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Understanding and working with your nervous system to boost energy and productivity




In today's fast-paced world, finding ways to maximise our energy and productivity is crucial for maintaining a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle. Often overlooked, the nervous system plays a vital role in regulating our energy levels and overall wellbeing. I have personally experienced the transformative power of understanding and working with the nervous system when I learnt about it during my own burnout recovery in 2020. Now as a Wellbeing Coach I want to spread the word and help as many people to understand it for themselves.


In this blog, we will explore the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve, uncovering practical strategies to work with these important systems to help you thrive.


1. Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System:


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the master regulator of our body's functions, including heartbeat, digestion, breathing, and stress response. It consists of two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.


You can think of them as like the accelerator and the break on a car.


Sympathetic Nervous System


Your sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for action and is commonly known as the "fight-or-flight" response. When you’re faced with a perceived threat of any kind, whether that’s physical or emotional, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and brings out involuntary responses like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, slowing down of our digestive system, heightened awareness and a spike in our stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Your body is literally getting ready to fight or run away.

Parasympathetic Nervous System


Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for restoring and rejuvenating your body. It promotes a state of calm, often referred to as the "rest-and-digest" response. This is what we’re in when we sleep soundly, and when we’re watching TV, feeling content and at peace. This state slows down certain responses in the body like our heart rate, blood pressure, supports our digestive system to operate most effectively and brings on calm which lets your body rest, repair, find balance and reduce stress hormones. It’s associated with creativity and intuition, benefits your mental health, resilience and emotional regulation.




Both of these responses are vital to our survival and we need them both. This is the way our brains have evolved. Our ancestors used these states for fleeing animals in the wild, and for relaxing and connecting with their tribes.

Whilst we’ve evolved as humans, our brains haven’t...

While our fight or flight response is valuable in acute situations, regular activation can lead to energy depletion and burnout. When we think of things that trigger fight or flight response today (e.g. perceived threats) it includes things like giving presentations, interviews, driving, receiving an email from our boss saying “can we talk”, when our children are crying/dysregulated etc. Our brain perceives these things as threats. This means that the lives we lead today mean things that aren’t actually a threat to our lives are treated as such by our brain and body, triggering us to be in fight or flight mode. This means that a lot of us spend more time than we should in a stress state. Functioning in fight or flight too often, and for too long can have severely negative consequences on your physical and mental health. It’s believed that the majority of people spend way more time than they should in fight or flight mode.

Can we work with our nervous system?


The good news is we can personally activate our sympathetic nervous system by engaging in certain activities that regulate our stress response and promote calm. This encourages our brains and bodies to come out of fight or flight and into rest and digest. Even if you have a habit of one particular state, both states are available to us at all times and we have the capacity to shift between them.


You may have heard of the Vagus Nerve (the longest cranial nerve at the back of your brain). The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system and some of the activities listed below work to stimulate the vagus nerve (and therefore the parasympathetic nervous system).


1. Activities to activate Rest and Digest




Deep Breathing Techniques:


Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing (breathing into your belly, ribs and chest) stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and reducing stress. By consciously focusing on slow, deep breaths, breathing out for longer than you breathe in, you can activate the parasympathetic response and restore equilibrium in your nervous system. This is particularly good for anxiety. You can also use humming, singing and laughter to stimulate the vagus nerve.


Spending time in nature


Time spent outside in nature is proven to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. Whether you’re conscious of it or not - when you hear the sound of bird song or the gentle ripple of water in a babbling brook they are subconsciously helping to get you into the rest and digest mode. Take a look at my mindful walking guide.


Mindfulness and Meditation:


Practicing mindfulness and meditation can significantly influence the vagus nerve, promoting a state of calm and relaxation. By cultivating present-moment awareness and engaging in mindful practices, you can enhance energy levels, focus, and overall productivity


Prioritise Sleep and Rest


Getting enough sleep is paramount for optimal energy and productivity. Establish a consistent sleep routine, create a sleep-friendly environment, and practice relaxation techniques to improve the quality of your rest.


Movement and Exercise


Engaging in regular physical activity not only benefits your physical health but also boosts energy and cognitive function. Incorporate activities you enjoy, such as yoga, pilates, qi gong, walking, or dancing. The slower and gentler the better as high impact and cardio can be stressful on the body.


