Right now, many people are stuck at home. Many have thought, now is the time for me to start working out, eating better, and losing weight. Only to discover that they just want to eat bread, lay in bed, and have put on weight. They want accountability partners, tips and tricks, and recipes. Ultimately, with little change.
Honestly, I’m one of those people. I went from training for a half marathon to not running for a month. I’ve been making my own bread, eating my share of chocolate, and barely any veggies. The desire to hibernate has been high and this is 100% okay and normal. In fact, it may significantly help us deal with our stress and keep us healthier.
Over the past 9–10 years, I’ve been thinking about the nervous system and brain in regards to our health and wellness. From running wellness retreats to recovering from burnout, I have really seen the impact that stress has on our bodies and how much taking time out for oneself to de-stress can make leaps and bounds improvements to our well-being. Being in nature, going on vacation, and deepening human connection, all contribute to why we see improvements in our health and wellness.
Yet, I also see a lot of people struggle with improving their health and wellness and finding wall after wall blocking them from achieving their goals, largely because they are not supporting the nervous system in a way that feels safe and is conducive to accomplishing them. Sometimes the one thing that seems counterintuitive, is exactly what we need.
Our nervous system is one of the oldest parts of our evolutionary process. Without the Central Nervous System, we wouldn’t be able to breathe, have a heartbeat, see, hear, or even move. It’s our most basic and important function for life. As part of that, the hypothalamus is one of the oldest parts of the brain. If this part of our brain can’t do it’s job in a way that feels safe, it triggers all kinds of responses to help us respond better so we can survive.
What our brain perceives as “unsafe” are normal parts of today’s society. Florescent lights, traffic, text alerts, and more trigger us into a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), fight, flight, or freeze, state. When we spend most of our time there, it impacts our digestive health by slowing it down, our blood pressure by increasing it, our ability to burn fat by increasing desire and use of sugar to help us move, and more. All common issues that many have that they don’t even attribute to something as basic as our nervous system.
Instead we turn to more SNS triggering responses- spin and HIIT classes, caffeine, food restriction, diets. These keep us in a constant cycle that just creates more stress. For the Vagus Nerve, one of the longest nerves in our body, actually brings more information (80%) into our brain than it put out (20%). If all the messages it receives are one of danger, it will respond in kind.
As the Nervous System is one of the oldest and most ingrained in it’s habit, we can’t biohack it as easily as we think. I think of teaching my 90 year old Grandmother how to use an iPad. She was able to do it, but it was a slow process and went against a lot of her intuition.
We need to build skills to help us switch to the rest and relaxation, Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Our ability to go back and forth smoothly and easily, having excellent vagal tone, is crucial for long-term health and wellness and to help us thrive.
What we really need to do is pause.
When we pause, take a few deep reassuring breaths with long, slow exhales, our brain is receiving information that we’re safe. We can’t breathe slowly and be running away from a tiger. But we can be in traffic with long, deep breaths, because we aren’t under attack.
Think of the Fear character in Pixar’s film Inside Out. He’d go into a tailspin, but the second he realized everything was okay, he’d relax. Our body does the exact same thing. Being able to switch between the SNS and PNS smoothly and rapidly is one of the most crucial skills we can have. When we accomplish that skill, we can better achieve all of our health and wellness goals.
This is why it is important to pause, go outside, have a bath, give and receive hugs, have a pet, visit with a friend. All of these activities, soothe the soul.
As I write this, we’ve been quarantined for over a month. Uncertainty and danger is abound. Making our need to activate our PNS even more crucial. If we don’t, we will set ourselves back.
Pay attention to what messages your body is telling you and listen. Allow yourself space to pause. Focus on your breath. Acknowledge that these may be skills that you need to work on. Stuff that you haven’t wanted to deal with may come up. It may be uncomfortable and you may need help to guide you.
You’ll emerge stronger for everything you do now.
Some Resources & Meditations:
Join Kate with her Alone Together Getting Healthy challenge to begin to look at your health and wellness differently.
Mental Health America Hotline: Text MHA to 741741. Mental Health America is a nationwide organization that provides assistance through this text line. You will be linked to someone who can guide you through a crisis or just provide information.