Many of us live a life that creates high levels of stress, both for the mind and body, and there is one system that keeps the score: our nervous system. It tends to be in a state of constant overstimulation. If we want to feel calmer, sleep better or improve our focus, we need to look after our nervous system.
When we have a balanced nervous system, the body is able to function normally, as well as to repair, regenerate and heal itself. We feel confident and safe, which helps us to adapt, respond and manage stressful incidents that may arise.
Alternatively, an out-of-balance nervous system puts our body in a very stressful and high-alert state, as our “fight-or-flight” response becomes overly dominant. Studies show that being able to successfully deal with stressors contributes to better health and wellbeing. So, how can we help maintain a healthy nervous system?
In this blog, we will look at how we can support and heal our nervous system with mediative techniques, such as Sophrology. We will explore the science and research behind how being aware and connected to our mind and body helps calm the sympathetic nervous system and at the same time, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, making us feel alert, yet calm and grounded.
Why is the nervous system important?
First, let’s take a look at why the nervous system is so important. It’s a network of neurons which generate and transmit information between all parts of the human body. The nervous system is responsible for the function of two main responses: voluntary conscious responses, activated by muscles, and involuntary responses that we cannot control, such as breathing, sweating and digestion.
The nervous system plays a vital role in nearly every aspect of our health and wellbeing. It connects our body and mind, regulates our emotional and mental state, immune system and every other body system. To summarise, the nervous system controls everything that makes us human; our consciousness, cognition, behaviour and memories.
The anatomy of the nervous system consists of:
- Central nervous system: Brain and spinal cord
- Peripheral nervous system: Spinal and cranial nerves
- Somatic nervous system
- Autonomic nervous system
The two systems work together to gather information from internal and external sources. They process the information and then dispatch instructions to the rest of the body, facilitating an appropriate response. Normally, the brain is the final destination for the collected information, which it sorts and files before sending out commands.
In this blog, we will specifically focus on the automatic nervous system (ANS).
What does the autonomic nervous system do?
The autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary responses including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion. It consists of three anatomically distinct divisions:
- Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
- Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)
- Enteric nervous system (ENS)
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system prepares our bodies for situations of increased physical activity. It’s commonly described as “fight-or-flight” as it enables the body to handle stressors through reactions such as faster breathing, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils and redirection of blood flow.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system prepares our bodies for energy conservation, promoting “rest and digest” activities, such as lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and kick-starts digestion. The vagus nerve makes up about 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting cardiac relaxation and other “rest and digest” processes.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve starts in the brain and goes through the neck, chest and abdomen. It is used to counteract your “fight-or-flight” system and it’s how you develop a healthy stress response to become resilient and able to navigate stressful and difficult situations. You can stimulate your vagus nerve to feel calmer and clearer, benefiting your autonomic nervous system and mental health. A healthy vagus nerve means you react mindfully, regulate emotions, have greater connections and improve your physical health. The vagus nerve also manages your fears and, according to Medical News Today, it sends information from the gut to the brain which helps you to remain calm when you are stressed and lets you know when you are no longer in danger. Hence, the term “gut feeling”.
What is a dysregulated nervous system?
When your nervous system is dysregulated, it means it is out of balance. The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for managing stressful incidents and emergencies, takes over and your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to calm down and rest, is unable to control how you are feeling, thinking, or behaving. To put it simply, when your nervous system is unbalanced, your body is put in a very stressful and hypervigilant state all the time.
When the ANS is functioning as normal, the SNS activates when you encounter a stressor and quietens again once you’ve recovered. When we experience constant stress from our busy lifestyles or have experienced trauma in the past, our brain and body become less able to enter the “rest and digest” state, which can have a negative impact on our mental and physical health. The SNS and PNS work together to maintain homeostasis and when they act out of balance, our body remains in panic mode and can’t fully engage in stress response or has the chance to rest. Instead, we are constantly agitated, restless or anxious as our “fight-or-flight” mode is always activated.
Common signs of a dysregulated nervous system
It’s not always obvious when your nervous system is out of balance. Here are some possible signs:
If you are experiencing any of these signs, it’s important for your wellbeing and mental health to first talk to your doctor about it, and then support your body and mind by taking the best steps to naturally help regulate your nervous system, so you can go back to feeling more relaxed and in control of your life.
10 possible causes of an unbalanced nervous system
When we encounter a stressful situation, our body protects us by activating the sympathetic nervous system and entering into the “fight-or-flight” mode. This causes our heart rate and blood pressure to increase, our muscles to constrict and our digestion paused. The body also releases stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline and an array of other hormones that decrease white blood cells and antibodies, which are vital in maintaining a healthy immune system.
When we experience stress repeatedly and the stressors are not managed, it can lead to an unbalance in the mind, brain and body. It’s important to understand what causes your nervous system dysregulation by speaking to your doctor, as once you know what the root causes are, you can begin to increase your awareness and manage any triggers by changing your mindset and lifestyle.
- Lack of movement
- Poor sleep quality
- Chronic stress and anxiety
- Processed food
- Sugary drinks
- Low sun exposure
- Disconnection and loneliness
- Chaotic and unorganised environments
How to help heal your nervous system with Sophrology
Sophrology is a wellbeing practice combining modalities that have been scientifically researched, namely relaxation, breathing, visualisation and movement, and can have a profound impact on the wellbeing of the mind and the body and, therefore your life.
