As the holidays creep closer, the pressure to jam more into each day increases. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, doing less will actually help you get more done. Here’s how.
A tremendous amount of mental and physical activity takes place in the background of our awareness. Experts suggest up to 90 per cent of our reactions, thoughts and behaviours are initiated from the subconscious mind. All of these electrical impulses, or thoughts, require energy. Many of these automatic decisions may not be in congruence with your current priorities, but you keep doing them anyway as reflexes and habits. For example, you may have a willful commitment to eating healthier, but late-night cravings for ice cream when you can’t sleep derail you regularly. Sometimes, you can’t even recall eating it at all! This conflict can cause stress on the system about which we are oblivious.
Most of us think of stress as really tragic events or other big-ticket changes in your life. Most people, because they function quite capably in their life’s work, don’t even feel stressed. By the time we report stress to our doctor or other caregiver, the symptoms of imbalance have deeply impacted our physical and emotional health.
Stress is an inherent part of being human. All of us experience stress or we couldn’t get out of bed each day. Stress is a normal and healthy set of physiological markers (such as increased heart rate, tension in large muscle groups, increased adrenalin, etc.) that allow us to get things done and feel alert. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the relaxation response. Again, this is a specific set of physiological markers that creates an environment in the body for repair, digestion and reorganizing. Ideally, the human animal is equally balanced in the course of a day between activity and rest. The flow between the two states of activity and rest is a continuum and we constantly float along that spectrum. Even in the course of one breath, there is a little movement between activity and rest.
As stress has become more and more associated with negative health outcomes, intensive research has shown that stress response happens in modern life far more often than we realize. Stress, or activity, is generated in the sympathetic nervous system any time we feel the mildest form of a survival threat. An update on your computer platform; searching for a parking spot; worrying that that last joke was well received – these common occurrences generate the biochemical changes in your body that take away from the reparative and restorative rest we so desperately need. Add in a few bigger ticket stressors such as financial or family concerns and our system is drawn chronically into sympathetic nervous system activation too often and for too long.
Choosing to invest your energy in the chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system prematurely wears you out. It contributes to sleep disturbances, skin rashes, arthritic pain, sharp tempers and a lack of creativity, to name a few symptoms. Remember – modern life inherently pushes you to this imbalance. Perhaps most compelling is that the holidays are potentially a time for connection, family and celebrating what is wonderful in our lives. When we are depleted, the fatigue prevents us from being truly present and enjoying the season as much as we could.
What we think of as “relaxing”, really isn’t.
Socializing – while very enjoyable, the noise, heavy food, alcohol, pressure to be witty, all add up to a “survival threat.” It stimulates your sympathetic nervous system.
Exercise – movement is extremely important but exercise alone, especially movement that is in any way associated measuring, evaluating or competing, activates the sympathetic nervous system. As the adrenalin and other hormones of the stress response are produced to answer the call of exercise, they are burned off so we feel more balanced when we finished. There has been no rest though.
Media – watching television or catching up on podcasts allows physical stillness but is in no way restful for the nervous system. Studies show that the powerful emotional centres of the brain react to the images and ideas on media as if they were happening directly to us. Our rational brains can distinguish the difference, but that part of your brain is not consciously directing these reflexive responses.
Relaxation is an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are separate nerves that enervate your organs and tissues for this branch of the autonomic nervous system. Remember, we flow along the continuum throughout the day and can feel relatively ‘relaxed’ when we are not actually in the relaxation response. To create the flow of neurotransmitters and biochemical markers that will truly help us heal, we need to take rest seriously.
Modern society is the most complex ever recorded so your lives probably reflect that. Besides the obvious advice to edit activities and eat healthy, here are a couple interventions that can help you “power rest”. Introducing regular and repeated therapeutic relaxation into your daily routine recalibrates your brain giving you greater focus and strength.
Strategy #1: Alternate Nostril Breathing
This ancient breathing technique alternately stimulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to help you create a better flow along the continuum. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Sit in a chair with an upright and alert posture. (Instructional video here.) Feel free to play some uplifting and relaxing music in the background (try this). Using your right hand, place the thumb over the right nostril. Place the ring finger over the left nostril. The index and middle finger can curl down into the palm, or lightly rest them between the eye brows. Inhale only through the left side then adjust fingers so exhale is only through the right. Stay on the right side to inhale, then adjust fingers to exhale on the left. This is one round. Relax shoulders, align head over the rest of the spine. Repeat until the time goes off. This breathing pattern may help you feel more balanced and prepare for deeper stages of relaxation.
Strategy #2: Legs Up the Chair Pose
This restorative yoga posture inverts the play of gravity on the body, inducing a physical sense of relaxation. It alleviates lower leg swelling, sore feet, aching hips, backs and knees (all symptoms of marathon holiday parties and shopping). To do, (instructional video here) utilize a kitchen or living room chair, or couch. Align the legs so that the calves are supported by the seat with the edge of the seat in the crooks of your knees. Place a pillow or folded blanket under your sacrum to elevate your hips slightly. A pillow might feel nice under your neck. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. As little as five minutes can bring new energy but continuing for up to 20 is recommended. Adding an eye pillow or cool cloth will reduce lines and swelling around eyes.
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