5 Intention-setting Ideas for Supporting the Parasympathetic Nervous System

“PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.” ― Author Unknown

Much of our time is spent crossing items off of our “To Do” lists and attempting to juggle multiple demands and commitments.  This fast paced lifestyle over time can wreck havoc on our nervous systems, literally leading the body toward a nervous breakdown.  With summertime upon us and the heat encouraging the body to slow down, it might just be the right time to consider integrating a practice that nurtures our body, mind, and soul!

The human body’s Autonomic Nervous System has two branches:  the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which are designed to compliment each other.  Our SNS is the part of our nervous system that gets activated in times of stress, whether that stress is considered positive or negative.  When the SNS is activated, our heart rate and respiration increase and our blood pressure goes up.  Our PNS is the part of the nervous system that gets activated in times of rest and relaxation, typically after the cause of the stress is removed from our awareness.  When the PNS is activated, our heart rate and respiration decrease and our blood pressure drops.

During stressful times, if we want more peace in our life, it is important to consciously activate our PNS to support the balance between “doing” and “being” and prevent our nervous system from breaking down.  Therefore, below I have provided 5 simple ideas to try to invite the rest and relaxation response in the body to become more present throughout all of the seasons of our lives:
  1. Mindfulness.  This intention might simply start with acknowledging that the human mind, just like a computer, is not designed to multi-task.  Embracing this natural state, we can then begin to invite opportunities to focus on just one thing at a time.  Starting with simple one-minute meditations, sprinkled throughout our day, can create just enough space for a deeper connection with our authentic self as reflected through our experience of gratitude, compassion, peace, and love   Some short meditation ideas include stopping what you are doing and trying one of the following:  taking a few drops of your favorite essential oil (lavender and orange are two that have been shown to support our PNS) in your palm, rub your hands together, hold your hands up near your nose and take 10 long deep breaths; redirect your attention to your body, starting with your feet and moving up to your face, tightening one muscle group at a time (e.g., feet, lower legs, thighs, etc.), taking one full, deep breath for each muscle group before releasing and relaxing; and.or close your eyes and allow you other senses to sharpen, first by identifying all of the sounds the ears might notice, then describing the sensations the skin might be experiencing, and then deepening your breath to notice the scents that might be in the air in that moment.
  2. Breathe Less.  No, I don’t mean hold your breath!  Instead, taking more conscious, extended diaphragmatic breaths, where you lengthen both the inhale and exhale, but allow your exhale to be longer than the inhale, means you may end up only taking 4 breaths per minutes instead of the normal 12 to 20 breaths per minute.  To practice lengthening your exhale, grab a straw and release your exhale through the straw and see if you can get your exhale to maybe be 30 seconds long!  Your inhales support your SNS, while your exhales support your PNS, so encouraging your exhales to be longer than your inhales allows the PNS to express itself.
  3. Stop and smell the roses.  Being out in nature has also been shown to trigger the PNS. Therefore, consider becoming a silent “tree hugger”!  You don’t have to tell anyone and you can do it when no one is looking.  Maybe try it for 40 days and see what happens.  Another option might be the next time you see white clouds in the sky, find a patch of grass to lie down on, look up and begin to identify shapes that the clouds are taking. Maybe you will see a dolphin, unicorn, or heart!
  4. Restorative Yoga.  Some may suggest that all yoga is restorative and I certainly wouldn’t argue with them.  Yet, a pure restorative yoga practice includes poses that are supported with props, such as blankets, pillows, and bolsters, and held for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the muscles to release built up tension.  So consider seeking out a restorative yoga class in your neck of the woods and pencil it in your calendar.  If you would prefer to try it right now, find yourself near a wall (or the back of a closed door), lie down on your right side and scoot your hips close to (but NOT touching) the wall, and then slowly roll onto your back and you lift your legs to the sky and rest the heels on the wall.  For even more comfort and support of your PNS, place a pillow or folded blanket under your hips/sacrum. Hold this pose as long as you feel able, then slowly roll to your side again, and wait at least 3 breaths before pushing yourself back up to a seated pose.  Check in with yourself before standing up and returning to the next item on your “To Do” list.
  5. Yoga Nidra.  This practice is also known as “yogic sleep”.  It is a guided meditation that encourages the mind to drop into deeper states of consciousness.  There are 5 levels of brain waves in the human mind. Gamma waves reflect active thought, Beta waves are present much of our waking time, when we are alert and working, Alpha waves reflect a more relaxed and reflective experience, Theta waves are experienced as a state of drowsiness and meditation, while Delta waves occur while we are sleeping and dreaming. Yoga Nidra creates a space for the mind to experience a more steady Theta wave experience, even floating between Theta and Delta wave states, supporting the activation of the PNS.  It has been said that 1 hour of Yoga Nidra is equal to 4 hours of sleep.  You can find free Yoga Nidra meditations on-line, so find your pillow and blanket and check one out soon!

