Your Overstimulated Nervous System
Chronic stress, nutrient imbalance, poor sleep, toxicity, and poor gut health all unite to tell your nervous system that you’re not safe.
And when you’re not safe — your stress hormones rise. It’s very hard on the body when stress hormones are ALWAYS high.
Stress hormones are only supposed to be high for a short time — long enough for you to run away from a threat. And then the stress should pass.
A Chronic Fight-or-Flight Response Means…
Even the tiniest of triggers can start the stress response.
It may only take:
- A simple miscommunication and you feel overwhelmed.
- A simple wrong turn and you’re a failure.
- A perceived slight by a passing driver releases all hell.
- Running 5 minutes late is the end of the world.
- Simple, constructive criticism from your boss or partner flattens you.
Chronically-Elevated Stress Hormones Are Linked To…
- Toxicity in the environment
- Toxicity from the gut flora
- Nutrient Imbalance
- Poor sleep
- Relationships — at home, work, or elsewhere
How The Brain Heals
In my experience, one can see improvement continuing for multiple years as we truly heal from this learned stress response. Healing the stress response involves:
You. Are. Safe.
Retraining the brain involves, we’ve got to tell it — over and over and over — that it is safe now. Finally, you are safe. You are safe.
You will be safe and you are actively becoming safe.
The brain can learn to be safe through words (self-talk), through gentle movement, by fixing the nutritional deficiencies of poor digestion or restricted dieting, by restoring the circadian rhythm, and generally by coming back into the body.
A cleaner environment can work wonders for the brain — even in an imperfect situation. An environment that is improving is a step toward safety.
Come Back To The Body
Our consciousness needs to become embodied again. This may be difficult if we’ve come to despise or even loathe our failing body. Perhaps we feel like our body betrayed us by getting sick. So we mentally leave our broken body. We dissociate.
And the opposite thought: Perhaps we betrayed our body by not caring for it.
But is this thinking really helpful?
Helpful Thoughts: The Blame Game Isn’t The Whole Story
Our bodies did not betray us.
What’s true is: We were always doing the best we could — with our understanding and energy levels — for the body.
There is no blame, there is only learning.
I refuse to let ignorance keep me down any longer.
I will take care of myself, my body, and yes — my mind. I will teach it to relax, so it can do what it already knows how to do:
I am safe, and getting safer.
Walking, Tai Chi & Qi Gong, “yin” yoga, and gentle swimming are delightful, restorative movements to engage in.
Movement is necessary to optimize lymph function, but movement also calms the brain, as well as brings the mind back into the body — the entire body.
It’s wonderful to be aware of gentle movements, but it’s important not to push too hard to be mindful. Nothing magical will happen through forcing mindfulness to happen. Mindfulness is, in fact, a miracle — but it’s not one we experience tangibly and it’s not a goal to attain. Letting go is the faster path to mindfulness.
This means it’s okay to let your mind wander and even zone out. The brain needs “no expectations.”
The brain needs complete freedom.
If you’ve ever studied mindfulness practice, it can be difficult to not push yourself. The ability to be mindful, though beautiful, may be a daunting task if bodily and mental energy are low. It’s preferable to calm the mind rather than “trying” to focus your thoughts when you don’t quite have the energy.
Don’t judge your brain or worry about its ‘skills’ — right now, or ever.
One lovely aspect of Tai Chi & Qi Gong — and other movements like walking, swimming, gardening, and biking — is that the movements are quite repetitive.
Repetition is how the brain learns. When a child says “Read it again!” after you finish a book, repetition is how they learn their languages.
Thus, the body needs to do these repetitions — again and again and again — safe, healing movements that reaffirm: “I am safe.” Or, perhaps: “I am on the right path to healing.”
Two Main Steps
There are two main beneficial steps to breathing.
- Breathing with the belly — not the chest.
- Exhaling slowly and completely.
Breathe With The Belly
The chest has virtually no role in proper breathing. However, in our modern world, we never want our stomach to stick out! This actually works against our health. Our breathing, when we are healthy and relaxed, happens in the gut. Everything is relaxed, from gut to head, and the belly rises and falls gently.
Ujayyi Breathing — Slowly & Completely Exhale
We need to expell the air completely from our lungs. Not every single breath. Not all the time. But periodically — whenever you think of it.
