3 Simple Self-Care Practices to Calm the Nervous System
Through our body, we can lovingly reach in and touch the inner garden of our mind, and often, our mind-garden has many weeds that need pulling, seeds that need sowing and water that needs flowing.
If there is ever a time to tend to our inner garden, it is now.
With the Covid-19 virus continuously spreading and a global call for all-hands-on-deck (sanitized hands, that is), it is truly an extraordinary time to be alive. Many people are facing some very challenging emotions, thoughts and sensations. With this reality, I am finding that this is the best time to share a few self-care tips that have immensely helped me when I feel overwhelmed. Meditation, breathing and movement practices are three of my go-to's when I find myself struggling with difficult emotions and feelings of uncertainty.
As a collective, I believe that now more than ever, we are being asked to consciously observe our thoughts and the effects those thoughts have on our state of being. With the onset of Covid-19 and its ability to render people feeling helpless in their day to day, the mind then becomes the only thing that one can have some control over. Unless you consciously witness your thoughts, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by what your mind is telling you and equally so, all too easy to believe your thoughts, even if they are not in your best interest.
Let's look at the emotion fear, for example. When we allow fear to sit in the driver's seat of our everyday experiences, we also enable many other emotions connected to fear to infiltrate otherwise precious moments of our life, such as anxiety, overwhelm, etc. With this being said, fear, anxiety, and overwhelm are all understandable responses to the pandemic that we are facing, and in no way am I suggesting that we should not feel fear - no, not at all. We should feel any emotion that arises, but to what depth we allow our feelings to be explored, and to what degree we allow our emotions to control our state of being, is ultimately a choice. As challenging as it may be, it can also be equally simple to work with when we have the right tools at hand.
Four-Step Mindfulness and Compassion Meditation:
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach offers a supportive four-step mindfulness and compassion practice called RAIN when confronted with challenging emotions. The acronym RAIN stands for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. This meditation is essentially a process of conscious and curious inquiry rather than turning away from the uncomfortable emotion, thought or sensation.
As with most meditation practices, find a comfortable seat in a quiet space and begin to connect with your breath. Bring to mind the emotion that you want to work with and use the process of RAIN as follows.
Recognize, recognize what is happening.
Allow, allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
Investigate, investigate with interest and care.
Nurture, nurture with self-compassion.
I have found this practice to be incredibly useful during times of overwhelm and stress. For more information about Tara's work and many free guided meditations, please visit https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/.
Simple Breathing Practice to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System:
In addition to observing your thoughts and practicing meditation, various breathing techniques can support the activation of one's parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. In particular, lengthening one's exhaled breath is known to combat stress and feelings of overwhelm. By elongating your exhale, you are signalling to your body to calm, which means the vagus nerve is stimulated, heart rate variability (HRV) decreases, cortisol levels drop, and the mental fog that creeps in when in fight or flight, clears.
For more information about the science behind the vagus nerve and elongated exhales, please visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201905/longer-exhalations-are-easy-way-hack-your-vagus-nerve.
The Breathing Formula:
Inhale 4 count (4, 6, 8)
Pause 1 count (or skip)
Exhale 6 count (6, 8, 10)
= 1 breathing cycle
Find a comfortable seat on a cushion or in a chair, or find yourself lying down with knees propped up under a bolster to give support to your lower back.
Next, begin by simply noticing the consistency and natural rhythm of your breath without changing it. Feel the rhythm of breath fall and fill beneath your clothes. Soften your brow, the creases of your eyes, your tongue, throat and the entirety of your upper and lower body.
Briefly continue this body scan as you move through feeling the intricacies of inhabiting your alive and healthy body.
Next, come back to the awareness of your breath and begin to exhale completely -- pressing ALL of the air in your lungs and chest cavity out.
Then begin your next inhale for a count of 4.
At the top of your 4 count inhale, pause and hold your breath for a count of 1, then exhale for a count of 6. Pause and hold your breath for a count of 1, then inhale for a count of 4 and continue the cycle as instructed.
Continue this inhale (4 count) pause (1 count) and exhale (6 count) for 7 to 10 cycles. If you feel that you would like to deepen the length of inhaling and exhaling, add 2 counts to both inhale and exhale.
Inhale 6 count, pause 1 count, exhale 8 count for 10 cycles of breath.
Inhale 8 count, pause 1 count, exhale 10 count for 10 cycles of breath.
You are welcome to skip the 1 count pause altogether as you do not need to pause to receive the benefits of relaxation. The pause is there to increase your awareness of breath.
Movement as Medicine:
Humans have been moving, dancing, rhythmically celebrating and expressing since the beginning of recorded time (and probably earlier), so for most of you reading this, it goes without saying that movement is so vital for optimal and thriving health. In truth, it doesn't particularly matter what kind of movement you do as long as you enjoy it. Walking, running, dancing, yoga, biking, hiking, rowing, climbing, swimming or pole dancing! Anything to get you feeling inspired and up and moving is the key. The more that you enjoy the movement, the longer and more likely you are to stick with it, which promotes a fuller dose of happy hormones, such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.
If I'm not able to go outside, due to weather or, more recently, the outbreak of Covid-19, my go-to forms of movement are either yoga or dancing.
For my latest movement playlist, click the link below and happy shimmying! https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6jJRrWJYtvtPumGODNcgut?si=XrsWvgzFQOCg3Q4KlAVHBg.
For more information about hormones and boosting your mood, check out this article: https://www.healthline.com/health/happy-hormone#massage.
Sometimes it feels incredibly difficult to take the first steps towards self-care, and this I say this from experience, but in all honesty, it simply begins with one step. May this article be the first step in planting a nutritious seed in your self-care garden. As with all seeds, each needs a little of this, and a little of that; ultimately, it is up to you to decide when to water.
I wish you a fertile Spring Season full of new growth and abundant opportunities.
May your garden grow full and lush with these new and familiar tools.
Some Questions to Ponder:
Can you feel an emotion such as fear, observe it, accept it and then let it go?
Can you practice self-compassion and loving acceptance towards yourself and others, especially during times like now?
Can you see this as an opportunity to turn our attention inward with a loving child-like curiosity?
Can you take this time of social distancing not as something that is happening to you, but something that is happening for you?
Recap with Actionable Steps:
Four-Step Mindfulness and Compassion Meditation: RAIN recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture.
Simple Breathing Practice to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System: Elongating exhale by two counts.
Movement as Medicine: With a curious mind and in any way that you enjoy, get your body moving!