Updated: Dec 6, 2022
I worked all weekend to put the garden to rest. Harvested the last herbs and roots, cut down perennials, and spread fresh, fragrant compost full of nutrients around plants, bushes and trees. As I put all my energy into this physical work, being in intimate connection with the Earth, I began to reflect on how Nature knows what is most appropriate in each season to go with the flow and preserve life.
Winter is upon us and in preparation for this time of dormancy, plants are sending all the resources, all the energy they take in downward in their roots. This energy-saving strategy allows them to restore and grow back in spring. Most wild animals also adopt energy-saving strategies to face the food scarcity that the new season will inevitably bring. Whether it will be migrating, moving, modifying certain physical characteristics, or hibernating, all those strategies aim to survive the rusticity of winter.
Resting and our nervous system
We too need to put ourselves at rest. The predominant Yin energy at this time of the year invites us to refuge and explore inward. It is a time to consolidate and cut back from the previous season of our life. A time to see, feel, and reflect on the true value and importance of life. Attuning to the characteristics of the season and responding to the invitation to mimic all life on Earth, we need to pause, to rest so that we can restore our body, mind and soul and grow back healthy to thrive on the following part of our life.
Lately, I have been very interested in how our autonomous nervous system (ANS) works and all the impacts this part of our brain has on our lives. Studying this important scientific field, I realized that our capacity to deeply rest is not estranged from how properly this important part of our brain functions.
The autonomous nervous system (ANS) is composed of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and has the overall responsibility of continuously regulating our body and making sure that we are in a state of balance. Among other things, the autonomous nervous system regulates our body temperature, our blood pressure, and the sugar level in our blood and monitors our metabolism. To achieve this goal, the autonomous nervous system (ANS) analyzes in real time the sensory information received from the vagus nerve and all other nerves dispersed in our body. The autonomous nervous system (ANS) is looking for whether we are in a safe, dangerous, or life-threatening situation.
Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the part of our nervous system that manages to quickly mobilize the existing reserves of the body to face an external challenge. This is the part of our brain known to engage in the fight or flight response in stressful situations. Those protective and defensive mechanisms required intense muscular action (for example, quickly moving to avoid being hit by a car) and a lot of energy. To optimize the relationship we have with the environment, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) will increase the metabolic output so that we can deal with and respond appropriately to whatever is in front of us.
Our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the part of our nervous system in charge of conserving our energy and optimizing the function of our internal viscera. This is the part of our brain known to engage the rest and digest state. This is a state of restoration and conservation of bodily energy. To facilitate the resting of our vital organs, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) will conserve energy by, stopping the releasing of adrenaline, relaxing our muscles, and slowing our heart rate among other things.
A perfectly functional autonomous nervous system (ANS) has the ability to provide the appropriate internal state to shift in both internal (PNS) and external (SNS) demands. This is what we call auto-regulation. When our autonomous nervous system (ANS) auto-regulates properly, we find ourselves in a window of tolerance and we experience resilience. The concept of the window of tolerance was coined by Dr. Dan Siegel and is defined as the optimal zone of arousal in which a person would be able to function and deal with day-to-day stress most effectively. In that space, life and stressful situations still happen but after being able to mobilize the required energy to speak to a public event, meet an important delay at work or run to catch a plane, our autonomous nervous system is able, when those situations are over, to come back to a state of calm and rest.
When dysregulation happens
However, our lifestyle, acute or chronic stress, unprocessed emotions, past experiences, and traumas (small and big), continuously trigger our autonomous nervous system (ANS) and bring it into a state of dysregulation where it loses its ability to auto-regulate. When it happens, we then get pushed out of our window of tolerance on one end or the other. On one end, even if we are in a safe environment, we reach a chronic state of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. This is hyperarousal. In that state, we feel hypervigilant, angry, anxious, and aggressive. We struggle to switch off and relax, have issues with sleep, and can experience insomnia. On the other end, the hypoarousal state will manifest when we can’t take it anymore, when everything seems to just be too much. We feel overwhelmed. In that situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) will engage in an abnormal defensive response and will start to shut down and freeze. That’s when we experience extreme fatigue, exhaustion, heaviness, emotional numbness, depression, suicidal ideation, and even chronic pain.
And whether we are in a state of hyper or hypoarousal, one of the main consequences is that our autonomous nervous system (ANS) keeps misreading the sensory information available and translating neutral signals as dangerous or even life-threatening. We then get stuck in a loop. A few years ago I was stuck in one of those loops. I thought I was responsible for that situation. I thought it was my fault if I was angry all the time and unable to be calm and grounded. I was so tired. I thought I was a bad person unable to deal with the challenges of life that everybody else seemed to manage perfectly well. I now know it is not true. I now know it was my autonomous nervous system (ANS) that was trying to protect me and eventually got dysregulated. When I look back on this woman I was, I feel a lot of compassion toward her and the distress she was experiencing daily.
We know that what pushed our nervous system out of balance is this perceived sense of danger. But the good news is that we can train and rewire our brains so that we can get back to a healthy life. To heal, our autonomous nervous system (ANS) needs to experience safety. Once our autonomous nervous system feels safe again, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) will decrease and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) will increase both to a level allowing us to be back in our window of tolerance and be able to deal with the stress of our everyday life.
But be careful. This sense of safety has to be felt in the body, at a cellular, a neuronal level. It is not about us thinking our way to feeling safe. It is our nervous system getting the sensory information that we are safe. How do we do that?
The art of self-regulation
Many areas of our lives can and ultimately have to be addressed to help our nervous system supports us. At a physical level, what we eat, how we breathe, and our daily routines for sleep and exercise for example are all factors that can trigger our autonomous nervous system (ANS). At an emotional level, our pasts experiences, our beliefs about life and ourselves, and how we process emotions can in turn affect the response of our autonomous nervous system (ANS).
Somatic practices like Qigong are wonderful tools to learn to be in our bodies and self-regulate. Qigong, in particular, uses many elements that are known to stimulate the nervous system in a positive way: deep and slow breathing, fluid and intention-based movements, vibrational healing sounds, Qi Point Therapy (acupressure) and self-massage, connection to nature, and visualization and meditation. These practices allow our systems to release and restore so that we can experience a restorative state where we cultivate calm, presence, aliveness, curiosity, and connection.
Returning to our body is the answer to fully appreciating this time of restoration and entering this place of deep rest.
May you find your way!