In the miraculous form that is the human body, one of the key roles the autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays is to maintain stability, controlling everything from our movements to our thoughts and emotions.
When looking at the ANS in relation to its role in regulating the body’s response, imagine its work as a delicate dance between a caring parent and a child in distress, where one provides solace and comfort and the other is alert to danger.
This analogy beautifully captures the balance between reactivity and rest, or rush and repose, a balance governed by the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of our nervous system.
Let’s take a closer look to understand their significance and how this relates to intentional rest.
The Sympathetic State – Reacting to perceived threats
At its essence, the sympathetic arm of our nervous system is similar to a sentry on guard, ready to activate the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response when danger is perceived. As a response, our endocrine system releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare our body to take quick action for survival. This initial reaction is processed through the limbic part of our brain, also known as the ‘reptilian’ brain by neuroscience because it formed when we first evolved.
Physiologically you’ll notice your heart rate and blood pressure soar, muscles tense and your breath will quicken and become more shallow. Your blood is directed away from the extremities of your body to the central core to keep vital organs alive and functioning optimally. It’s a necessary and healthy process to meet the moment of threat.
The Parasympathetic State – Rest and recovery
In contrast to this, the parasympathetic state, often referred to as the ‘rest, repair and digest’ phase, is a network of nerves that relax your body after periods of stress or danger. When we feel safe and connected, the stimulation of the Vagus, a significant nerve system in our body, sends messages to our limbic system signalling the release of more rest and wellbeing hormones in our body, acting like a soothing balm. Adrenaline and cortisol levels lower, our arteries relax, blood pressure lowers and muscles soften. This state is necessary for us to rest, restore and rejuvenate, allowing us to recover and recharge our batteries.
Modern life and regulating our nervous system
In our modern life, the lion’s roar may no longer be a daily concern, however through our limbic (reptilian) brain, our nervous system still responds in a primal way. Our perceptions of intense conversations, overwhelming to-do-lists, or an abrasive email along with other daily interactions can trigger a cascade of biochemical responses in our body that are historically meant to keep us safe and alive, in short bursts.
Our contemporary lifestyles can push us to stay in a state of constant vigilance (the sentry guard) and living more dominantly in the sympathetic state.
If we understand that we are the architect of how our nervous system reacts, we can take steps to regulate it. For me, there’s great comfort in that. We can create our own pathway towards balance.
The role of intentional rest
Why would we want to regulate our nervous system? A regulated nervous system can lead to improved mental clarity, better sleep and reduced stress levels. However, when we have been living life in the busy lane, it can take some time and effort to consciously integrate practices that encourage regulation. One way to do that is to intentionally incorporate rest practices into our daily life. Intentional rest practices consider the importance of the Vagus nerve and its role in regulating our nervous system. The Vagus nerve, acting as a bridge between our brain and body, influences our response. And practice, gives our mind and body the opportunity to build a new neural pathway to rest. Practices such as deep breathing exercises, sound therapy, restorative yoga, guided meditations, nature walks or mindful pauses, can effectively activate the Vagus nerve, creating opportunities to invite a sense of calm and wellbeing into our life.
Embracing nervous system regulation
Consistent practice and effort to rest and relax to regulate the nervous system is so worthwhile. Can you take time to listen to your body and honour its need for rest and rejuvenation?
Invite your mind and body to remember and relearn what it already instinctively knows. Find moments throughout your day to slow down, breathe deeply and engage in activities that nurture your nervous system, fostering a profound sense of inner calm and connection.
In the fast paced and ever changing world, finding balance within your nervous system is not just a luxury, it’s a necessity for your wellbeing.
If you are ready to rest and find a deep sense of calm and stillness, you can find more details about intentional rest sessions and times below.