Nutrition


Eating a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods. Eat slowly and mindfully. avoid excessive caffeine and sugar, which can negatively impact energy levels and contribute to fluctuations in the autonomic nervous system.


Hot and cold temperatures


The calming effects warm water has on the nervous and hormone (endocrine) systems help put our bodies in a “lower gear”, thereby relaxing us mentally. This state of heightened relaxation makes it easier for us to fall asleep and helps alleviate daily stress and anxiety. You could try baths, saunas, jacuzzi, steam room, hot tub or going on holiday somewhere with warm sea temperature.


And believe it or not, exposure to cold water has the same effect! It activates the vagus nerve, slows down our heart and breathing rate, and activates our parasympathetic nervous system. Splashing your face works, and if you’re feeling a bit braver, cold showers, baths and cold water immersion in an ice tub or the sea works wonders. A word of caution on this though…cold water therapy comes with risks and there are ways to prepare yourself for getting into the old water (through breathing techniques to stop you panicking and putting yourself under stress) so you should seek professional guidance and do your research. Never just jump into cold water even on a hot day.


Stop rushing around so much


Make space to actually do nothing, without distractions and really embrace it. If this doesn't feel natural to you, see if you can notice any feelings or discomfort with it and mindfully observe the urge to get up and do something. If sitting doing nothing feels totally uncomfortable for you, try getting lost in a fiction book or going for a massage, acupuncture, reflexology or reiki.


Do things that bring you joy


And focus on gratitude. Research shows that both of these things activate the parasympathetic nervous system.


Stress Management


In my opinion one of the most effective things you can do is to manage and reduce stressors. Taking part in the suggested activities above are really important but can sometimes act as sticking plasters, and if you don’t manage and reduce your stressors you’re always going to tip back into fight or flight mode. This takes self-awareness, practice, consistency, boundaries and seeking/allowing support.


2. Allow for proper periods of rest and recovery


This requires us to reframe our relationship with rest.





We have a tendency to fill our lives with being busy, productive and switched on all the time. We feel guilty when we’re resting, and like we’re being lazy or unproductive. Our worth tends to be linked to how much we are doing and achieving.


We also have so many distractions that we don’t give ourselves chance to properly switch off. In a world of texts, whatsapps, emails, checking social media, watching stimulating things on TV, taking in the news – our body might be physically resting but we’re not actually giving our brains a chance to switch off. This affects our ability to make clear and rational decisions and to think for ourselves and can be hugely detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing. We're rewiring our brains to become less effective at focussing, thinking and making deep connections.


Your body is always being productive, especially when you’re not


When we constantly direct our body’s energy towards productivity, to-do lists and achievement, it depletes the inner resources we need to recover. When we stop doing this and we take time to properly rest our energy can go to work on what’s most important - restoring, regenerating and repairing our whole system. This means all of our organs including our brain, every single cell in the body, our nervous system, our digestive system, our respiratory system, our circulatory system, our endocrine system (responsible for hormones), our muscular and skeletal systems, our reproductive system, exctretory system and immune system.


The more demands we place on our minds, bodies and all of our systems, the more stuckness we create. Asking an already taxed system to do more, take in more information and process more stimuli is counter productive. The practice of doing nothing is the most productive intervention we can take.


Once we are able to do this, we have much more energy and resources to give to being productive and achieving.


Remember that rest is productive


If you don't give yourself time to rest your body will force you to do it through illness or burnout.


I was chatting to a coaching client of mine this week who has ‘Achievement’ and ‘Growth’ as two of her core values. She doesn’t often give herself chance to rest and feels guilty doing so, like she should be doing something at all times. I explained the info in this blog post to her and she had a lightbulb moment that actually giving herself time to rest, restore and rejuvenate her mind, body and energy levels would then better enable her to achieve and grow. She made a commitment to reframe rest. And I was inspired to write this blog!


Conclusion


Understanding and working with your autonomic nervous can be a game-changer when it comes to boosting your wellbeing, energy, creativity and productivity. By consciously incorporating practical strategies into your daily routine and making time for proper rest and recovery, you can support your mental and physical wellbeing.


To do your best you need to rest.


Thanks for reading!



Would you like some support with this?


If you're ready to embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-growth, consider signing up for my Reset. Reconnect and Revive, 12 week coaching programme. The first step of this programme is designed to help you restore balance to our nervous system.


You can book a free 30 minute discovery call to find out more and see if we're a good fit.



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