Updated: Mar 15, 2022
By Emma Mercer, Restorative Yoga Teacher
Evolution is pretty cool, however our ancient nervous systems have been quite slow to catch up with our fast-paced modern world. A long time ago, the sympathetic nervous system, what many of you may know as fight or flight mode, was activated in times of danger so we could protect ourselves and our families from the threat of a lion or hyena. In those times, once the threat was gone, our bodies would easily drop back into the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest mode until the next threat came along.
But now that we are living in a hyper-stimulated world, our poor nervous systems are constantly on high alert with little opportunity to be in a rest and digest state. We exist in a time where we are encouraged to do more, strive for more, fill out schedules with more, and to never stop consuming more and more information. We find ourselves always in a state of doing and rarely in a state of being. And to be honest with you, it is bloody exhausting always being in this state of busy-ness and living from survival mode, not to mention adding the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic to the mix! It’s no wonder so many of us are struggling right now, with completely frayed nervous systems.
When we are not rested, our sense of peace is the first thing to go. But, we all have the power to reclaim a sense of ease, even during these tumultuous events. When we look after ourselves and support our nervous system, the positive benefits have a ripple effect on all of those around us.
Here are some of my go-to practices for soothing and supporting the nervous system that are easy to do at home. 1. Restorative yoga
My number one go-to for nervous system support - absolutely no experience is necessary to practice restorative yoga!
Restorative yoga is concerned with taking away as much stimulation and sensation as possible by gently supporting the physical body in order to soothe the nervous system and drop into the rest and digest state. Restorative yoga is also super supportive for improving your sleep. In order to sleep well, we need to be well rested, and it is important to understand that sleep and rest are two different things. Although if you fall asleep during restorative yoga, that’s totally ok too, because your body obviously needs it. Just know that sleep isn’t the goal.
You can try a free restorative class courtesy of The Daily Rest HERE, which can be practiced at any time of the day.
2. One minute breath
Slow deep breathing is conducive to rest, as it activates and engages the parasympathetic nervous system rest and digest response and decreases the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Sit in a comfortable position, with your eyes gently closed. Inhale slowly and deeply for a count of 4 (you can increase the count up to 10, although 4 is a nice place to start). Hold the breath for a count of 4 (if you find this part too challenging, you can simply leave it out, or if you are pregnant, then no holding the breath for you, just long, slow, deep breathing). Then exhale slowly for a count of 4. Repeat. Traditionally, this practice is done with a count of 20 seconds in, 20 seconds hold, 20 seconds out, hence the name one minute breath. You can do this exercise for as long as feels good for you, however setting a timer for 3 minutes is a great place to start.
3. Legs up the wall
As the name says, lay on the floor with your legs up the wall. This is a great practice for relieving stress, supporting the immune system, the lymphatic system, and the nervous system.
When you are setting up for this practice, it might be nice to grab a flat couch cushion to support the head or to take a folded blanket, bath or beach towel to support the sacrum (the flat bony part at the base of the spine). Make sure you are warm - put on some socks and layers, wrap a blanket around your legs and over your torso. Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes, cover the eyes and relax the breath. Try doing this practice most days for a week and see how you feel!
4. Foot massage
Foot massage has been said to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is closely related to the parasympathetic nervous system. This simple foot massage technique can help deactivate the stress response, release tension and calm the nerves.
Using a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or a massage ball if you have one, standing up tall and placing the ball under the foot, just behind the big toe mound. Start to roll the ball around under the foot, stopping and holding the ball in any tender or tight spots, applying some gentle pressure for a few moments, then continue rolling before swapping to the other foot. You can also try this practice sitting if standing doesn’t work for you.
5. Music What we consume also has a strong impact on our nervous systems. So if we are spending all of our time watching or listening to the news, scrolling on our phones, or watching one too many episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (trust me, I am very guilty of this one), then our bodies don’t have an opportunity to drop into rest and digest mode. Perhaps for one night of the week, it would be nice to switch off all the devices and listen to some calming music before bed. HERE is a special playlist to get you started.