by Dr. Randy
Life has many stresses, and often we are juggling tasks, rushing to activities, and putting out fires in a busy schedule. All of these activities stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. They keep us in a mode of constantly handling emergencies.
The sympathetic nervous system is the fire fighter that responds to demands and perceived threats. This is a very useful function for keeping us safe and alive in dangerous situations. We respond almost instantaneously to a threat. Our foot hits the brake before we think about it, our hand recoils from a hot pan without our conscious intent. People who can handle a barrage of daily crises are often seen as efficient. But persistent stimulation and vigilance creates tension, and that tension can take its toll on bodily functions, resulting in high blood pressure, headaches, inflammation, heart disease, and anxiety.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) calms the mind and body. It provides a counterbalance to the many distractions and calamities of the day. It is exceedingly simple to activate the PNS through a whole range of nurturing activities: meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and even just being in nature. These relaxing activities cause a release of tension and its harmful effects. If we incorporate these activities into our daily routine the result will be a sense of ease, comfort, and increased happiness.
Just doing deep breathing will cause a shift from tension to relaxation. Deep abdominal breathing is a simple technique that can be done at a desk several times a day, at a red light in traffic, or during any short break in a hectic schedule. Sit for one minute and just focus on the in and out of breathing. Make this a habit through the day to relieve stress.
More formal meditation sessions in the morning and evening provide a powerful tool for activating the PNS, resulting in long-term benefit for muscular tension, anxiety, and adrenal stress. It will help keep blood pressure under control and calm the mind to become more efficient with a relaxed and less frenetic pace. Many guided meditations are available online. Those from Insight Meditation Centers are especially helpful and easy to access.
For those who prefer a more active form of relaxation practice, yoga or tai chi may be a better fit. Yoga provides the benefits of meditation with a stretching and energetic practice. Tai Chi and Qi Gong are moving forms of meditation. These will require regular classes, but the popularity of yoga has created many opportunities and choices through yoga studios and classes at fitness centers in most communities. Tai Chi and Qi Gong are often offered as a series through local recreation centers. They are especially suitable for older patients who need gentle movement forms.
Getting out into nature has been documented in countless studies to counteract stress. Any form of exposure through hikes, walks outdoors, the ocean, or the forest will benefit physiological functions and relieve tension. Similarly, exposure to animals is beneficial whether they are pets, wild birds, or squirrels. Take breaks from work and get outdoors. Take children to the park. It’s good for them too. Put these activities into your calendar and make time to just enjoy the trees and clouds.