The best way I’ve found is the breathing practice taught in yoga classes: Ujayyi breathing — also known as: “the ocean breath” for the sound you make as you breath.
Using this breathing practice to exhale completely, while making your “in” and “out” breaths similar in length can be incredible for your body and mind. You do not need to do this for very long — even just a few minutes — or that often (just a few times a day).
It Only Takes A Little
Even a single minute can dramatically impact your nervous system. And if one minute helps so much, imagine how the regular practice of calm breathing can help your brain.
You don’t really need to breathe all that deeply. Just breathe regularly, evenly, slowly, and with the Ujayyi “ocean sound” as you take in a expel air.
Once you’re able to breathe deeply in regular intervals, if you remain still — you’re meditating.
Meditation is simply regular breathing + being still.
If you’re wondering what to do with your thoughts while meditating, there are actually dozens of different approaches, but the simplest thing is: just be aware of them (without fighting them off).
Whatever comes up, notice the thought is there and let go of it, and return back to noticing your breathing. When another thought comes up, see how quickly you notice it and let it go.
You’ll probably find that you’ve been thinking about something for 5 minutes before you even noticed! That’s very much okay… the only goal is to be still, breathe with regular ins & outs, and watch your thoughts.
You can also concentrate on something while you meditate: Loved ones, ideas like faith/love/forgiveness, or God. But active concentration may be difficult for a healing brain. This method — concentrating on something — isn’t inherently superior to simply watching your thoughts, too.
You can also pray while you sit still and breathe. Expressing thoughts, feelings, and yearnings is immensely healing. Prayer can also be quiet, listening. This can be very cleansing and unifying to the mind, and teach it to be still.
Being in a pool, bobbing with the waves while kids play, and relaxing in sunshine is also wonderfully calming to the brain.
Singing (or chanting) is a lovely healer of the nervous system. The frequency and resonance of audible noise have been to shown to directly affect brain waves.
The sweet and repetitive cadence of the words and melodies is similar to gentle repetitive movements. All biology depends on rhythm. Heart beats are in a rhythm. Sleep is a rhythm. Metabolism is a rhythm. Digestion is a rhythm. Brain waves are rhythms.
If mindfulness is about coming into the moment, singing and chanting can be about losing yourself in the moment. This, too, is healing and can be done by yourself, in a group, or while driving in the car.
Smiling, Laughing, Telling the Truth
Smiling, laughing and telling the truth are all elements of a positive relationship. Take stock of your relationships in your life. Do you smile and laugh daily, and are you encouraged by your friends and loved ones to tell “your truth”?
If not, you need to understand that the people in your life aren’t helping you very much. That doesn’t mean you need to leave them now. But you need to know this. If you wish to try and change that, you must ask for what you need and give ample opportunity for them to fail as they learn. If they dismiss your requests, this is a toxic relationship. There may be little hope of fixing it with or without major counseling intervention.
Smiling heals the brain. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about keeping a “half-smile” on your face for much of the day. This half-smile is so empowering because it takes almost zero energy to curl up the corners of your mouth. And yet it imparts lovely balance to the mind, brain chemicals, and your interactions with others. I lovingly recommend the half-smile.
Laughter is a no-brainer! Just laugh. Drop inhibitions and become a person who laughs easily. It doesn’t have to be loud laughter. Even a silent giggle is great for your health.
Look people in the eye when they talk, and be ready to laugh when they give you something — anything — to laugh about. Your brain will thank you — and they might, too.
Making people feel good is a healing practice, as well, and there are few better ways to do so than being a willing laugher.
Brain fog can make this difficult to achieve. But a little half-smile can give you a calm, resting space, even if you’re not able to catch all the words being spoken.
Telling The Truth
Telling the truth is hard because we often don’t know what’s going on in our hearts — and when we do, we don’t have the words handy to express it.
There are so many rules for social interaction that prevent us from saying the truth. Drop all those rules. You need to start saying exactly what you think. Say “no” when you don’t have the energy — and don’t feel guilty about this. If you’re worried about something, pipe up. Don’t worry about how you phrase it so much. You’ll get better as you practice.
In relationships, you also don’t have to know everything before you say it. It is OK to say “I don’t know.” Here’s an example:
“Hey babe… Can I tell you something? I’m just… upset. With you, I think.”
