Week Four: Nervous System
The human nervous system is an incredibly complex network that can have a great impact on your overall health and quality of life. Each breath you take, each beat of your heart, all your voluntary and involuntary movements, and even your digestion all depend on a flawless communication hub between the brain and spinal cord. Your nervous system is responsible for your very basic life functions such as respiration, blood pressure, cardiac activity, and myotatic reflexes. Supporting your nervous system balance is fundamental to promoting your overall health.
Because diverse bodily functions need to be prioritized differently depending on the situation, the nervous system has different components that respond to different stimuli. The most recognizable nervous system responses are “fight or flight” and “rest and repair.” Unfortunately, your nervous system is greatly affected by stress and over-activity (mental or physical). With modern society expecting us to be successful in both personal and professional life with limited time and space for education and support, we often find ourselves in a pattern of constant fight-or-flight response that begins to feel normal.
Whether at home or in the workplace, we create an atmosphere of constant stress and anxiety, sacrificing our present peace of mind while chasing the goal of eventual success. Grades at school and performance reviews at work do not account for our quality of sleep, our stress factors, our ability to relax and recharge, or even our clarity of thought. It’s no wonder our society’s health has taken a backseat to the health of our financial balance sheet. In today’s world, the deck is stacked against our nervous system’s well-being.
Instead of financially preparing your savings for future illnesses, it is important to invest your time and energy in supporting your state of well-being now. This alone can give you the power and clarity to maneuver through life’s multifaceted challenges.
Connected to all other systems, your nervous system never functions alone. It constantly accepts feedback from the furthest reaches of the body and beyond in an attempt to generate an appropriate and well-coordinated response. This response creates both automatic reactions and conscious behavior. As such, it is fitting that the most accessible way to access and modify the current state of the nervous system is through the breath, which we can both observe passively and control consciously. Because it is so closely linked to nervous system response, intimate familiarity with your breath serves as a valuable tool for self-understanding and self-regulation.
As you examine your various breathing patterns, you will better understand how internal and external circumstances affect them. Short, shallow breaths with the inhale lasting longer than the exhale indicates an active fight-or-flight system. Slow, deep breaths with the exhale lasting longer than the inhale, is representative of a calmer nervous system state. Because you have conscious control of your breath, simple breathing exercises are a great place to start when trying to bring balance to the nervous system. To gain better control of your nervous system at any time, learn the 4-7-8 breathing pattern, described below by Dr. Andrew Weil, and apply it whenever needed:
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
• Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
• Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
• Hold your breath for a count of seven.
• Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
• This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice, you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.3
This week, you have only one job: taking ownership of your own health. Determine the best approach to support your nervous system. Start by observing your sleep pattern and your mental-emotional state as it changes with different activities throughout the week. Which activities felt draining and which left you feeling recharged? Who was responsible for creating these activities? What factors can you control to increase your level of balance and peace and decrease your level of disturbance and unease?
Add your own peaceful, recharging activities to your week or work with some of the suggestions below, monitoring any changes throughout the week.
Activities that calm the nervous system offer relaxation and reward you with renewed energy to more calmly address the rest of your life’s activities. This week, have fun finding and appreciating some time to relax.
Duration and Frequency:
Pay attention to the state of your nervous system as often as possible during the day. After observing for some time, begin to practice deep breathing or other stress reduction techniques if you find your nervous system too often in a state of fight-or-flight.
Practice for one to three weeks or until you feel you have a better understanding of the stress triggers in your daily life and your nervous system’s response.