So, how do I make my nervous system my ally?

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The first step is to notice what your autonomic nervous system is telling you right now. What state are you in?

Pause and try this quick body awareness meditation (one of my personal goto's):

In this moment take a few mindful breaths...As best you can, turn your awareness toward your body...See if you can bring some curiousity to how your body and mind are right now...As best you can, try feeling with your awareness how your belly is...Is it tight or relaxed? How about your facial expression? Is there any tension or gripping or contraction in the body? Notice the types of thoughts or stories passing through your head before you stopped to do this check in.

Now, as best you can, simply sense the state of your body and mind in this moment...without judgement (I know that's tough sometimes)...

Is it relaxed and at ease? Is it tense or irritated or anxious?

Are you able to feel? Are you numb or feeling empty?

How is your energy? Are you feeling over-activated, hyperaroused?

Are you feeling under-activated, hypoaroused?

Are you feeling balanced, calm and present?

When you can get a sense of how your autonomic nervous system is feeling you will be more capable of choosing how to take care of yourself. In order to tend we need to befriend. There are many many ways to do this of course and I find starting with self-regulation practices the quickest way to convince my nervous system that we’re in this together.

Here are some ideas:

For hyperarousal:

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. You can place your hands on your side waist (make a c shape with fingers and thumb) to help you connect to the three dimension expansion of your waist on the in breath and contraction on the out breath. You can also imagine a balloon in your belly that gentle inflates when you breath in and gentle deflates when you breath out. Try this practice for a minute if this is new to you and work up to longer periods as you see fit. If at any point focusing on the breath actually makes you feel more anxious or uneasy, let it go. Focused breathing isn’t for everyone all of the time.

  2. Dancing: Moving your body to your favourite tunes can be a quick and fun way to shift states and to reconnect with your body, rhythm and self-expression. This is an activity that you can do with the whole family to regulate together, or solo in the dark, if that’s more your style.

  3. Blowing bubbles (good for kids too!): A fun and natural way to elongate the breath without thinking about it. The parasympathetic branch of our nervous system is stimulated (connected to that rest and digest state) when we exhale.

For hypoarousal:

  1. Splash cold water on your face: Super simple. This can help energize you and gently break cycles of numbing out.

  2. Mindful walking: Across the board this is the best practice and amped up further if you can be outdoors. You can start with mindful awareness of your breath (see Diaphragmatic breathing above) and expand that to include your standing body. Feel your feet on the ground, your weight being supported by your hips and legs. See if you can relax any unnecessary tension in the body. When you’re ready start walking really slowly, similar in speed to how you might walk if you were under water. Yes, that slowly. The goal is not to get somewhere, but rather to arrive fully in each step. Use your breath as an anchor and feel the awareness of the motion of lifting the foot, transfering your weight to the other leg, as you move your foot forward, placing your foot, and then rolling on your foot from heel to toes as the other begins its journey forward. If you get distracted (totally normal, especiall when we try something new), notice that and return your attention to the flow of sensations of walking.

  3. Holding a textured object in your hand and noticing how it feels: This physical activity can help bring awareness to sensations of your body and the object, helping to shift you from the inner-absorbed, flat and absent shutdown state to a more active and present non-defensive state.

Spoiler alert. You might feel frustrated or challenged at first. Or confused as to know what you need. This would make sense as it's new! Experimentation is my best advice here. With time and practice and a dose of loving kindness, you will reap the rewards of your efforts. And, make an ally, rather than an enemy, of your nervous system. 💜