“Reversed Attunement” – what is it, how does it impact the body-mind connection, and how can breathing help?

When I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that my parents struggled to accept themselves and each other, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that I instinctively found myself adapting to their moods, doing what I could to get their attention, to feel seen, valued, and accepted as part of the family and to maintain peace in the house.  It was the normal, natural human survival instinct kicking in – the need for connection.  Unfortunately, no matter how good I got at becoming aware of their moods and adjusting accordingly, peace was elusive and anxiety was palpable.  Ultimately, my parents divorced, but that didn’t end the war and, in fact, just fanned the flames of the fire instead.  I then spent many years attempting to navigate two homes, trying to please my parents separately, but always falling short, fertilizing a growing belief that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, it will never be (good) enough.

What I experienced in my family I now refer to as “reversed attunement”, because I tuned into my parents emotional needs to survive instead of my parents being aware of my needs as a child to support my growth.  What I learned on my journey is that my parents were also victims of “reversed attunement” and, as such, didn’t know any other way of being when they had children of their own.  In fact, one of the family rules passed through the generations in my family was “children are to be seen, not heard”, so the children in my family learned creative ways to be noticed and heard, to ensure they were not left behind.

What we now know is that humans are wired for connection with a basic human need to be accepted and included, whether in a family, tribe, or some other group.  And when group members are attuned to each other, that is aware of and responsive to the emotional needs of its members, then healthy growth is possible.  Yet, this attunement needs to be initiated, led, or modeled by the elders to the children, not the other way around.  If the elders are not capable of attunement, the children will sense the disconnection and their bodies will perceive it as a threat to their survival.  If children do not feel accepted and valued, especially within their nuclear families, they experience feelings of rejection or abandonment and do not have the rational capacity yet to figure out why, leading the body to absorb the distress, creating an experience of tension and anxiety.  This physiological reaction in the body is referred to as the fight-or-flight response or acute stress response.  Without the ability of the mind to understand this distress response in the body and with the chronic nature of the anxiety, the mind begins to distance itself from the body, ignoring the innate wisdom of the body, creating a separation or dissociation between the mind and the body, pushing the painful feelings down beneath the surface of awareness.

In this chronic state of anxiety, the body is seeking connection and desires to belong, yet the mind says it is not safe, keeping the body in a heightened state of alertness to possible danger.  When the body is under such distress, the breath becomes very shallow, which supports the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that prepares us to either run away from danger or to fight it.  It prevents the logical part of our minds from fully participating in the assessment of any situation, building a larger divide between the body and the mind.  But when we begin to understand and embrace that this divide has a purpose – to keep us safe – then, from this place of compassion, we can explore ways to realign the body and the mind, creating space for the expression of our fears, beliefs, and a fuller, deeper, and more expansive breath.

When I first began my healing journey away from disconnection and anxiety, I started with psychotherapy alone, where the focus was on my mind, specifically my thoughts and beliefs that were underneath my anxiety.  This process helped me to gain a greater understanding of why I believed what I did, but it didn’t really address or relieve the long-held tension in my body.  It wasn’t until I began to integrate yoga, and specifically the conscious breathing that is integral to a yoga practice, that I was able to get in touch with the depth of my anxiety.  What I learned was that I was experiencing “reversed breathing”, which was a result and a reflection of experiencing “reversed attunement”.  When I would inhale, I would suck my belly in and when I exhaled, I would let my belly out.  I came to learn that the natural, human breath is facilitated by the diaphragm, which engages and presses down on the inhale, creating space for the lungs to fully expand, and, as such, inflates not only the chest and ribs, but the belly too.  Then, on the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up into the chest in its resting dome shape, as the belly and chest deflate and soften.  Reconnecting to this natural breathing pattern wasn’t always easy and took practice.  Sometimes it made me feel claustrophobic or lightheaded.  But with a little patience and compassion for myself, I soon noticed a shift.  When I would practice releasing my exhales for a longer period of time than my inhales, I noticed a tangible release of tension in my body.  I now know that is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that supports the relaxation response in the body.   I slowly became more aware of the long-held tension in my body, how my anxiety would highjack my ability to think and speak, and how, if I simply took a full, conscious breath, I would create space to choose to respond instead of react to situations.

As I continued to practice bringing awareness to my breath, I used my breath as a resource to help calm my body when my mind became anxious, which allowed my logical mind to stay present and reflect on what was creating the anxiety.  With this internal resource, I was able to prevent the dissociation of the mind-body and bring them back into alignment, breathing through those old, familiar feelings of disconnection.  With the support of my breath, I am able to remind myself that I am worthy of connection and acceptance, whose early childhood experience of “reversed attunement” has expanded my capacity to be attuned to and compassionate towards others.

If you are interested in reading more about the benefits of integrating conscious breathing exercises into psychotherapy, click on the button below to read a recent research article that speaks to this topic.