Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Turning Off Stress: The Parasympathetic Nervous System And Spiritual Development



Contents
Introduction
Turning off Stress
How to do the Exercises
Simplified Instructions
Related Articles


Introduction

Your sympathetic nervous system produces your body's response to stress. Your parasympathetic nervous system turns off your body's response to stress.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition. Anything that activates the parasympathetic nervous system suppresses the sympathetic nervous system and helps you to relax, to turn off stress. In this article I will describe easy exercises you can do that will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, help you to develop it, and teach you how to turn off stress.

The opposite effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are similar to the way the analytical neural network in the brain and the empathic-intuitive network cannot both be in use at the same time (which I have written about on my web site). In our modern civilization, many people become unbalanced with their analytical network being overdeveloped and their empathic network underdeveloped. This can make them callous. Meditation helps to develop the empathic network bringing the analytical and empathic networks into balance. This is one reason meditation can be a helpful practice in spiritual development and psychic development.

Learning to turn off stress is also helpful in spiritual development because when you are stressed, you are more likely to be thinking about yourself and your problems ie. being egocentric. But when you are relaxed, you are less likely to be thinking about yourself and more likely to be in harmony with spiritual values like love, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance etc. And just like with the analytical and empathic networks in the brain, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can get out of balance. In our busy modern society people experience a lot of stress and their sympathetic nervous system can become overdeveloped and their parasympathetic nervous system can become underdeveloped. Doing exercises like those described below can help you to develop your parasympathetic nervous system and bring it into balance with your sympathetic nervous system.

There are also many undesirable effects of stress on physical and mental health so developing the parasympathetic nervous system, learning to turn off stress, can make your life better in many ways.

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Turning off Stress

The best way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and turn off stress that I know of is to do exercises which involve gently moving or stretching your muscles while exhaling slowly as you count to ten. This technique is extremely effective because it combines four separate methods for activating the parasympathetic nervous system in one technique:

  • Deep Breathing
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Body Awareness
  • Meditation

Some other relaxation techniques such as guided meditations, visualizations, hypnotic inductions, etc. work by making you sleepy or putting you in an altered state of consciousness, and when you return to normal consciousness, the stress comes back. This technique works by turning off the body's stress response, and the effect stays with you long after you are done. When practiced over a period of weeks or months it can strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system improving your ability to turn off stress and keep it turned off.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition. Anything that counters the sympathetic nervous system's stress response activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps turn off stress. The stress response involves increased muscle tension, mental fixation on the source of the stress, and shallow rapid breathing. By moving slowly and gently and or stretching your muscles, you counter muscle tension. By meditating, ie. focusing your attention on your breathing, body movements, and counting, you counter mental fixation. By breathing slowly and deeply, you counter shallow rapid breathing. Deep breathing and meditation alone can be relaxing but when you combine them and add stretches or gentle slow movements you counter the stress response on multiple levels and together they form a powerful way to turn off stress.

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How to do the Exercises

Here are a few pointers on doing this type of exercise.

  • If you have back trouble or any other type of physical ailment, don't do anything that would be bad for your condition. Consult with a doctor if necessary.
  • You can use any combination of:
    • Yoga postures
    • Stretches recommended for use before a workout
    • Tai Chi movements
    • Qi Gong movements - For example, 8 Brocades or Ba Duan Jin (Baduanjin) can be done sitting or standing. There is a diagram at Tai Chi Village that is useful as a memory aid and Wikipedia has a brief description of each movement.
    • Progressive muscular relaxation - This can be particularly helpful when you are tense or worried and you feel tension throughout your entire body which is hard to relax.
    • Isometric exercises (Allow several seconds between exercises to let your muscles relax).
  • The type of movements and stretches should not be strenuous, they should be relaxing, and you should not stretch beyond what is comfortable, the purpose is to relax.
  • Remember to exhale slowly counting to ten as you do each posture or movement, or for simple movements such as those used in progressive muscular relaxation, exhale slowly counting five to ten repetitions of the movement. You don't have to count exactly to ten while exhaling - do whatever number feels most relaxing. If you find yourself counting too high, count more slowly. Or you can just say to yourself, "in" as you inhale, and "out" as you exhale.
  • Try to relax your whole body as you exhale and try to notice the feeling of relaxation in your whole body as you relax. Do the same as you inhale, try to relax your whole body and notice the feeling of relaxation in your whole body. This will help make turning off stress a conscious process. It can also be helpful to practice sitting in a chair, relaxing your whole body as you inhale, relaxing your whole body as you exhale and noticing the feeling of relaxation in your whole body.
  • Ten to twenty minutes of gentle stretches and/or slow gentle movements is an appropriate length for a session.
  • You can do longer sessions or multiple sessions per day if you want to.
  • If you practice the form of Serenity Meditation I describe on my web site, you can try to notice the pleasant feeling of relaxation as you inhale and exhale, and if that makes you want to smile go ahead and smile and notice the pleasant feelings that are released when you smile.
  • You can do some or all of the session sitting in a chair if you use postures and movements that can be done while sitting.
  • You can also use this technique during daily activities. Breathe slowly, move in a relaxed way, and notice the feeling of relaxation while you do daily activities like washing the dishes, walking, taking a shower, etc. It is commonly believed that people are tense and hurried because they are stressed. But if you put what you learn from these exercises into practice in daily life, you might see that it is also true that people are stressed because they are tense and hurried. When you relax and slow down you feel less stressed. This is because the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition. Anything that reduces the effects of one system does it by activating the other system.
  • (Other causes of stress: Sometimes stress can be caused by low blood sugar. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced when your blood sugar is low and can cause you to feel stress. Low blood sugar can occur for different reasons that can vary from person to person. (Some people may experience low blood sugar if they haven't eaten for several hours.) If you feel stress due to low blood sugar, you may feel better after your next meal if it includes carbohydrates. You can also sometimes raise your blood sugar by doing a few minutes of vigorous anaerobic exercises such as calisthenics (push-ups, pull-ups, squats, etc.), weight lifting, or sprinting. The body responds to vigorous exercise by releasing stored sugar into the bloodstream to provide energy for the physical activity. Exercising enough to raise your heart rate and your rate of respiration may raise your blood sugar levels and stop the stressful effects of low blood sugar.)

These kinds of exercises together with Meditation make up a very powerful system for spiritual development.

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Simplified Instructions

Here is a simplified form of his technique that is very easy to do: Sit comfortably the way you normally do, for example, when watching TV or eating dinner. Try to relax your whole body. Notice if there is any tension in your body such as in your jaw, or shoulders and try to relax it. Then hold your hands in front of your abdomen with your palms facing each other a few inches apart. As you inhale, slowly separate your hands by moving them apart a foot or two while slowly saying to yourself, "in". Then slowly bring the hands back together until they are a few inches apart while slowly saying to yourself, "out". Repeat this for ten to twenty minutes. Feel free to make slight variations in the movements of the hands or arms to produce a more graceful flowing movement.

You can do this lying down with a slight modification: Instead of moving your hands apart, keep your hands at your sides and gently and slowly open and close your hands as you slowly inhale and exhale. Any simple movement will work because the parasympathetic nervous system acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system. Any slow gentle movement in one part of the body activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps to counteract muscle tension and other effects of stress throughout the mind and body.

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Related articles from my blog:

  • Spiritual Living: Hacking Your Brain Chemistry Without Drugs

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