we had previously thought.
Knowledge when it comes to how the body responds to feelings of stress and anxiety can be so helpful in understanding what is happening, how to validate these feelings as real, and ultimately, how to regain control. Being able to name what is happening allows us to step out of blame and into understanding. When we are validated, we are in a much more ideal position to navigate and regulate our emotions.
The Why and How:
Have you ever heard of the “Fight or Flight” response? It is originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger. Adrenaline floods through your body in an attempt to prepare you for battle. Only this time, the activation isn’t happening when you need it. It’s happening when you don’t want it. It’s happening in the grocery store, at work, among co-workers, friends, family, and maybe even when you’re alone.
The “What” of our Sympathetic Nervous System:
Excess adrenaline and dopamine prompted by sympathetic nervous system activation can lead to the following in your body:
Increased heart rate
Sensation of dry mouth, breathlessness or choking
Tightness and/or heaviness in the chest and muscles
Feeling overheated and/or lightheaded
Butterflies and/or cramps in your stomach
Nausea and/or the urge to go to the bathroom
Inability to think clearly, rationalize and focus.
Again, once having the ability to recognize and name the things that happen in the body, provides a much more ideal starting place in knowing how to look out for it, how to validate it, and how to recognize these responses as the body's way of looking out for itself.
Sometimes we become very frustrated when we feel these sensations and feelings, however, I know for me personally - I try to ground myself in the knowledge that my body is designed to support and save me; to protect me from all threats of danger, and any of these responses my body responds with (in its most primitive form) are coming from a place of doing exactly what it was designed to do: to survive.
Part of the work now is in stepping out of surviving and into thriving!
I try to exercise gratitude to my mind and body for their attempts to support me, even though it is no longer what I need at this moment. I find that sharing inner gratitude begins to calm me down and center me on whatever the task at hand is and really supports getting me to a place where I can lean more into my rational mind.
The scientific antidote to the activation of the nervous system listed above (sympathetic) is our parasympathetic nervous system. This is referred to as “rest and digest.” Deep breathing triggers this stabilization that releases “feel good” neurotransmitters to help calm our nervous system. This can have immediate effects in lowering our heart rate, relaxing muscles, and thinking clearly.
Some tips to get into and stay in this “rest and digest” state are:
Intentional deep breath (breathing in through the nose for 4, holding for 7,4, and deeply exhaling through the mouth for 8 is a great way to bring your nervous system into a calm state)
Going for a walk
Spend time in nature
Take on smaller, more manageable tasks
Set boundaries with self or others if things feel too overwhelming (express your limits and hold yourself to them)
Singing (this engages your vagal nerve which promotes stabilization and calm)
Bringing yourself into the present by eating something sour (candy, lemons, etc.) or placing your hands in a bowl of ice water (engaging any senses will help ground you back into your rational mind)
If you are looking to learn more about the mind/body connection and individualized tips to support you in getting grounded, I offer a complimentary consultation where we can discuss the possibility of working together.
I invite you to call me at 954-391-5305 to discuss how I can help you attain greater peace, happiness, and fulfillment in life. For more information about me and my approach to therapy, please visit my page here.
I provide counseling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as well as online through our secure telehealth platform for those who reside in Florida. I look forward to working with you!