Easing Stress and Restoring a Settled Nervous System

Many of my clients and friends have told me that they feel stressed out much of the time. The psychiatry field labels this as “anxiety” and prescribes medications. But there are a number of factors at play in being stressed out, and many strategies for easing stress without resorting to medications.

First, a bit of background about the brain and the gut. Humans have a three-part brain: 1) the pre-frontal cortex, which handles thoughts, ideas and concepts, 2) the mid brain, which deals with feelings and emotions, and 3) the old brain, situated at the base of the skull, which communicates with the nervous system. Because stress is experienced in the body, it is not always very effective to just try to talk our way out of stress with thoughts and ideas – we must address the nervous system to work with all the parts of the brain & body together.

Awareness is the first step. To learn to ease stress we have to get good at reading our body sensations and “tuning” our nervous system. This means learning to recognize when we feel stressed and to notice what is happening in our body in that moment. If one part of our body feels constricted or tight, we can re-focus on another area where we experience more ease, and actually ease our stress in the process. We can also combine body sensation work with cognitive tools like using a “toolbox” of positive imagery to give ourselves messages that help quiet our nervous system and encourage ease. We can identify what stimuli are triggering for our nervous system and try to minimize or avoid those input. Somatic Experiencing Practitioners are trained to help with that.

Caring for the body, and especially the gut, can also have a profound effect on how the nervous system handles stress. The old brain is deeply connected, via the vagus nerve system, to the heart and the digestive tract. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, and because it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen, has the widest distribution in the body. Although this relationship is not completely understood, many neurophysiologists now believe that the quality of our gut health strongly affects the overall state of our nervous system. Eating prebiotic and probiotic foods, and avoiding gut biocides like Round Up, contribute to a healthy gut. And a healthy gut can send powerful signals of well-being and stress reduction to the greater nervous system.

Community is very important. We can learn to use our positive relationships with others to help generate a felt sense of safety that can also allow our nervous system to relax. In many indigenous cultures for thousands of years people have sung, danced and told stories around the fire to use community connection to ease the stress of traumatic community experiences and we continue to need to serve that way for each other. Isolation makes stress worse and a sense of belonging tends to ease it somewhat.

A daily spiritual practice can also be very helpful to our nervous system. I recommend reading my article
 “Unifying Body, Mind, Heart & Spirit and Finding Our Mojo” for some suggestions about how to use a daily practice and Nature exercises to increase our sense of purpose and well-being.

There is not one right method to ease stress. Rather, it is useful to have many tools and supports and use them to tune and support our nervous system so we can gradually ease our stress. Feel free to contact me with questions.

I want to give credit and thanks to Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Stephen Porges and Bruce Perry, MD who are seminal writers, investigators and educators about the human nervous system.