BALANCING THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
I am constantly inspired by my clients. Many of the highly motivated people who walk into my clinic room are keen on the science of relaxation – they want to know exactly how to shift their nervous systems to feel better, to reduce inflammation and pain, and to increase enjoyment of their successful lives.
For you, and those interested, here is a summary of key ways the delicate and highly responsive nervous system can adapt. By reading below and learning about how your nervous system works, you can learn tools to bring you to a deep relax, and the scientifically proven benefits therein.
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Most people can relate to anxiety. We live in “The Age of Anxiety”. Trying to avoid the negative effects of stress has resulted in an increased public interest in multiple new ways to relax. However, these can take up time, and the effect can wear off.
What if I told you that you could reduce your anxiety, and deepen your ability to relax, by simply committing to one activity for one minute a day?
One minute a day, to balance out your nervous system, tone your relax mode, and begin to clear your mind. One minute a day to access the possibility to re-balance your hormones, reduce your stress, and lose weight around your midline.
When you practice mindfulness for one minute a day, you re-design your body. You can use a guided mindfulness meditation; there are some great programs out there to help you, like Headspace, Calm, Tara Brach, and more. Studies show that the best thing to do is commit one space in your home to your mindfulness practice, and then you will eventually be drawn to sit there for one minute a day. Taking a yoga or mindfulness class is another way to bring mindfulness into your daily routine. Find a route that works for you; mindfulness may seem difficult when the mind is busy, but the long term results are a quiet and peaceful mind, a deepening of chill, and greater awareness of your worlds, external and internal, and how to navigate them.
Some studies also show that recovering from stress can help your neurons “grow back” from chronic states of stress. Research shows that stress for more than three weeks becomes “chronic stress’, and this causes neurons to lose their branches, or “dendrites”. Basically, neurons looks like tiny trees with many branches. So, when you recover from stress, these branches, or dendrites, grow back. Mindfulness then, by getting you into the habit of deeply relaxing, may actually help to grow back neurons that lost branches due to stress.
So how does mindfulness act so powerfully?
Mindfulness acts on three levels:
- “systemic”, or the whole body level
- cellular, at the level of these beautiful small building blocks
- genetic, modifying how our spiral libraries of possible selves get translated
By simply exhaling one long breath, you engage a system called the “parasympathetic nervous system” or PSNS. Let’s call it the “Para” for short. The Para engages muscle relaxation, rest and digest mode, and chills out the rate of your heart beats, slows your breath, brings down your blood pressure, and sets your brain into a different state. The different brain state is called “alpha brainwave state”, let’s call it Daydream Brain for short. Not only do you engage Daydream Brain, you also calm the Amygdala, which is the area of fear, flight, freeze, and fight. So you step into more calm.
So the Para
- relaxes muscles
- improves digestion
- slows heart speed
- slows breath speed
- brings down blood pressure
- calms the Amygdala
- shifts your state to Daydream Brain
The practice of mindfulness meditation takes this one step further. Not only does mindfulness strengthen your Para tendencies or habits, it also shifts your hormones. By changing the mode of the HPA Axis, – the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis – mindfulness reduces stress chemicals like cortisol, and in this way can contribute to weight loss around the waistline, as well as a rebalancing of sex hormones. This happens because, when the body doesn’t need to “steal” building blocks for cortisol from other hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, then the building blocks are still available for these sex hormones. DHEA and Growth Hormone, among other hormones, are increased, and this leads to more lean muscle mass. When these two hormones are stimulated, there is also action via thyroid stimulating hormone and prolactin that supports a strong metabolism.
So, in summary, a regular mindfulness practice can do the following:
- downshift HPA activity
- bring down cortisol
- rebalance sex hormones
- boost DHEA and Growth Hormone
- strengthen metabolism
- help you lose weight around the midline
Studies at UCLA have shown that practicing mindfulness for just 1 minute a day, leads to weight loss over one month’s time. For those of you interested in weight loss, or seeing a physical shift in response to your mindfulness practice, you can measure your waist before and after one month of daily mindfulness, and see if the measurement changes.
THE VAGUS NERVE
Mindfulness tones a large nerve in the body called the Vagus Nerve, or VN. There are also vagus nerve stimulating devices that you can use, but you can also empower yourself to activate the VN by simply sitting still and focusing on the breath.
By consciously spending time in Para mode, you strengthen the tone of your VN.
The VN connects to many body systems. For example, when you get a “gut reaction”, it’s a reaction of your VN to whatever is happening, positive or negative, bad or good, or neutral. Ideally, we want to cultivate a way to view many things from a neutral standpoint, as this allows the whole system to become more responsive and adaptive, so that behaviour and thoughts and actions can be chosen, rather than out of our control.
The VN is the tenth cranial nerve, and it reaches from the brain stem to the abdomen along many key organs, such as the heart, the lungs, and the esophagus which connects your stomach to your throat. The VN is triggered when we have stress, to balance out the fight, flight, fear, or freeze response that is activated by the sympathetic nervous system, or Sympa for short.
