by Sarah Maurer
Think of all of the steps that we take each day with the goal of finding or maintaining a sense of security. For example, my partner checks the stove every time he leaves the house. If he forgets, he will either turn the car around if I am not at home, or call me to double-check that everything is turned off. While I give him quite a bit of flack for this behavior, it is also incredibly endearing. We all have certain habits that help to quell our uncertainty and worry, things which give us the peace of mind and have found a way to safeguard against potential problems or harm. We lock our doors, install security systems, set reminders on our phones for important meetings and appointments, and check to make sure the oven is off. All of these actions take place in our external environment to ease our minds, and hopefully, our internal ecosystem.
Our nervous system can be thought of as our body’s security system. It sends signals to our brain allowing us to process threats in our external environment. Unfortunately, our beautiful internal security systems cannot distinguish the stress of a looming work deadline with more acute threats, it reacts to our normal daily stresses like it would react to the threat of a Saber-Toothed Tiger on the Serengeti. As humans living in a modern and complex world, it is imperative to find ways to shift gears from the sympathetic, or our fight, flight, or freeze response, to the parasympathetic, our rest and digest response. Similarly to building muscles to gain physical strength and agility, we also need to find ways to tone our nervous system, so our body’s reaction to stress does not overtake our ability to tap into our inner peace.
Toning Your Nervous System
Finding ways to ground yourself throughout the day is beneficial to alleviate stress. This will look different for everyone, but one relatively simple game-changer is spending time outside. First of all, if you are working from home, you need to give yourself opportunities to separate from your workspace. Spending even fifteen to twenty minutes outside offers mood-boosting vitamin D, and it can also give you some perspective. If taking breaks is not an option for you, here’s a short grounding exercise from therapistaid.com that might help in moments of overwhelm. As you go through each step, bring your awareness to the physical sensations that arise.
- Take 5 long, deep breaths through your nose, and exhale through puckered lips.
- Place both feet flat on the floor. Wiggle your toes. Curl and uncurl your toes several times. Spend a moment noticing the sensations in your feet.
- Stomp your feet on the ground several times. Pay attention to the sensations in your feet and legs as you make contact with the ground.
- Clench your hands into fists, then release the tension. Repeat this 10 times.
- Press your palms together. Press them harder and hold this pose for 15 seconds. Pay attention to the feeling of tension in your hands and arms.
- Rub your palms together briskly. Notice and sound and the feeling of warmth.
- Reach your hands over your head like you’re trying to reach the sky. Stretch like this for 5 seconds. Bring your arms down and let them relax at your sides.
- Take 5 more deep breaths and notice the feeling of calm in your body.
Years ago, I was in my therapists’ office and he had me go through an exercise for anxiety, after I had been experiencing regular panic attacks. He asked me what my favorite color is, and he had me identify where I saw that color in my space. It was also important to the effectiveness of the exercise that the objects were stationary and unchanging. I invite you to try this exercise yourself. This can create an anchor for you at the onset of anxiety, and I still use this to center myself when I am stressed or feeling anxious.
Lately, I take a walk to a place near my house where I can see the mountains in the distance. Feeling the magnitude of nature around me, helps me to ground myself and recognize my place in the world. It reminds me I am alive and exactly where I need to be. Whether you decide to take a walk outside, or you use these aforementioned grounding exercises, it is important to have a few tools that help to take the edge off in moments of stress, especially if you are experiencing acute anxiety. In more extreme cases, these types of grounding exercises can help to lower your heart rate, and bring you back to homeostasis.
Perhaps you take time before you start your day to journal and get clear on anything that may be looming over you, taking you out of the present moment. Part of experiencing a sense of peace is identifying the things in your day and your life that strip you of that feeling. Maybe your journaling practice reveals certain recurring themes over time, which you never really recognized, and this can be very valuable information. It can also highlight areas of your life which may benefit from some minor tweaks so you can circumvent these mental loops in the future. These types of changes do not need to occur overnight. Finding effective ways to navigate through your daily experience more mindfully takes time and courage, be patient with yourself, and make sure you are being truthful about what is actually possible for you to accomplish.
Remember, if any of this stuff was easy and effortless the world would probably be a very different place. However, creating a toolkit for yourself establishes new habits or that reinforces your existing practices in response to stress, is important. You can think of it as adding another layer of reinforcement to your internal security system, and your nervous system will thank you for that.