Our nervous system is made of two main branches, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is otherwise known as the Stress Response or the Fight-Flight-or-Freeze branch of the nervous system. When the SNS is dominate, a number of stress hormones are released, including adrenaline, which signals to the body that our life is in danger. And when the body believes our life is danger, it slows down any non-essential functions like digestion, resting, healing and reproduction and focuses on responding to what is perceived to be an immediate and physical threat to our lives. Typically our breath is short, irregular and shallow.
The PNS is also known as the Relaxation Response or the Rest-Digest-Repair-and-Reproduce branch of the nervous system. When our lives really are in immediate danger, like we’re being attacked or we step out in front of oncoming traffic, our Sympathetic Nervous System kicks in to save our life. Then once the danger is over we move back into PNS dominance, and go about leading calm, balanced, happy and healthy lives. In this state, our breath is typically deep, regular and rhythmic (think of the way a sleeping baby breaths).
The function of the Sympathetic Nervous System is to help us to save our life when it is being threatened. It has a very important function, and without it we might not be here today at all. The problem is not that we have a Sympathetic Nervous System, or even that it is activated from time to time. The problem is that we spend far too much time in this stress response. The body doesn't know the difference between an immediate threat to our life and chronic stress from rushing around all day trying to tick off all the items on our long to do list, so for many of us, we spend way too much time each day in a state of stress.
We can't think our way out of the stress response.
But we can communicate to our whole body that we are safe by breathing diaphragmatically and gently extending the out breath. Very simply, this involves breathing gently and rhymthically and allowing the belly to move in and out with each breath, and over time making the exhalation longer than the inhalation. If you'd like to try this practice, let me guide you through it here or sign up to A Daily Dose of Bliss to try this and many other practices like it over the next six weeks.
I was sharing my passion for the breath with my friend and colleague Dr Daniel Jones the other day and he said he believed the best simple practice for health was to eat slowly.
With a little research I discovered that not only is eating slowly good for digestion, weight loss, preventing diabetes and dental health, it is also good for stress.
Rushing when we're eating signals to the body that we're danger and activates the SNS. But eating slowly and with pleasure signals to the body that we're safe, activating the PNS and bringing us to a state of calm and ease.
According to the science of Ayurveda, it's not a good idea to eat when you're stressed, so I wouldn't suggested using eating as a way to calm yourself down when you're feeling really stressed out. But I would suggest taking Dr Daniel's advice and eating your meals in a present, aware, leisurely and loving way. Not only to enjoy yourself, but to give your body the felt experience of calm and relaxation at least 3 times a day.
If we remember to slow down when we eat, we'll not only improve our digestion, which has a whole host of health benefits, but we'll be sure to reset our nervous system, and spend more and more time in a state of relaxation rather than stress.
Lately I've incorporated Dr Daniel's advice into my own wellness practice. While letting go of the habit I've developed since having children of eating on-the-go is definitely a work process, I do aim now to put down my cutlery between bites, chew slowly and breathe deeply before taking another mouthful.
It's the simple things like this that really help us to live well.
Happy (slow) eating,