By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor
The holidays can be stressful for any number of reasons. The continued economic uncertainty, the dizzying array of demands on our time and energy, unresolved personal histories, and unrealistic expectations cause our autonomic nervous systems to get stuck in the “on” switch as the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (SNS), also known as the “fight and flight” mode, goes into overdrive. Our SNS and the muscles and organs governed by it prevent us from being able to be fully present to the gifts that the season offers us and to give the gift of our embodied Self energy to those we love. Firefighter behavior abounds when the SNS is dominant, resulting in more emotional and physical stress and suppressed immune function. When we are in Self energy, the parasympathetic branch (PSNS)—the “rest and relaxation” phase—is predominant. The activity of our autonomic nervous system is largely out of our awareness and our voluntary control. But there are some ways to consciously bring our nervous system back into balance.
I want to offer a somatic exercise to help the autonomic nervous system shift from the sympathetic (SNS) to the parasympathetic (PSNS) mode. In the PSNS state, we are more likely to be able to fully embody Self energy and all the qualities of compassion, joy, and harmony that we wish for in this season.
First, to understand why the technique works, let’s look at the diagram of the autonomic nervous system below. You can see the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PSNS), which ideally act together, largely outside of our awareness and our voluntary control. The diagram shows where the neurons originate on the spinal cord with each of the two divisions. Notice that the neurons of the SNS—which is responsible for our racing hearts, our shallow breathing, and our digestive distress when our parts perceive danger—come from the thoracic spine, while the neurons of the PSNS come from the base of the brain (the cranial nerves) and the sacrum (S2–S4).
Simply bringing our attention to the places in our body that are governed by the PSNS system—other words, the base of our head and our sacrum—can begin the shift of the nervous system out of SNS and into PSNS. To the tool of somatic awareness, we add conscious breathing and mindful movement. You can do this exercise, which is similar to the yoga move commonly known as “cat and cow,” sitting in a chair. You can do it in in your therapy office, and if you find it helpful, teach it to your clients. You can do this while sitting at the family dinner table to assist your digestion and help you enjoy the social interactions. You can also do this on your meditation cushion to help quiet the racing thoughts of the managers.
“Rock and Roll” Exercise
- Bring awareness to the base of your head where your top cervical vertebra meets the base of the cranium. Try a few micromovements to help you tune in to that area of your body—a very small “yes,” “no,” and small circles—so small that others won’t notice you are moving. Ask the muscles that connect your head to your spine to relax. Let your jaw go. Drop your shoulders and gently squeeze them together in the back. Let the back of your neck lengthen.
- Now, with your feet on the floor, bring your awareness to your pelvis as you sit on your chair, and, with the same tiny movements, rock forward and back.
- Coordinate this rocking of your pelvis with your breath so that on the inhale, you are rocking forward on your chair as your lower back arches a bit, and on the exhale, you rock back on the chair as your spine flattens and you draw your navel toward your spine. These movements can be large or so small that they will be nearly undetectable.
- About a dozen of these breaths should be sufficient to return your nervous system to a more relaxed state. Come to stillness, flatten your lower back, drop the sacrum toward the chair so the sitz bones of the pelvis are grounded. With shoulders relaxed down but slightly squeezed together in the back, allow your breath to come into your heart area.
Even when the holiday season is over, most of us living in this post-industrial, cybernetic age will continue to experience stress in our nervous systems. Overwork, overstimulation, compassion fatigue, and environmental toxins leave us in a chronic state of SNS dominance. The gas pedal is pushed to the floor and is our default position. Even when we are not consciously triggered by something in our lives, we may feel jittery; have sleep problems, high blood pressure, poor digestion and immune function; and suffer from various inflammatory conditions. In that physical state of chronic SNS activation, we are at the low end of the continuum of Embodied Self. The tools of Somatic IFS can help to move us along that continuum.
Wishing you all restful, peaceful, healthy, joyous holidays.