Calm The Nervous System

After years of stress, we need to reverse course. Gently.
menu

1 — Your Nervous System
2 — How The Brain Heals
3 — Gentle Movement
4 — Breathing
5 — Meditation
6 — Singing
7 — Positive Relationships
8 — Looking For Validation?  DON’T.
9 — Sleep, Massage, Gargling
1

Your Overstimulated Nervous System

Chronic stress, nutrient imbalance, poor sleep, toxicity, and poor gut health — these all unite to inform your nervous system that you’re not safe.

Your body is lacking what it needs: nutrients, hydration, sleep, detoxification, and energy. You might even need emotional support you aren’t getting.

Anytime you’re not safe, undernourished, or under-rested, 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.

When stress hormones are always high, they churn through the body’s nutritional and energetic stores rapidly, depleting you of your vital energy.

A Chronic Fight-or-Flight Response Means…

When stuck in a stressful state for long periods, your body becomes adapted to “living on” stress hormones. In this state, even the tiniest of triggers can start a massive stress response.  

Even the smallest of problems can cause things to go off the rails — seemingly out of control, such as:

  • A simple miscommunication with a partner (you feel completely overwhelmed). 
  • A wrong turn (we can’t do anything right).  
  • A perceived slight by a passing driver (all is wrong with the world).
  • Running 5 minutes late (it’s the end of the world).
  • Constructive criticism from a boss or partner (entirely decimating).

The personality can become trapped in these behaviors, for sure — through conditioning and trauma — but crumbling health can worsen these patterns or cause them to take root where they didn’t exist before.

All in all — you’re stressed, chronically. Your body isn’t recovering during the night, and food isn’t absorbing correctly to restore your energy levels.

Simultaneously fatigued while also “amped” or “wired” — these are hallmark traits of chronically elevated stress hormones.

Chronically-Elevated Stress Hormones Are Linked To…

Stress hormones serve a purpose in the body — namely, to raise blood sugar levels (to meet an acute crisis or threat).

In our ancestral history, a normal threat might be to run away or fight an attacking animal or person. Stress hormones kick in, blood sugar is released from the liver and muscles, and instant energy is delivered to cells — to run or fight.

In modern life, physical assaults are rarer (for most), but there are plenty of other causes of a stress response, including:

  • Undereating
  • Toxicity in the environment
  • Toxicity from the gut microbiome
  • Nutrient deficiency
  • Poor sleep
  • Relationship problems — at home, work, or elsewhere

When we undereat, stress hormones are required to burn fat and release glucose for energy.

In environmental toxicity, the body can become overwhelmed by mold or industrial toxins, interfering with glucose metabolism and thus causing stress hormones to rise for an alternate source of energy. The body can also perceive chemicals as threats and respond with stress hormones.

Toxins from the gut work similarly, overwhelming the system and interfering with glucose metabolism. Over time, the body senses eleveated levels of endotoxin and increases levels of stress hormones for energy.

In nutritional deficiency, the glucose metabolism is impaired, causing the body to search for alternate sources of fuel. Stress hormones rise in response to provide energy.

In poor sleep, inflammation rises, immunity falls, and glucose metabolism slows down. In response, stress hormones rise to provide additional energy.

When we struggle in relationships, stress hormones rise — elevating blood sugar for extra energy to meet the challenge. Over time, chronically elevated stress hormones result in depletion of fuel reserves and, eventually, a depleted body.

2

How The Brain Heals

Healing from an overdriven stress response can take months. Sometimes, progress can be observed for years!

Healing the stress response involves:

  • The steady reduction of environmental toxins
  • Restoring nutritional stores
  • Improving the body’s microbiome
  • Create a high-energy state in the body
  • Slowly detox
  • Retraining the brain and nervous system for calmness
  • Restorative sleep

All of these endeavors take time. Toxin reduction, nutrient restoration, improving gut microbiome — these don’t happen overnight.

In fact, these don’t happen in isolation, either. As one area improves, it positively impacts all other areas.

This positive feedback loop as multiple systems “come back online” is powerful — and represents a profound path to deep healing.

It isn’t a single diet that fixes us. It’s the combined awareness of multiple approaches that work synergistically to restore life and vitality to the body and mind.

You. Are. Safe.

As the body’s energetic functions return, we can consciously reflect on our brain, itself — with a newfound source of physical strength.

The brain is a remarkable organ, capable of survival through the most difficult of challenges. In fact, many of the unlikeable habits it forms are in direct response to immense stressors. It’s incredible what the brain can do to survive.

On the other hand, retraining the brain involves rewiring our neurons through repeated exposure to messages and stimuli that reflect safety. Your brain is safe now.  Finally, you are safe.

You will be safe and you are actively becoming safe.

You’re safe.

The brain can learn safety through:

  • words (self-talk)
  • gentle movement
  • fixing nutritional deficiencies caused by poor digestion or restricted dieting
  • restoring the circadian rhythm
  • inhabiting the body, rather than pushing it away

Amazingly, a clean living space can work wonders for the brain — even in an imperfect situation.

An environment that is noticeably improving can also represent a step toward safety. Perfection isn’t required, but improvement is — and we need to feel that we have enough control to improve our world, even in small ways.

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 the body betrayed us by getting sick.

In deep or prolonged stress, it’s common mentally leave our broken body.  We dissociate.

There’s also the opposing thought: Perhaps we betrayed our body by not caring for it.

These concepts are understandable, but is this thinking helpful — or true?

The Blame Game Isn’t The Whole Story

Our bodies did not betray us.

What’s true is this: we were always doing the best we could — with our understanding and energy levels — for the body.  

The body has always done the best it could for us.

There is no blame, there is only learning.

I refuse to let ignorance keep me down any longer.  

As I grow, 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:
Heal.

I am safe, and getting safer.

3

Gentle Movement

Walking, qi gong, yin yoga, and gentle swimming are delightful, restorative movements.  

Movement is critical to move lymph for detoxification. However, movement also calms the brain, bringing 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, certainly, a miracle — but it’s not experienced concretely and it isn’t a goal to attain.

Letting go of control is the faster path to mindfulness, for mindfulness simply means having awareness. Benefits certainly come from awareness, but not if we latch on to the benefits.

This means it’s okay to let your mind wander and even zone out. The brain needs “no expectations.”

The brain needs complete freedom.

Many who study mindfulness practice observe that 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.

Repetitive Motions

One lovely aspect of tai chi and qi gong — and other movements like walking, swimming, gardening, and biking — is that the movements are quite repetitive.

Repetition is, in fact, how the brain learns.  When a child says “Read it again!” after an adult reads them a book, repetition is how they learn their languages and the stories.

Thus, the body needs repetitions — again and again and again — safe, healing movements that reaffirm: “I am safe.” Or, perhaps: “I am on the right path to healing.”  

A Little More Calm

by Mimi Kuo-Deemer


4

Breathing

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.


5

Meditation

Once you’re able to breathe deeply in regular intervals, if you remain still — you’re meditating.

Meditation is simply regular breathing + being still.  

Thoughts

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.

Prayer

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.  


6

Singing

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.  

Repetition

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.

Lose Yourself

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.


7

Positive Relationships

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.

The Half-Smile

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

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.”

“OK. Why?”

“I’m actually not sure.  I don’t know. I’ve been upset for a couple days.”

“Uhhh….OK?”

“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 need/want…”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m don’t know yet, but I’d like to figure it out.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.”


8

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.


9

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
will be
are
safe.


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