By following a consistent practice, even just 10 minutes a day, Sophrology provides you with the tools to feel calm and grounded even in stressful situations, helping you with anxiety, gain more restful sleep, and unlock your inner potential to reach your goals and transform your life one day at a time.
Although there is no quick fix, it is possible to regulate your nervous system and gradually rewire your brain to switch between the “fight-or-flight” and “rest and digest” modes.
One very effective way to regulate your nervous system is by practising mediative techniques, such as Sophrology. When we practice Sophrology, we become aware of the present moment, learn to let go of negative thoughts and emotions, learn how to respond to stressful situations and physically relax both body and mind, which is the key to bringing our autonomic nervous system back into balance.
However, it’s not the calming effect that heals the nervous system, it’s restoring the balance between the autonomic states. To regulate our nervous system, we need to:
- Be aware of our body’s sensations and emotions to be able to switch between the SNS and PNS.
- Regulate our emotions and learn how to respond to stressors and fears in a healthy way.
- Try to undo the negative effects of chronic stress.
- Improve our ability to cope with stress.
- Reconnect with others and build supportive and meaningful relationships.
- Follow healthy habits that are conducive to nervous system health, e.g. sleep schedule, nutritious diet, exercise and resting.
How to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with Sophrology
You can lower stress and anxiety and activate the parasympathetic nervous system by introducing certain activities to your daily life. Slowing down enough to enter the parasympathetic state shouldn’t be difficult and you can do it on the go or even at home. Sophrology focuses on a series of exercises that incorporate simple and easy-to-follow practices that you can use to bring instant calm into your day, increase your focus and confidence or feel more grounded in the present moment.
Here are 5 ways Sophrology can activate the parasympathetic nervous system:
Do you hold your breath when you’re concentrating or take shallow breaths when you’re nervous or anxious? These responses are instinctive rather than helpful. Holding your breath doesn’t help concentration, and shallow breathing actually makes anxiety worse. When we control our breath, we immediately steady ourselves. Deep breathing, like the box breath exercise or a strong exhale, activates the vagus nerve, which activates a relaxation response throughout our bodies. The simple act of controlled breathing switches our autonomic nervous system from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic state, allowing our mind and body to restore balance. When you learn to navigate and control your breath, you can feel more equipped to deal with any situation in your life.
Practising relaxation techniques, such as meditation, has been scientifically proven to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and downregulate the sympathetic nervous system, which instantly helps us to relax. Meditation can help us to not react impulsively to stressors, manage triggers, improve sleep and help regulate our emotions. Sophrology is meditation for people who think they can’t meditate. Also known as dynamic relaxation, Sophrology goes a step further by truly relaxing your sympathetic nervous system. In some instances, the practices can be done lying down to reach a new level of relaxation. Sophrology offers similar benefits to meditation and uses our consciousness’ inherent power to positively influence the body and mind and transform our wellbeing.
Visualising can be an incredibly powerful tool and has the ability to stimulate the parasympathetic state by helping the body feel like the calming visuals and positive thoughts are happening in reality. You can use happy memories of where you have felt your most relaxed and calm to trick your mind into feeling like you are actually there. In Sophrology, we use visualisation to empower you to create your future, prepare for nerve-wracking events and aid restful sleep—which plays a key role in regulating our nervous systems.
Stress often accumulates in our bodies and we carry this tension with us all day. Movement increases blood flow and dilates blood vessels to the muscles. When we release all the tension through movement, it helps the body relax into the parasympathetic state. Sophrology alternates between stillness and gentle movement and is an effective way of helping even the most resistant to relax and learn to meditate. When we move our bodies, it creates more sensations for us to observe. Taking a pause increases focus and concentration and teaches us to be a nonjudgemental observer of our inner world. This combination also teaches us that we cannot be efficient 24 hours a day, we actually have to learn to pause. The brain and body need that.
Gratitude is something everyone can practice once in a while. When you practice gratitude, you are facilitating the parasympathetic system to create resilience and reduce stress. An easy way to practice gratitude is to start your morning or end your day by making a list of things you are grateful for. You can also do a 5-minute Sophrology practice at your desk or in bed before you sleep with the intention of gratitude. If you do this regularly enough, you may start noticing a positive change in how you approach everyday challenges. You may find it easier to focus on the positive rather than the problems, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety.
Stress has become an integral part of our daily lives and it has a significant impact on our physical and mental health. We are constantly on high alert and on guard. Once you realise this, it’s important to take action, and nurture and balance your nervous system. Hopefully, these simple steps can help guide you on your self-healing journey and inform you about nervous system regulation and how you can look after your mind and body by engaging with your parasympathetic nervous system, so you can begin to feel truly relaxed and calm and restore control in your life.
Our easy-to-follow online stress management course: ‘Relax, Reset & Overcome Stress‘ teaches you strategies that will show you;
- How to reduce & relieve stress
- How to deal with anxiety
- How to live a calmer life
- How to unlock your true potential
This is done through a number of exercises and techniques that will empower you and help you reach your personal and professional goals.