“I’m actually not sure. I don’t know. I’ve been upset for a couple days.”
“I’m sure this makes you feel bad. I don’t want you to feel bad. Will you be willing to listen to me later after I figure out what’s bothering me? I want to solve it, together, because I want to feel close to you.”
This kind of directness is not easy at first and goes against our social concepts of how to talk — with its primary worry about how others think of us. It takes a lot of practice. And it definitely requires TWO people who are interested in honest, truthful conversations that are continuous and ongoing.
Telling the truth is also empowering when you’re around less-than-friendly people. If someone is treating you badly, you don’t have to insult them, disprove them, or “show them” how you really feel. A simple: “I don’t want to be treated this way” will facilitate growth and resolution, even if that growth and resolution only happens for you. Here’s an example:
You: “I don’t want to be spoken to this way.”
Them: “Really, how? How exactly don’t you want to be treated?”
You: “This way. I just don’t like this.”
Them: “Well, i don’t like how you did this, and this, and that.”
You: “Well for that, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” (-OR-) “I wish it didn’t come across that way, and I’m sorry it offended you. I still don’t want to be treated this way.”
By apologizing proactively for any wrongdoing you’ve done, you’ve taken away their weapon. If they bring up more things you’ve done, own that too, if necessary, and stay true: I don’t want to be treated *this* way, now. If they bring up untrue accusations against you, include that in how you don’t want to be treated: “You are now saying things that aren’t true, and I don’t like that either.”
This is not guaranteed to win over your “enemy” but it will ensure profound benefits for your sanity, your heart your brain, as well as your healing body.
Some of the most powerful phrases in your daily arsenal:
“I don’t like this.”
“No. I can’t.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m don’t know yet, but I’d like to figure it out.”
“I forgive you.”
“I care about you.”
“I’m not okay right now, but I will be.” ← This one is hard. People need to know that you’re not okay now, but that you will be. (Unless you won’t. Maybe their behavior has crossed a line and you need to end the relationship).
When we practice telling the truth, our bonds deepen, we get the support we need, our support of others means we get even more support, and the “virtuous cycle” continues. Our children grow up with skills and strength to stand up for themselves, ask for what they need, and say no. Our partners live empowered lives. Our resentments for each other can heal, and our eyes can be bright when we see each other.
Telling the truth does NOT mean you have to tell every single person your life story. It especially does not mean revealing vulnerable truths to folks who will not handle your story well. Of course, you’re free to share more if you wish, if the person can hold space for your problems.
In particular, most everyday people will not be supportive, or interested in hearing about your illness.
What I recommend in this situation is: Say true things, but don’t reveal much. For example, if someone asks how you’re feeling, and you aren’t feeling well:
Them: “Hey! How are you?”
You: “Hello! Oh, I’m not feeling too great. How are you?”
Them: “Oh, what’s wrong?”
You: “I’m just dealing with some stuff. Making progress.”
Looking For Validation? DON’T.
Telling the truth also does not mean to share your story with hopes of finding validation. Looking for validation is destructive to health at every age. It is not recommended.
Even with a doctor: If a doctor doesn’t resonate with what you’re saying, you won’t be able to convince them of your point of view.
It’s best to deal with “people in authority positions” (such as a doctor) by asking questions about what THEY think.
When you get an answer you don’t like, don’t be surprised. Most people aren’t going to agree with you on everything. Don’t be shocked, or let it ruin your moment.
Careful Words Can Reduce Stress
However, by speaking true (though often-restrained) words you will save yourself years of grief and stress — and that will directly lower your fight-or-flight stress response.
You can enter any situation knowing exactly how you will need to act: Just as you always do, saying true words.
Kindness Is Always An Option
If people don’t like your thoughtful, kind truth — that’s their problem. There’s not much more you can do besides telling the truth and being kind about it.
Kindness is always an option — even if your truth will be difficult to hear.
Apologizing for how your truth makes someone feel, even as you unapologetically share it, can help ease tensions — and help your brain continue to heal.
Circadian Rhythm, Massage, Gargling
Sleeping deeply and early bedtimes are essential to the health of the brain.
Massage is deeply relaxing (although it can stir up dead cell waste and other stored toxins — drink water).
Gargling actually stimulates the vagus nerve, which is associated with myriad improvements in nervous system function.
You can do this.
I believe in you.
You can be