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Engaging the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System

Learn how to flick the switch on your nervous system.

Turn off the Flight/Fight/Freeze response for PTSD recovery, Anxiety treatment and Deep rest to aid sleep.

Sympathetic Nervous System: The branch of our brain and body system that causes us to be alarmed, stressed, on gaurd, anxious or in states of PTSD. We dont want to eat, sleep or relax. We are in a heightened state of distress. Our focus of attention narrows to points and we look for problems and things to be scared of. We are on high alert. Perspective is warped.

Para-sympathetic Nervous System: The branch of our brain and body that causes us to be in a state of rest and play. We want to eat, we can switch off and go asleep, we can enjoy our body and our surroundings. A pleasant state of calm and rest.

  • Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation that comes from the Yoga tradition. It has recently been studied by neuroscientists in an attempt to understand why it is so deeply relaxing. Studies have shown that this guided meditation is effective in bringing the brain and body into NSDR, Non Sleep Deep Rest. This is the most relaxed we can be without being asleep. This state of relaxation is the result of our para-sympathetic nervous system being engaged.

I recommend doing a Yoga Nidra as required during your day. So if you are having trouble sleeping, do your Yoga Nidra before bed. If you are triggered and in a state of panic or anxiety, a Yoga Nidra will calm you successfully.

There are many different scripts you can use. If you don't like the links below look around for one you like. There are thousands online!

  • Mindful Meditation

Practising mindful mediation engages the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The part of the brain that is the newest part of our brain development. When this part of the brain is engaged we can not be in a state or anxiety or arousal. As in, we engage the Para-Sympathetic branch of the system. Focusing techniques are the methods that have proven to work. Three apps are great for introducing yourself into Meditation in this way.

I recommend peppering these mediations throughout your day, especially if you are in a state of crisis or dealing with Anxiety disorder. The more you can flick the switch and turn off your sympathetic system throughout the day, the better.

  • Focusing on Body Senses

Turning your attention to the visceral sensations in your body again engages the pre-frontal cortex and disengages the amygdala. If you focus your attention on your felt sense in your body, you cannot be in a state of anxiety. It is hard to keep shoving your attention onto your felt sensations, instead of freaking out, but it must be done, if you are wanting to calm yourself. I always think it's like slowing the car with the gears rather than the brakes. So it's like shoving your speeding car down into a lower gear, instead of pressing the break. You have to shove your attention, but it will slow the car down!

~ Notice your temperature. Scan your skin and your internal sensations for how hot or cold you feel. Notice every part of you.

~ Notice any pressure or tension or tightness you feel throughout your body. Paying attention to shoulders and pelvis as these areas tend to be where we clench and hold. Just notice the muscles tightening and holding. Don't try to change anything. The focusing part is the mechanism we are after here.

~ Notice the sensations of the clothes you are wearing. The shoes or socks you have on. Notice how much of the sensation you can pick up. How do the clothes feel?

~ Notice smells in the room you are in.

~ Notice the colours of the objects around you. Say the words of the colours as you scan.

  • Scanning the Horizon

Studies have shown that moving your eyes in a scanning motion across the horizon in front of you, also engages your para-sympathetic system. When our brains are in a state of anxiety or PTSD we focus in on detail and hyper focus on potential threats in our environment. So if we force ourselves to scan the horizon back and forth, slowly, and widen our visual field of perception, it forces our brain to calm and engage the para-sympathetic branch.

  • Exhalation focused breathing

Again, forcing our brains to relax. Exhalation focused breathing, simply breathing out for longer periods than we are breathing in for, will engage our para-sympathetic branch. In states of distress we breath in more than we breath out for. Increasing our oxygen intake so that we can flee, fight or freeze to cope with the threat we believe we are facing. Forcing ourselves to breathe out for extended periods will engage the para-sympathetic branch. We will calm. It can take a few mintues and feelings completely unnatural. But it has to be forced.

~ Try breathing out all your air, pausing, and then taking a quick breath in.

Repeat this until you feel calm.

  • Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi-Quong, Jiu Jitsu

Studies have shown that these three exercise art forms are very effective at deeply relaxing participants and also in re-engaging people with their bodies. Very effective for anxiety and PTSD recovery. Placing you into a state of relaxation and deep focused attention on your felt sense in your body.

  • Eating

Making yourself eat is the opposite of what we do when we are panicked and triggered. So forcing yourself to eat, again, engages the para-sympathetic system. If we are eating, we must be safe. We don't stop to snack when there is a tiger after us! So we are wired to rest and relax when we eat. Eat what you can, and regularly, to soothe and engage your rest system

  • Sleeping

Sleep is so important for PTSD recovery It is thought that R.E.M sleep rpovide us with built in therapy, that uncouples fear and stress from our lived experines. R.E.M sleep occurs all night long but occurs in greater quantities from 3am onwards. So this is when you really need to be sleeping. If you wake up, put on a Yoga Nidra to put you back to sleep. If that doesn't work, get up, have something to eat and drink, read, and see if after a while you can get a few hours sleep. Keep your lights low during these hours to aid sleep.

  • Exercise

Engaging your focus onto the felt sensations in your body as you exercise, will be so beneficial to you, in helping you deal with your stress and anxiety. As well as the dopamine and seratonin that are increased as a result of exercising, you will also engage your para-sypathetic branch if you focus on your body sensations as you exercise.

Doing some of the above regularly throughout your day will help you relax and engage your body. Lifestyle changes to accommodate the above on an ongoing basis will be preferable in treating anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

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