Health care practitioners can tell how strong your VN is when they observe your heart rate as your breathe in and out. When we breathe in there is a small increase in heart rate, and when we breathe out, there is a small decrease in heart rate. This change is called the “heart rate variability”, or HRV. Let’s call it the HRV, the Heart Flex, as when it is a wider difference, that means there is more flexibility of the heart, which is protective from heart attack, and shows that you are adaptive to stress. You can increase your Heart Flex by practicing positive emotions, like loving kindness, compassion, happiness, joy, and tenderness.
When your VN is toned, and Heart Flex wide, then you have:
- flexible emotional responses to strong stimuli
- good heart health
- emotional resilience
- good overall health
- less inflammation
- less risk of heart attack
- more branches to your neurons
In addition to increasing VN tone by mindfulness, you can also increase VN tone with:
- a lot of cardio exercise
- long distance running
DANCING YOUR SYSTEMS
So how do you apply this?
Classic mindfulness meditation exercises will help you balance out your nervous system. You will engage your Para and your VN. So you can simply practice mindfulness.
Given my understanding of the research to date, it seems optimal to combine several techniques that help to deepen your ability to relax:
- regular cardio exercise
- mindfulness after the exercise, especially focusing on the deep long breathing
- cultivate positive emotions
- daydream of positive scenarios: past, present, or future
- practice mindfulness daily
- practice yoga which combines movement, positive emotion, and deep breathing
Then notice, when stress occurs, if you can move or dance into a different state, ie “shift state” by (1) deep breathing, thus activating the VN and perhaps add in a bit of (2) daydreaming mode, while focusing on feeling a (3) positive emotion in the centre of your chest. You might synthesize these three by imaging that you are breathing in a beautiful colour, or twinkling oxygen, or sunlight, and breathing out the stress.
Be playful, explore your ability to shift mode in various situations.
As you do so, also notice if you have to shift down to relax mode often, and, if so, perhaps you are needing to more relax too often and need to shift some elements of your day to day life to demand less of yourself.
What is “mindfulness psychotherapy”?
Mindfulness psychotherapy is conducted in one to one sessions for 25 to 50 minutes or in groups. There are several modalities, including MBSR, MBCT, MBiCT, and MBRP. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing stress, emotional imbalance, mild anxiety, mild depression, chronic pain, reactions to trauma, and impulsive or addictive tendencies. You gradually learn how to engage in a daily practice, with one to one session being the most effective in finding your quickest way into engaging in a mindfulness practice and accessing deep relaxation and clarity of mind. You learn various techniques, and then decide on the combination of techniques that is most suited to you. Your skill development can also be applied to how to interact in key relationships.
In my sessions, you can simply focus on learning to down regulate the nervous system, in other words, learn how you best and more easily relax. We discuss your desired end result – a clearer mind, a quieter mind, better focus, more optimal athletic practice, reduction of stress, less anxiety, less chronic pain, or other relevant and appropriate goals to the practice. After recording your current state with respect to your goal, we then begin a series of sessions, and re-evaluate as to how close you are getting towards your goal, in each session.
What I have found over the years of guiding people in this, is that the goal is often clearly defined. The reason why you haven’t been able to reach your goal is part of a mystery that gets brought to light during the sessions. As the truth underlying the mystery becomes crystal clear, then mindfulness psychotherapy highlights obstacles to the goal that are embedded in emotions from the past, mental habits, and/or belief systems. By accepting these and then letting them go, the mind can be re-focused on a more useful and positive belief or emotion or mental habit. You then practice this new approach in your daily practice, which rewires your neurons to fire differently through the learning and repetition. The more you practice, the closer you get to your goal. How close you get to achieving your goal usually depends on the goal – small goals take a shorter amount of time, big goals take longer. Of course, the results also depend on your motivation and commitment. But, if you are motivated and committed, then using the sessions to achieve clarity, so that you can point your intention and energy in a useful direction, is key.
At Connect Health, I do offer mindfulness coaching as a wellness and prevention service, so you don’t need to have a diagnosis to access the services. This kind of service is paid for privately. You can contact one of our general physicians for an initial consult to ensure goodness of fit, and then meet for an initial consult with me.
If you do have a diagnosis of anxiety or adjustment or another relatively mild psychiatric disorder, you can have the psychotherapy covered by MSP, if the kind of psychotherapy that I offer can help you get better. MSP covered services are limited to certain conditions, as per the evidence-based research that enables us to understand what is likely to get better from mindfulness, versus conditions that require more intensive treatment, so you will need to see one of the family doctors at the clinic for an initial intake to see if a mindfulness assessment would be a good fit for you.
Meditate Your Weight, book by Tiffany Cruikshank, 2016.
Feeling Stressed? Researchers at IU are studying how stress reshapes the brain. Rachel Skipper, January 17, 2017. Popular literature, Indiana University.
Mindfulness Meditation improves connections in the brain. Carolyn Schatz, April 8, 2011. Popular literature, Harvard Health Blog.
Izquierdo et al, 2006. Brief Uncontrollable Stress causes dendritic retraction in infralimbic cortex and resistance to fear extinction in mice. In: The Journal of Neuroscience.
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