In today’s world of constant stimulation, bombardment of the senses, repetition of fear-filled news and political unrest on a global level; the daily dealings of work, family, friends, commitments and the individual pressures of one’s own inner-thoughts, negative self-talk, doubts and fears on a personal level, one might be hard-pressed to find a space for ‘calm’.
Our habit is, often, to keep going and ‘soldier’ though the stress as best we can , taking no prisoners on the way as our frustration, irritation and anger cause us to speak out and act in ways that are often damaging to others. We know it but we can’t help ourselves. Only after the raging do we feel that churning sensation inside reminding us just how badly we’ve handled the situation or event again. Adding guilt and shame to our already stressed nervous system, can take us into over-drive and, if anyone were to suggest that we ‘calm down’ that might truly cause that primed grenade in our head to explode….
So- what is the solution and how can we achieve a level of calm in the midst of such everyday scenarios? I would suggest the state of calm that enables us to deal skilfully with most of life’s ups and downs, may be achieved through knowledge and understanding. Ie. Knowledge of how the systems in the body work, how the mind works and how the body/mind works as one.
We all have a nervous system that operates at a subconscious level to ensure the workings of the various organs in the body and is closely interconnected with all other bodily systems. For example, when the internal temperature changes, sensors in our central nervous system send messages to the area of the brain responsible for regulating and maintaining homeostasis, the hypothalamus. In response, it sends signals to various organs and systems in your body. They respond with a variety of mechanisms so that, if the body needs cooling down, sweat glands release sweat to cool the skin as it evaporates. If needing to be warmed up, muscles can produce heat by shivering.
Every cell, every organ, every system in the body is in constant communication even though we are unaware and, for the most part, insensitive to this incredible miracle: the heart beats roughly 115.000 times a day and pumps around 2,000 gallons of blood each day. The liver breaks down food and converts it into energy, as well as detoxifying and removing harmful substances from the blood, Kidneys filter around 180 litres of blood every day, control the production of red blood cells and release hormones that regulate your blood pressure. They also produce urine, by removing waste products from the body. All this happens without our having to make any conscious effort. In fact, most of us are so ignorant of our bodily functions that we can actually misread sensations or motions in the body and label them with such things as anger or anxiety than can cause stress hormones to be released. But more of that later. For now, we can just marvel at the miracle that is the body.
Now we know a little about the body, we can begin to understand how it operates. When we understand how something works, we are more likely to be able to control it. For example, if we understand that, by pressing on the accelerator, the car will go faster and that by pressing on the brake the car will slow down, we will then be able to sit in the driving seat and choose when and where to speed the car up or slow it down.
Our nervous system also has a branch that speeds the body up when it’s in danger, and another that slows it down when danger has passed. The system was designed to protect us and help us to survive. So- on the one hand, if we are being threatened, our brain picks up signals from the senses eg. visual cues or scents and sounds, that a sabre -toothed tiger is on the horizon and, in a fraction of a second, the brain registers danger and activates the survival hormones of cortisol and adrenaline to be released into the blood system to start the fight, flight or freeze process. The heart beats rapidly and sends blood to our limbs in order to tense these muscles ready to fight or run away. The blood is diverted from the interior organs that would otherwise use up precious energy required to save us. The digestive system, therefore, slows or stops. The brain is on high alert, scanning the memory for similar situations in the past. All this happens in a split second. The part of the brain that usually does all the organising, planning, rationalising, creating etc goes offline- no time for being creative when we need rapid action to save ourselves. Instead, we are working from our limbic or emotional brain and fear keeps the stress hormones doing their job until we either overcome or escape the danger.
Fantastic! Now that we have overcome or escaped the danger, it’s time to bring the nervous system back into balance as staying in a stressed state for too long can cause many detrimental physical issues.
Animals in the wild are a great example of how to make this transition; they are grazing- a lion comes and the herd panics and scatters. A baby or weak animal is caught, and the lion takes it away to feast on it. The other animals, seeing danger has passed, shake to release stress and resume their grazing. The stress hormones that enabled them to run away at speed, are now allowed to dissipate. The heart rate goes back to normal; tension leaves the muscles and the nervous system is brought back into balance and calm. Calm might then be equated with being in a state of balance.
However, human beings unlike animals, have a tendency to hold onto, and prolong, any negative event through thinking it through over and over. The animals know that the danger has passed and are able to return to a balanced state. Humans, on the other hand, not only think about the danger and re-enact it in their heads and nervous system, but they also share the bad news with others and create scenarios around what else might have happened, catastrophising until the nervous system becomes completely wound up.
Another ‘ability’ that humans have over animals is that they can also create a danger from out of nowhere, simply by using a thought. If I ‘think’ something is wrong and continue to pursue this thought, then the brain picks up on the message and the whole survival mode is kicked into action again: A bill arrives in the post and I immediately see myself out on the streets, having lost the house etc. I have a thought that someone doesn’t like me and I’m off again… Our thoughts pull us around like puppet masters and we, not only jump around to them, but we also start bringing in other stories and story lines to build more catastrophes and send ourselves into a stress-filled hormonal frenzy.
This is where the peddle analogy comes in. Understanding how we’ve put our foot on the accelerator to speed up the stress response, we will now benefit from knowing how we can activate the relax and balance response. Put simply, we can follow a step by step method that leads to self-regulation, emotional regulation, raised awareness, focussed attention and concentration:
Step 1: Recognise what is happening in the body and mind. Ie recognise sensations are occurring and thoughts are occurring.
Step 2: Notice sensations without labelling them with an emotion. Eg ‘Ah, there is a sensation in my stomach’ rather than ‘I’m anxious/ sick/ fearful’ etc. Notice and interrupt negative and unskilful thoughts by observing them objectively and perhaps noticing if they are thoughts of the past or the future.
Step 3: Have the intention to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PMS) through breathing slowly, deeply, regularly and evenly. The vagus nerve will be communicating with the brain- ‘ Hey- nice deep, even breathing. Wouldn’t be doing that if we were in danger so all must be well. Let’s send in those wellness hormones cos now we have time for growth and repair’.
Step 4: Become aware of the subtle changes in body state. Notice how, when the nervous system is in balance the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is back on line and things don’t seem quite that bad: we can work out a way of questioning or paying the bill. We can rationalise that, just because X didn’t speak to us yesterday, doesn’t mean they don’t like us. They may have been pre-occupied and, even if it’s true they’re not overly fond of us, we can allow them to have their opinion without it affecting us. We are aware that we can choose how to perceive and respond to people and events.
Step 5 : Staying in this awareness for a little while longer, knowing we are encouraging the wellness, growth and repair hormones to circulate in our bloodstream, notice how the body is right now. Notice how the mind is too. When the mind is distracted and returns to issues and ‘concerns’, bring the attention back to the breath and affirm ‘ I choose calm/ I choose peace’ or whatever other mantra resonates with you. You are now in the driver’s seat and can choose which direction to be travelling in so that you are more able to deal with life’s ups and downs in a calm and skilful manner.
You are the creator of your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Understanding how your body works, how your mind works and how the two work as one, you are now ready to practice daily these skills of awareness and self-regulation, so that you can choose where to place your attention or focus. You cannot always choose what is happening around you but, with practice, you can choose what is happening in your inner environment so that you create the life you wish to live. This in turn will have a knock-on effect to those around you and further afield. If you choose to create moments of peace, love and calm you will be adding your tiny but profound thread of joy into the tapestry that we are all creating collectively.
In 2020 what do you choose to create?