Nearly every mother I speak to wants strategies to stay calm and deal with stressful situations more effectively.
We are mothering and living in stressful, uncertain times with incredible amounts of pressure placed on us to live up to unrealistic expectations. Our nervous systems are responding to this situation all the time with little opportunity to recover from the stress.
Our nervous systems are integral in how we feel, how clearly we can think, and how we connect in relationships.
When our nervous systems are in balance, we are able to deal with life’s ups and downs with more resilience. When our nervous systems are out of balance or overloaded we may have more intense reactions to things that happen in our daily lives and find it harder to return to a calmer state afterward.
In this article, I’m going to share some strategies you can use to soothe your nervous system, bringing it back into balance, so you can feel calmer and more resilient. But first, let’s start with an introduction to the part of the nervous system that is most involved in this, the Autonomic Nervous System.
The Nervous System – Accelerator and Brake
The Autonomic Nervous System controls your vital body functions. This system is largely unconscious but there are parts of it that can become conscious. For example, we breathe without conscious thought, but when we bring attention to our breath, we can choose to control it. The Autonomic Nervous System also regulates our emotions.
There are 2 sub-systems in our autonomic nervous system:
1. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The SNS acts like an accelerator to mobilise the body for action, increasing the energy in the body. This happens in stressful situations such as when we feel threatened or overwhelmed, but can also happen in exciting situations such as hearing our favourite song coming on and wanting to dance to it, or the feeling of elation that makes you want to jump for joy when something great happens. In this state, especially when you perceive a threat, it will be harder to think clearly or make decisions. You may feel threatened and defensive, and find it hard to connect with others.
2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The PNS acts as a brake, slowing the body down after a period of activity and bringing our mind and body into a calmer state. In this state, the body can rest and digest, renewing itself for the next acceleration. You breathe deeply and slowly, your digestion system works well and your body is reducing inflammation and repairing any damage. You will feel more peaceful and relaxed, be able to think clearly and be creative, and feel safe to connect with others.
The two sub-systems work together, aiming to keep the balance of energy appropriate to the situation.
When our SNS is more active, we are slowly depleting ourselves through constant acceleration. It’s easier to become overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed and harder to recover after challenging situations.
When our PNS is more active, then we feel calmer and find it easier to be present. We also feel like we have some reserves to help us be resilient in stressful situations.
The good news is that we can improve our braking ability.
If you find this difficult right now, don’t blame yourself. This is something we need to learn. Humans are not born with a great ability to apply the brakes, that’s why babies and young children, in particular, need our help to soothe and regulate. And let’s face it, as adults, many of us still have a lot to learn.
You may have heard of the vagus nerve, which is the most influential and longest nerve in the body. It meanders or wanders (vagus means wandering in Latin) from the brain all over our bodies connecting to many of our important organs. The vagus nerve is a key part of the PNS, influencing breathing, digestion, and heart rate, helping our bodies relax after stress. Stimulating the vagus nerve activates our PNS, helping us feel calm.
10 ways to activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System
Here are some strategies you can use to activate your PNS to feel calmer. Activating your PNS regularly can also improve your mood, strengthen your immune system and reduce your blood pressure.
1. Cold exposure
Regular exposure to cold either through turning the shower cold for 30 seconds or more, splashing or immersing your face in cold (even iced) water.
2. Deep, slow breathing
Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting your belly expand, hold for 1-2 seconds, then exhale through the mouth even slower, letting your belly contract. Repeat until you feel more relaxed.
3. A physiological sigh
This is like hitting a reset button for your nervous system. You take 2 inhales (typically the first is slightly longer than the second) through your nose, then a long exhale through the mouth. 1 or 2 sighs are usually enough to bring your level of stress down.
4. Intentionally relax your body
When you deliberately relax parts of your body you activate your PNS and send messages to your brain that there is no threat. Try relaxing your tongue and jaw, eyes, shoulders, back, neck, hips, or any other part of your body where you notice tension. You might like to imagine all the tension in your body melting away with every exhale as you breathe naturally.
5. Exercise and movement
Intense exercise activates our SNS, but gentle exercise such as yoga or walking, or even light jogging can be really beneficial in activating your PNS.
Moderate pressure massage has been shown to activate the PNS effectively. You can try this yourself by massaging the sides of your neck.
7. Connecting with others
Positive social connections help us feel more positive emotions and activate our PNS. Choose relationships in which you feel safe to be yourself.
Laughter activates the PNS and helps release tension from past SNS activation.
9. Singing, humming, and gargling
These all activate our vocal cords which stimulate the vagus nerve.
10. Mindfulness and meditation
These are excellent ways of reducing our reactivity to stressful situations. They slow our breathing and heart rate and lower blood pressure. A simple mindfulness exercise is to pay attention to physical sensations in your body or pay attention to each of your senses one by one and see what you notice.
So, now you have some strategies to try to help bring your body and mind back to a calmer, more balanced state. It’s a great idea to practice these even when you don’t feel overwhelmed or out of balance because you will continue to build resilience and the ability to return to a calmer state more quickly after stress.
And next time you feel overwhelmed and don’t respond the way you would prefer, instead of berating yourself, meet yourself with compassion, acknowledging that your SNS is likely accelerating a lot and your PNS hasn’t had enough opportunity to brake. Try saying to yourself “My nervous system is overloaded right now. What can I do to bring it back into balance?”