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How Can You Reduce Stress?

Would you like to reduce and manage your stress levels?

I’ve been on a fascinating learning curve regarding how stress affects our nervous system. The great news is that there are ways that we can regulate our nervous systems which have a positive effect on our stress levels and our health. This article serves to explain why and how you can regulate your nervous system.

Your Nervous System

Your nervous system is your body’s command centre. It’s made up of your brain, spinal cord and nerves. Your nervous system works by sending messages, or electrical signals, between your brain and all the other parts of your body. These signals tell you to breathe, move, speak and see, for example. Your nervous system keeps track of what’s going on inside and outside of your body and decides how to respond to any situation you’re in.

The Effect of Stress on your Nervous System

Our nervous system responds to perceived danger in a number of ways.

The fight, flight, or freeze response is how the body responds to perceived threats. It is involuntary and involves a number of physiological changes that help someone prepare to:

Fight Response: take action to eliminate the danger

Flight Response: take action to escape the danger

Freeze Response: freeze, become immobile

A stressful situation, whether environmental or psychological, can activate a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggers an acute stress response called the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system drives freezing (shutdown- dorsal vagal system).

Polyvagal theory views the parasympathetic nervous system as being split into two distinct branches: a “ventral vagal system” which supports social engagement, and a “dorsal vagal system” which supports immobilisation behaviours, both “rest and digest” and defensive immobilisation or “shutdown”.

When the perceived danger is acute, such as being in the way of a moving car, the changes to your body help you to jump out of the way to avoid danger and be safe. Your nervous system will return to its normal state as will your bodily functions. The normal state is where you feel safe and social (ventral vagal system).

However, when the perceived danger is psychological and chronic in nature, your nervous system remains activated leading to a continual higher stress level. This ongoing higher activation of your nervous system has detrimental health effects, both mental and physical.

Chronic stress can lead to a change in the homeostatic balance of your nervous system, meaning that the “normal” level to which it returns is higher than it should be. This puts constant pressure on your nervous system and can result in health issues.

Traumatic experiences can result in a constant feeling of danger, of not feeling safe, resulting in chronic over-activation of the nervous system.

Regulating our Nervous System

The ideal situation is where your nervous system returns to its safe and social (ventral vagal) state and the longer it’s in this state, the better your health and feeling of well-being is. You should strive to regulate your nervous system to return back to the ventral vagal state.

To do this, you must feel safe and social. If you’re feeling anxious and stressed, your nervous system is activated and you cannot control this process.

The challenge is, that if you’re used to feeling stressed, you don’t even notice this, it has become your norm. You may not even remember how it is to feel safe and secure for a significant period of time.

What can you do to help you feel safe and social and allow your nervous system to return to a safe and social state?

Step 1: Grounding Exercise

Start with a grounding exercise. Sit with both feet on the ground. You should ideally sit with a straight spine and your hands in your lap. Follow your breathing in and out for a few minutes and feel your feet on the ground. Focus on your breathing and your body.

Step 2: Notice how your Body is

Become more aware of your body. Do a body scan from head to feet or from feet to head. Focus on each body part and relax it on the outbreath. Notice any areas of tension or pain. Breath to each of these areas a few times, relaxing it on each outbreath.

Step 3: Notice how your Emotions are

You can do this by taking time to feel what your feelings are at this present moment. Are you anxious or calm? Do you feel expansive or contracted? Are you feeling rushed and pressured or calm? Just notice without judgement. Where are the feelings in your body? Go to this part and try to give the emotion a little more space. Relax it on each outbreath. Note how it changes. If you feel nothing at all, this is also a feeling. Feel the nothingness for a few in and outbreaths. Note if anything changes.

Step 4: Notice your Thoughts

Notice your thoughts. Is your mind racing or calm? What is it saying? Don’t get caught up in the narrative. If you do, gently come back to your breathing and into your body again. Note the effect that your thoughts have on your feelings.

Step 5: Be Curious and Courageous

Be curious and courageous and explore where your stress, anxiety or fear come from. What are you scared of in your current situation right now? Is the danger real in the present moment? Are you feeling stressed or fearful due to something you’re anticipating in the future or about something that happened in the past? Are you safe in this moment?

If you are safe in the present moment, say, “I am safe now” and note the effect.

The more frequently you practice the above and the more aware you become of what triggers your stress, the more able you are to take the necessary steps to change your perception or your environment. Having someone to help you through this process can be very helpful.

If you would like to follow a guided grounding practice, use this link: https://imajencoaching.com/resources/ and find the audio “A Grounding Practice”

Conclusion

Regularly regulating our nervous systems and reducing stress has long-term, sustainable health benefits. It may even prevent or reduce the effects of auto-immune diseases. It’s certainly worth regularly paying attention to and ensuring frequent regulation of your nervous system!

As the saying goes, “You cannot change what you cannot see.”

Give it a try.

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