Calming the Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system provides the body’s relaxation response and contains the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and the endorphins. It is postulated that when the nervous system is relaxed, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms flip on. Some activities that have been shown in the literature to activate the parasympathetic side of the nervous system include: meditation, massage, yoga, tai chi, creativity, friends, work you love, laughing, exercising, and playing with animals.
Consider what activities bring you joy, as this bumps up your endorphins and helps to calm the nervous system. I found that it wasn’t just the activity I chose, it was my mindset during the activity that made all the difference. Tuning into the body’s response during an activity is the easiest way to determine if an activity is a healing avenue for you.
Just like there are many ways to activate the relaxed, joyful side of the nervous system, we each have different avenues that help us turn down the volume of our spinning minds. Several of my caregivers encouraged me to focus on one thing like the flame of a candle or a repeated phrase and to let the thoughts pass through without paying attention to them. Many people find these activities useful, but my mind was just too active. My thoughts were like children bursting into my mind, clamoring for attention, and bouncing off of each other with excitement. Occasionally, I could get my thoughts to come in and leave quietly, but then my body would speak up. My ramped up nervous system and tense muscles were giving my mind the message that it wasn’t safe and that the system was poised to run or fight at any moment.
Because my body and mind were conspiring for my survival, I needed to quiet both of them down at once. When I focused on the sensations of my body and breath and consciously moved them to a relaxed state, my mind moved out of stress-causing mental loops, and my body got the sensation that it was safe. For me, Hatha yoga, diaphragmatic breathing and progressive relaxation meditation were the most helpful in calming both my body and my mind.
There are many types of hatha yoga and the experience will be different with each instructor. If your aim is to calm the body-mind, I suggest a non-stressful flow of poses and a non-competitive, peaceful environment with good breathing cues. When I close my eyes and focus on my breath and body sense, yoga becomes a calming, moving meditation.
At the beginning of my illness, in the peak of pain, I was stopped at a light when I realized that I was breathing deeply with my diaphragm, which is the large, dome-shaped muscle that attaches to the lower ribs and spine and separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens and moves downward, which squishes the abdominal contents and moves them outward.
When I told my physical therapist that I was automatically breathing with my diaphragm when my pain levels were high, she encouraged me to continue saying that this type of breathing is not only calming for the nervous system, it also automatically relaxes the pelvic floor muscles. So I began focusing on the rise of my belly with each breath when I was lying on my back or sitting in a chair with my feet flat on the ground.
Just recently, it occurred to me that breathing is not a conscious activity. So I let out all my air and then I just waited in a quiet state and soon my body took a big breath automatically. I allowed the exhalation without forcing it, and then I waited again for my body to breathe me. When I gave up control and just allowed the breath to happen, it felt less like an exercise and more like a meditation. Both me and my clients find this type of breathing to be highly effective in calming the body and mind.
I began practicing this type of progressive relaxation meditation at the beginning of my pelvic pain. I would focus on a body part, feel the tension, consciously try to let go, and then accept whatever tension remains. At first, I did this in sequence scanning all the areas from my feet to the top of my head or in reverse. But then over the years, I learned to scan my body and to focus on relaxing just the tense areas.
As the awareness of my body grew, I stopped directing this activity, and instead I would just lie in a quiet state with the intention of letting go any tension in my body that I was carrying. I would then just feel my body’s automatic responses, and as my body calmed down I often felt my muscles relax and the structure of my body adjust, and sometimes I would feel tingling in different areas, and increased digestion sounds.
Light Touch/ Massage
When I’m working with clients, certain physical techniques are effective in calming the body. Gentle rocking type motions of different body areas like the leg or the spine seem to decrease patterns of holding in the muscles and the area relaxes. Light touch and gentle stroking both sides of the spine starting at the head and travelling slowly down to where the spine meets the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of the spine) can also help someone sink into relaxation.
Many of us have classic spots in the body that get tense when we are stressed, and when palpated these areas may feel ropy, knotty, tight or tender. When my nervous system is ramped up, it often comes with increased tension in my calves, buttocks (both superficial and deep muscles), the muscles on either side of the spine, the muscles at the top of the neck where it attaches to the head, and the deep muscles at the temporal-mandibular joint located near the earlobes where the jaw attaches to the skull. Learning how to find these spots helps reconnect you to your own body and to become aware of when you are stressed, and learning to care for your body in this way is empowering.
Deep massage or sustained pressure to the affected areas also seems to calm the whole nervous system. I often apply pressure using my fingers or other tools such as a small ball or foam roller. At first, I saw a massage therapist for this work, but over the years and with some instruction, I learned to find the spots myself and treat them. Some of my clients have a loved one care for them in this way. This is great when the areas are hard to reach, and it gives a partner something to do to help when you are in pain. When this care is done with love, the person receiving the treatment often feels safe and this can be calming in its own right.