Optimising the Nervous System to Increase Productivity and Decrease Stress
I'm starting a new six week program at my Physiotherapy practice that is all about Optimising the Nervous System. It's designed for motivated people who want to function at the peak level they can.
This program provides tools and strategies in practical, evidence-based ways to reduce stress as well as improve performance and wellness. It filled up so quickly that Cassie and I will also run an online component.
In week one we will look at the first part of Optimising the Nervous System.
Balancing the Nervous System
Functioning optimally requires having the right amount of activation of our nervous system.
Being under-active may lead to poor concentration and decreased focus and clarity. This decreases productivity and effectiveness. It limits our potential to achieve when we need to step up. We feel flat and unmotivated.
Being over-active can lead to feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. It becomes hard to make clear, confident decisions. We may be re-active to those we love the most including our partner. We may become forgetful. We may feel exhausted in our body and at the same time be unable to switch off our racing mind.
Optimising our nervous system means we function at our absolute best. It makes us more likely to reach success.
FIGHT-FLIGHT-FREEZE VS REST AND DIGEST
We have two systems that regulate the nervous system. Firstly the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) known as the fight-flight-freeze system. This is responsible for the hyper-alert state we are in when we become stressed. It needs to be activated to keep us safe - for example being approached by someone scary at night we may need to make a run for it if we sense danger. The SNS primes us to get ready to think and move quickly: it dilates the pupils and increases blood pressure and heart rate.
Although there's no threat to our safety, it's commonly triggered with day to day stress at work and home: for example a presentation or financial issues. It can make us irritable and emotional and leave us feeling exhausted in our body but unable to switch off our mind. If it's in chronic over drive it can lead to anxiety and depression.
The second system in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) or the rest and digest system. While the SNS gets you agitated, the PSNS calms you: it lowers your hear rate, blood pressure, respiration rate (rate of breathing) and stress hormones like cortisol. It promotes optimal sleep and recovery. It increases digestion and enhances the immune system.
It revitalises your body and allows deep rest rather than depleting the body like the SNS. They work together in balance but if the SNS dominates you’ll be more reactive, emotional, stressed and have difficulty sleeping.
When you first practice accessing the PSNS in non – stressful times like we'll introduce today, new connections are made in the brain. The more recently evolved outer parts are activated (the cortex) rather than the more central parts of the amygdala – our primal areas. The outer cortex is important for our memory, attention, focus, self-awareness and concentration.
With practice these new outer cortex connections become stronger. This is effectively changing how our brain works. When they mature more than our reactive pathways we can change our behaviours and reactions. This can mean not being so irritable, anxious and stressed. It can lead to more calm, clarity and strategic thinking.
With training you can increase the amount of arousal (when you need to) and decrease this level as well (when you need more calm). For example if you needed to give a presentation you would use more of the SNS. Afterwards though you would be able to relax and switch off (PSNS).
Deep Relaxation of the Nervous System
Proper relaxation is one of the first ways of achieving this balance of our nervous system. This is true, deep relaxation that involves muscular relaxation in the body and quieting the mind and lowering emotional reactivity.
We can use resting our awareness on the breath or a sensation in the body. When brain waves (EEG are required) with this particular type of practice it shows a slowing down of these responses. Meditation is a form of training the mind: just like a workout. This week's training involves a meditation with a restorative pose.
Restorative poses use props such as bolsters, blocks, mats, pillows and rollers to allow full relaxation of the body. It’s done in an environment where the sensory stimulation is low.
Supta Baddha Konasana
(Recline Butterfly Pose on a bolster)
- Calms and balances the nervous system
- Improves sleep
- Improves digestion
- Stretches the inner thighs
- Increases range of external rotation in the hips
- Increases blood circulation in the lower abdomen
Supta Baddha Konasana is the queen of restorative poses. By supporting your body from every angle, it creates the conditions for true relaxation to happen.
It is a powerful remedy to the state of stress that many of us live with on a daily basis. It dials down the sympathetic nervous system’s response (decreasing stress) and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system (increasing rest).
You may find Supta Baddha Konasana to be a nice hip opening stretch. However in the pose you're aim is to let the body fully relax and let go as you listen to the meditation below. This allows exceptional activation of the PSNS.
Exhale and lower your back and torso toward the floor, first leaning on your hands. Once you are leaning back on your forearms place a bolster, foam roller or pillows underneath you in line with your spine. Your sacrum remains on the floor, while your mid and upper back recline onto the bolster. Take your time to ensure you are completely comfortable. Then, use your hands to spread the back of your pelvis and release your lower back and upper buttocks through your tailbone. Support your head and neck on a blanket or pillow if needed. Support each knee with pillows, blankets or blocks. Let the hips fully open and relax the inner thigh muscles. Once you are relaxed take the arms away from the body and rest with the palms facing the ceiling. When you feel settled and softened begin the meditation. Enjoy!
Taking the time to integrate these practices daily is a real investment. You will become less irritable, anxious and stressed. It will bring calm, clarity concentration and enhance strategic thinking - this helps you function at your true potential.
If you would like to immerse yourself fully in movement, mindfulness and meditation our Bali Retreat may be just what you need: