05 Oct Do You Have a Balance?
Do you have a balance? If there was one thing I would suggest for everyone, it would be to try and put a few minutes quality rest time into your day.
One of the principle reasons for doing it is to reset and calm your nervous system.
You will be familiar with the nervous system that lets us feel, and make our muscles move. We also have a nervous system that deals with all the background stuff that needs to be maintained for you, like your heart rate and blood pressure and digestive system.
This is called the autonomic nervous system (so named because it works by itself, automatically, not under your conscious control)
It is divided into two parts that work in roughly opposite ways:
The Fight or Flight System (sympathetic)
This system kicks in where there is danger or stress. It prepares you to run or fight by increasing your heart rate. It releases adrenaline into your blood stream. Blood is diverted from the skin and gut to the essential organs and the muscles.
The Rest or Digest System (parasympathetic)
This is the side of the nervous system dealing with housekeeping e.g. keeping the gut moving so you can digest your food. It has a generally opposite effect to the flight or flight system e.g. slowing your heart rate. You might have heard of the vagus nerve– this is one of the nerves that transmits ‘rest and digest’ messages.
The older more primitive bits of our brain are in charge of activating these automated systems, so it isn’t necessarily rational about what is a real danger. So, your worry about work deadlines will cause a response, just as a real threat to your life might do, albeit more mildly. Although in modern life stress tends to be more low grade than really scary, from our brain-body’s point of view it is still a threat to our safety. The only way it knows how to respond is to get ready to run or fight!
The flight or flight system can be over-active
We do need to be exposed to bits of stress (excitement and challenge are more positive words) to keep us healthy. It’s good to train yourself to deal with the inevitable stress of life by exposing yourself to short periods of healthy stress e.g. with some intense exercise.
However, a little stress goes a long way. Because our nervous system developed back in a time where we dealt with life and death scenarios more often, the fight or flight system is built to be more wide-ranging and long-lasting than the rest and digest system. Your survival depended on your quick response to threat, if you didn’t run away from the lion in time, you wouldn’t be passing on your genes to the next generation! If you have had a stressful event, like a near miss in the car, you may have noticed that it takes a long time to fully calm down.
If you are dealing with ongoing stress: work, family, health issues, the flight or flight system will be on constant alert.
This causes lots of wide-ranging effects on lots of different organs and systems in the body, and can affect your ability to sleep, and your immunity, for example.
Most of us would benefit from taking some time and thought to balancing the scales towards the rest and digest side of your nervous system. But the more stress you have to deal with the more balancing time and activities you need, especially if it is long term stressful situation. This applies even with ‘positive’ stress e.g. a challenge you relish or an exercise goal like a marathon: providing yourself with adequate rest and recuperation will allow you to perform your best and sustain a long- term level of challenge. If your body-mind is always dealing with threat or challenge the housekeeping will suffer!
How to shift the balance from ‘flight and flight’ to ‘rest and digest’
There are lots of ways to do this – basically anything you find relaxing. Gentle exercise, spending time in nature, having a laugh with friends, a hug from your partner, snuggling up with the dog, playing with the kids, art, music. Anything that feels like the pressure is off: no striving to do better or achieve, just being in the moment.
However, it can be hard to keep this skill of calming down body and mind, and being able to switch off, even during what should be relaxing times.
This is where mindfulness type practices are helpful. There is a reason why so many cultures and systems encourage a balance of activity and meditation/mindfulness e.g. yoga, martial arts. Just pushing and pushing, either physically or mentally doesn’t help us to perform optimally long term, and it’s not sustainable in terms of our health and wellbeing.
Alexander technique has this mindfulness, calming aspect to it. The advantage of Alexander Technique is that you can practise calming your flight and flight system whilst going about your everyday life. You don’t need to spend much special time doing it once you have learnt the skill.
To learn the foundation skill of switching of excess muscle tension, and quietening body and mind we make it easy and do it lying down to start with. Just a few minutes lying down, paying attention to your body, can shift the balance of the nervous system to ‘rest mode’.
Once you have a little practise in this lying down position you can start to apply the same thinking to sitting, standing and moving, so that you are encouraging your autonomic nervous system to be more ‘rest and digest’ and less ‘flight or flight’ throughout the day.