In the fast-paced whirl of modern life, our nervous system can often feel like it’s in a perpetual state of high alert. The impact of this on our mental and physical health can be profound. So, how can we calm our nervous system quickly? Understanding how our bodies respond to stress is an excellent starting point. From there, weaving in strategies from tried-and-tested psychological approaches can help us connect with our inner sense of calm.
Why is the nervous system important?
Your nervous system is incredibly important because it’s the command centre for your entire body. It’s like a superhighway of information, constantly sending and receiving signals that control everything from your heartbeat to your emotions. When it’s working smoothly, it helps you react to danger, enjoy a good meal, or savour a beautiful moment. But it’s also sensitive to stress and strain, which can make life feel a lot harder. That’s why understanding and looking after your nervous system isn’t just a science lesson—it’s a vital part of taking good care of yourself. By nurturing it, you’re ensuring that every part of you functions at its best, allowing you to live life more fully and resiliently.
The Polyvagal Theory explained
Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory provides us with a deeper understanding of how our nervous system responds to stress. It explains that we have more than just a ‘fight or flight’ response; we also have a ‘freeze’ response and a ‘social engagement’ system, which can all be activated under stress.
The theory centres around the vagus nerve, a key part of our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to control our heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The health and tone of our vagus nerve determine our capacity to relax after stress.
So, when we’re looking to calm our nervous system quickly, it’s helpful to know that we’re essentially trying to activate our parasympathetic nervous system — sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system — and the social engagement system, which can mitigate the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.
How to activate your parasympathetic nervous system
If you’re looking to engage your parasympathetic nervous system—the serene ‘rest and digest’ part of your body’s control system—here are some quick-fire ways to do so. By integrating these practices into your routine, you’re taking powerful steps to maintain a sense of tranquillity and balance in your daily life.
- Practising daily mindfulness: Dialectical Behaviour Therapy encourages mindfulness, which involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement. A quick mindfulness exercise could involve focusing on your breath, noticing the inhale and exhale, and the sensation of the air moving through your nose and mouth. This simple act can redirect your nervous system towards a state of calm.
- Deep breathing: Simple breathing exercises, like taking slow, deep breaths, can help activate the vagus nerve and encourage a state of calmness. Try the ‘4-7-8’ technique: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups can reduce physical tension, which often accompanies nervous system arousal. Systematically work through your body, starting from your toes and moving upward, for a quick release of tension.
- Self-soothing: Engaging your senses is a quick way to self-soothe. Listen to calming music, hold a hot cup of tea, look at a pleasing image, use aromatherapy, or savour a piece of dark chocolate. These sensory experiences can provide an immediate calming effect.
- TIPP Skills: This involves Temperature change, Intense exercise, and Paced breathing. For example, splashing your face with cold water can help to ‘shock’ your system back to a calmer state.
- Connecting with others: According to Polyvagal Theory, creating moments of social connection, whether through a warm chat with a friend or even a kind smile shared with a stranger, can trigger the calming pathways.
- Humming or singing: Humming your favourite tune or singing along to a calming song can stimulate the vagus nerve and encourage relaxation.
- Grounding Techniques: Techniques like the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ grounding exercise can be particularly useful. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste to bring your focus back to the present.
Remember, while these strategies can offer immediate relief, they are also skills that grow stronger with practice. The more you practise, the more effective they become, and the quicker your nervous system can return to a state of calm.
Ultimately, the journey to managing our nervous system’s responses to stress is not a sprint – it’s more of a marathon. It requires patience, practice, and a compassionate approach. By understanding the workings of our nervous system through the lens of Polyvagal Theory and by applying the skills from DBT, we arm ourselves with the know-how and skills to bounce back stronger from life’s ups and downs, and to take care of our wellbeing more fully.
Your nervous system is the key to really feeling alive in every moment, and learning to soothe it quickly is like learning a secret shortcut to a brighter, more balanced daily life.