Stress and intensity — whether running from a predator or dealing with a particularly frustrating email — engage the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in the brain. This is your flight, fight, or freeze response.
Living in the fight-or-flight response is not healthy for your body, mind, creativity, productivity, relationships, leadership capacity, and overall well-being and performance.
Countering the SNS is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), or the rest-and-digest response. This is your body in a state of calm.
Learning to engage your PNS to counter your SNS improves health, productivity, relationships, well-being, creativity, and even leadership.
Below are three ways to immediately engage your PNS to counter your SNS – anytime, anywhere.
1. Straighten Your Back (Posture)
A 2017 study of college students showed that students had an 86% easier time accessing uplifting and positive memories in an upright, well-postured position; conversely, in a slumped position they were more inclined towards depressive memories and negative thinking. It makes sense – the neural system operates across the body and not only in the head. So, keep your body and neural pathways up and open and you’ll help your thoughts stay up and open.
2. Look Up & Look Out
Studies show that looking up and out “awakens” the mind, creativity, and nervous system. Studies are also clear that looking far away activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to induce thoughtfulness, clarity, and calm. This is why experts recommend gazing at wide distances when in a creative slump. Try it – take a moment to look away from your screen, look out and far away for a moment, collect your thoughts, and then come back to your screen.
3. Deep Breath Meditation
Breathwork and meditation are connected in that meditation requires breathwork. In a groundbreaking 2018 study, scientists clearly demonstrated that when breathwork engages the diaphragm it measurably and positively influences the entire body, especially the nervous system and PNS.
Breathing exercises, or breathwork, is when we intentionally control how to breathe to experience a sense of relaxation and calm in the mind and body. Below is one very simple breath exercise you can do anywhere, anytime:
- Put one hand on your heart, one hand on your belly
- Take a deep breath in for four seconds, and feel your belly push out (this is your diaphragm engaging)
- Breath out for four seconds and feel your belly completely empty (diaphragm disengaging)
- Repeat this 2-5 times
Take a moment to straighten your spine. Look up and out. Then, take 2-5 deep breaths that fully engage your diaphragm. Notice the calm, focus, clarity, and peace. You have engaged your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
If you’re feeling stressed or intense, practice one or a combination of these exercises to find peace and balance and lead from a place of calm, focus, balance, and clarity. You’ll perform better and lead better. That’s becoming your best.
“I do write it on a prescription. I write down 7-9 hours of sleep with every patient, as I write down you must move your body every day, and then I write that you need to meditate.” – Dr. Jennifer Ashton
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