One of the striking features of the current crisis is its insidious impact on our nervous system and our stress resilience.

The obvious effects of uncertainty and fear have been exquisitely combined with deprivation from essential ways to co-regulate our nervous system and feel safe: namely varied social interactions and playful activities…

With lockdown easing there is hope that we will be able to restore some equilibrium to our lives but after a long winter of somewhat boring, but predictable, reliability, you might find yourself caught in “Lockdown Freeze”; a feeling that is not helped by the many contradictory messages concerning the usefulness and safety of the vaccine solution eagerly awaited until now, nor by the divisive threats from our authorities should we choose to question the sudden loss of our liberties.

Our autonomic nervous system is wired to fluctuate from action to relaxation depending on the demands of the day. However, persistent stress can have similar effects to intense stress, and push our nervous system into a permanent overwhelm and hard-to-shake freeze response. This can lead to inaction, anxiety, and eventually, if we cannot find ways to mobilise ourselves again, depression.

The adaptability and flexibility of our nervous system is a measure of our stress resilience. Our ability to flow from inaction to action and eventually relaxation is intimately linked to the fitness of our autonomic nervous system. Like any other system it needs to be exercised through repetition and a variety of experiences each designed to develop either flexibility, strength, and core (inner) stability.

The following are ways in which we can positively exercise our nervous system:

  • Mindfulness (observation without judgement) improves self-esteem and (core) stability.

Tuning into the symptoms of our stress response, and recognising where we are on the “autonomic ladder”, gives us agency over our feelings, opening the way for understanding and eventually choice.
Ask yourself: are you in a relaxed and comfortable state? or triggered to action because you are feeling challenged? or frozen and apathetic because you are overwhelmed or/and gripped by anxiety and depression?
The more we tune into our body, and the many variations and physical hallmarks of the above states, the more we grow in awareness of what is the stable part of ourselves that is undisturbed by the vagaries of life’s experiences and is our “Spiritual Core”.

  • Vagal toning exercises specifically strengthen the neural circuits of autonomic regulation and wellbeing.

Those are described in a previously published article

  • Playful activities and social interactions help develop autonomic flexibility.

Even if not yet fully possible, planning those will make a measurable impact on the neuro-biology of wellbeing. There are statistics showing that anticipating a holiday is often as enjoyable and uplifting as the holiday itself!
You can start by planning a visit to the museum, downtime with a loved one or a gathering with friends and family, and instantly prime your nervous system out of apathy. To think up new ways to connect with others and build enjoyable time in our lives stimulates positive imagination for possibilities and increases adaptability when faced with stress and difficult decisions.

  • Detoxification (from exposure to challenging inputs and stressful triggers) reduces stress load.

Not all stressors are beyond our control, in fact the majority of those are well within our control, but we tend to develop a certain attachment to them because they are stimulating in some ways and, to most of us mortals, no stimulation feels very dull indeed! When it comes to stimulation, it is about careful titrating between excess and lack.
Some stimulants/stressors are particularly poisonous and only the lowest dose is tolerable; often healthy substitutes are easier to implement than self-control!
Excess chemical stimulants such as caffeine, drugs and alcohol all have the potential to reduce resilience to stress, but there are many other behaviours with similarly (or perhaps worse) damaging effects: for example consuming violence (video games, films etc.), mindlessly listening to the news, poorly attending to sleep, repeatedly using destructive language, lying/pretending, etc.

  • Asserting healthy boundaries requires compassion, and makes sharing our stress-load possible.

The quality of our relationships is also what makes us adaptable. Exchanging, sharing (joys as well as pains), and connecting with others is a uniquely functional way to co-regulate our autonomic nervous system. The more we develop authentic and truthful relationships, the stronger our fallback network when we are stressed and challenged. This cannot be achieved without a sense of boundaries, the honesty to express our limitations, and the kindness to respect others'.

  • Self-nourishing activities, relaxation, guided meditations and breathing exercises all tend to the neuro-biology of wellbeing.

Autonomic regulation requires reflective time, as well as interactive time, to process the day and to restore calm.
Nourishing activities are defined by their wellbeing-enhancing effects; they include all forms of bodywork treatments, exercising, reading, practicing hobbies, love-making and expressing gratitude…😊

Thank you for reading this article, I hope that you found it useful!

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