Harness the Power of a Balanced Nervous System: Train Your Body with My 8-Week Program
Today, I’ll show you how you can intervene at the body level to better cope with stress. There’s an underestimated and underutilized tool for controlling the unconscious physiological response to stress: the body’s ability to learn to relax on command, to respond with relaxation to a stimulus of our choosing.
In the first part, I’ll briefly describe the role of the autonomic nervous system in relation to stress and why it’s important to physically relax. However, the second part of the article is the most valuable and crucial: a self-guided 8-week program to train your body to efficiently and rapidly enter the parasympathetic state. This program will help improve your physical and mental health, enhance your emotional resilience, and overall well-being.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responsible for the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) responsible for rest and digestion. Our physical and emotional responses to stress are directly influenced by these two systems. Understanding this mechanism is essential; otherwise, we won’t consciously influence this automatic mechanism.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) has a profound influence on our physical and emotional responses, governing the positive spectrum of sensations and emotions. It acts as an internal balancing element, counteracting hyperactivation responses and stress initiated by the sympathetic nervous system. It coordinates essential functions such as reducing heart rate, improving digestion, cell regeneration, and mental regeneration during sleep. Acting from this system gives us a clearer mind, better mood, improved concentration, and reduced fatigue.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), often called “fight or flight,” also influences our physical and emotional responses but from the negative end of the sensation spectrum, depending on perceived danger or stress situations (remember the discussion on how we interpret an event?). This system represents our body’s alarm, preparing us to face challenges and threats, putting us in a state of increased alertness and energy. While this response is vital for survival, an overactive sympathetic system can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, various physical health problems, etc. SNS can trigger feelings of tension, anxiety, or anger and is responsible for irritable, annoyed, and unstable moods.
Body Training Guide to Transition from SNS to PNS
Our body transitions between SNS and PNS automatically, unconsciously. We perceive reality through our five senses, the brain interprets it based on reflexes and past experiences, and the nervous system takes it from there. All of this happens relatively outside our conscious field, with great speed, meaning that alongside maximum efficiency, we also have some not always useful stereotypes. When we do exercises that train our body to shift into the PNS, we consciously take control of our automatic physical and emotional reactions, positively influencing our adaptability and resilience.
8-Week Body Training Program for Relaxation and Recovery
Duration: 8 weeks
- 15 min/day for breathing exercises
- 20 min x 3/week for autogenic training
- 10 min x 3 for initial, intermediate, and final assessments
- Optional: 15 min/day for reflection journal
- Learn deep breathing
- Learn progressive muscle relaxation
- Train the body to relax on command
- Reduce stress levels
- Ability to relax on command (through deep breathing or commanding a muscle to relax)
- Reduced stress levels compared to the initial assessment
- Improved sleep
- Better self-control
- Enhanced overall mood
- Complete the State Trait Anxiety Inventory self-assessment questionnaire at the beginning of the 8-week practice.
- Score 20-37 indicates low or no anxiety, 38-44 indicates moderate anxiety, 45-80 indicates high anxiety.
- This serves as your starting point. Repeat the assessment after 4 weeks and at the end of the 8-week practice. Compare the results.
- Breathing Exercise:
- 4 breaths with a 6 x 6/min rhythm x 15min/day + visualization of a positive moment/a melody that gives you a good feeling.
- Choose a moment or a melody that fills you with a sense of well-being, love, joy, or relaxation. Visualize that moment or melody and remain attentive to it throughout the 15 minutes. Breathe as follows: inhale deeply through the nose for 4 counts, exhale slowly through the mouth or nose for 6 counts. One inhale+exhale cycle takes 10 seconds, 6 breaths per minute. You can use a smartwatch or a phone app to help with counting. The focus is not on counting and doing it perfectly but on recalling the pleasant memory or melody and on deep inhaling and prolonged exhaling.
- Autogenic Training/Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
- In the first week, do this muscle relaxation exercise every day. In the following weeks, do it three times a week.
- Choose a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed during practice.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Observe your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose and exhale gently through the mouth. Feel how your breath brings calmness to your body.
- Tense and then relax your muscles one by one, starting from your toe and moving up to your head. On inhale, tense the muscle; on exhale, release the tension.
- After reaching the crown, move down your body and say to yourself, “My right arm is heavy and warm.” “My left arm is heavy and warm.”
- Visualize your right arm (or the focused part) becoming heavy and warm. Feel the sensation spreading throughout your entire arm.
- Switch sides, move to the left arm, repeat the instruction, and feel your left arm becoming heavy and warm.
- Continue the process. Move to your legs, chest, and head, giving the instruction and seeing each part of your body warm and heavy.
- Continue the process as desired. With each repetition, you will feel deeper and faster relaxation and a sense of deep peace.
- To return from the relaxed state, bring attention to the surface you are on, the room you are in, start moving your body gently, stretch, and open your eyes. Take a few moments to reconnect with the surroundings. You should feel more relaxed and revitalized.
- You can do the exercise in the evening before bedtime and fall asleep directly. You can do the exercise after lunch or whenever you need a break. Set a specific time of day for the exercise.
We can influence our physiological stress response. Once we do that, we diminish the negative impact of stress and increase our physical and mental resilience. Optimal physiological functioning allows optimal cognitive functioning. We will have clarity, focus, and efficient interpretations of reality. This training program allows you to harness the power of a balanced nervous system for a mental and physical state of well-being. Train yourself, and you will see the results! Persevere. It’s not about perfection; it’s about perseverance.
If you find it challenging to relax or focus even after these eight weeks of attempts, I recommend seeking a psychotherapist. Emotions or life situations that require more attention or reflection may arise during the program. Don’t hesitate to seek a psychotherapist if you want to go through the process with someone. Good luck!