The rush, the anxiety, the hectic pre-holiday mental storm has passed. And while it’s nearly impossible to relax in the days leading up to the holiday, you need to give it your best effort now. Why? Because relaxation doesn’t just happen—it takes practice.
Your sympathetic nervous system, which mobilizes your fight-or-flight response, gets all the action (this isn’t all it does, of course). So during this past month, yeah, you better believe it’s been in overdrive. What hasn’t gotten much attention is your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and governs other maintenance functions of your body at rest. And so if you never rest, you can see why this could be a problem.
The parasympathetic nervous system governs the relaxation response—and stress undermines its ability to function optimally. In order to experience the benefits of its balancing effects, you’ve got to put it to work. Here’s how.
1. Try this 60-second breathing exercise
Got a minute? You can start to feel more present and calm right now.
What to do: Take a moment to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with deep, full breaths in this exercise by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.: On an inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Continue for 60 seconds.
Why it works: Hanson explains that this brief exercise works because “deep, long inhalations expand your bronchioles: the passageways in your lungs to the tiny alveoli where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves it. The PNS is in charge of constricting the bronchioles, so by making them swell up with a big breath, you trigger the PNS to bring them back to their “resting” size. (Source: Rick Hanson’s paper entitled “Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System”)
2. Engage your relaxation response
The following is the generic technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute.
What to do:
- Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one,” “peace,” “The Lord is my shepherd,” “Hail Mary full of grace,” or “shalom.”
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
- Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
- Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
- Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
- Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.
Why it works: Regular elicitation of the relaxation response has been scientifically proven to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders. In fact, to the extent that any disease is caused or made worse by stress, the relaxation response can help. (Source: Benson Henry Institute)
3. Practice conscious awareness
You can do this one anytime, everywhere, even in the midst of a chaotic environment.
What to do: Pick up an object that you have lying around. Any mundane everyday object will do…a coffee cup or a pen for example. Hold it in your hands and allow your attention to be fully absorbed by the object. Observe it. Don’t assess it, or think about it, or study it intellectually. Just observe it for what it is.
Why it works: You’ll feel a sense of heightened “nowness” during this exercise. Notice how your mind quickly releases thoughts of past or future, and how different it feels to be in the moment. Source: The Guided Meditation Site
Terri Trespicio is a media personality, lifestyle expert, and coach. Visit her at territrespicio.com.