Calm Your Nerves

February 23, 2020

Written by: Nkechi Deanna Njaka

When someone says to you “calm your nerves,” what do they really mean?

How about when someone says “calm down”?

Is it possible that there is a quick fix, resiliency-switch that allows for us to magically calm our minds and bodies down on command?

For those of us who have tried to will our anxiety and stress away, we know better than to believe in a quick-fix when it comes to soothing the mind and body from a catastrophic thought, a stressful conversation or event, or simply the trauma of everyday living.

Particularly now. It is that time of year when our schedules somehow have become five times more busy with work, with school, with social gatherings and with the holidays fast approaching, our schedules become more compact with holiday parties and additional social and family commitments. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer and the season is changing.

And while holiday cheer, spending quality time with the family, exciting travels can distract us and pull us away from the day today, what will happen when the holidays are over and life returns to normal? What happens when our stress doesn’t melt as fast as the snow?

When someone says to you “calm your nerves,” what do they really mean?

How about when someone says “calm down”?

Is it possible that there is a quick fix, resiliency-switch that allows for us to magically calm our minds and bodies down on command?

For those of us who have tried to will our anxiety and stress away, we know better than to believe in a quick-fix when it comes to soothing the mind and body from a catastrophic thought, a stressful conversation or event, or simply the trauma of everyday living.

I became a meditation teacher after leaving my career as a neuroscientist— because the research and more importantly the practice showed me how we effecting “calm down.”

Almost everyone in America experience of stress. This year Americans have reported experiencing more stress than last year. While this could be due to our political climate, economic changes, or global warming, it is important for us to acknowledge just how damaging stress can be. It has been referred as the “silent killer.” Stress can damage our bodies, alter our digestion. It can very quickly turn a bad situation to worse, it can separate us from the people closest to us, it can affect our sleep and suppress our immune system.

Why is it important to talk about stress? While it may seem obvious that everyone is affected by stress, it is less obvious what it is exactly and how it affects us.

There are two types of stress in our body processes each of them the same way. There is positive stress which is called eustress (eg. Getting a new job, expanding your family, getting a promotion, moving, going on a big trip) and then there is distress which is when we experience challenges, grief, with out room to relax or restore.

One of my favorite ways to manage stress is through mindfulness.

By simply being in presence, you begin to train both the mind and the body. We don’t reach that experience by reading about it, “understanding it first” or intellectualizing it. We simply reach presence by intentionally being present.

There are a few things that occur in the body that help give words to what we feel in the practice of presence. The most felt is the nervous system— the process that regulates our stress and the system that allows us to eventually “calm down.”

Our nervous systems are beautiful, complex, and wonderful, designed up of many parts. One of these is the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our Fight-Flight-Freeze reaction. It is one branch of the autonomic nervous system and is believed to act ‘autonomously’ and unconsciously, without us telling it to act. The other main branch of the autonomic nervous system has less information about and it is called the parasympathetic nervous system. What we do know is that the parasympathetic system helps us to manage our fight and flight response. It also has both indirect and direct influence over digestion, muscles, cardiovascular system, endocrine system and so on.

While it is helpful to know why and how the brain works, but it is more helpful to be in presence.

The nervous system hack.

When understanding the role of this brain-body connection, we must discuss how the vagus nerve plays in the practice. The vagus nerve is the thing that connects our brain to our body. It does this by helping the body regulate its stress responses and is the mechanism by which we can positively influence our health and bodies with meditation.

To put it simply (or in more modern terms), the vagus nerve has been described as our “nervous system hack,” as one of the longest nerves in our body. Referred to as ‘wandering nerve,’ it journeys from our brainstem and winds down throughout our body, arriving in the abdomen. On the way, it connects with many of our major organs—including our heart and lungs. Science has been aware of it for a very long time; as well as the fact that the vagus nerve is semi-responsible for our body’s regulation of heart rate, breathing rate, digestion, and so forth. We know from our experience of meditation that a slowing down of each are all by-products of the practice of presence.

THE GOOD NEWS!

  1. By training your body to be in a place of  ‘rest and digest’ mode more often, we are ever expanding our ability to respond more than react.
  2. Our brain can changes over time and when it does, so do our bodies.
  3. We have the power to change and to heal our nervous systems.

While “calm your nerves” doesn’t happen on command, I do believe that over time, a mindfulness practice will help us all to achieve states of calm more easily, more accessibly and more often.

DEEP LISTENING PRACTICE + MEDITATION:

At your meditation seat, try working with these prompts to investigate what your anxiety and stress are revealing to you and how you may be able to befriend it.

Anxiety, where do I feel you inhabiting my body?

What am I present to? What do I notice?

What spaces in the body feel calm and which spaces need more ease?

What do I notice about my thoughts and feelings?

Where can I create more space for ease in this chaos?

How are you, anxiety, affecting my breath right now?

Can I feel into what you might be teaching me?

Can I trust that I am safe and will be OK?

Can I trust the cycle of my nervous system?

How can I lean more  into resilience and relaxation?

***

Nkechi Deanna Njaka is an SF mindfulness meditation instructor and the founder of NDN lifestyle studio, co-founder of Sitting Matters, and a 2017 YBCA Truth Fellow. As a neuroscientist, choreographer and meditation teacher, she has spent the majority of her life investigating the relationship between the brain and the body and has always felt the significance of their integration.Through her work as a neuroscientist as well as a professional modern dancer + choreographer, she discovered that mindfulness and creativity are crucial for sustaining individual and global well-being. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh.

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