Train Your Nervous System for Calm

Train Your Nervous System for Calm


Two ways to access calm strength within ourselves.

Recently, on a very good day, I was talking to a friend about the experience of feeling fantastically alive, and also having a deep sense of calm. My well of patience felt bottomless and I was able to handle all of the twists and turns the day handed me.

A few days later, however, I was operating on less sleep, more caffeine, and markedly less calm.

Turns out, we can all cultivate a sense of ‘still waters run deep’ within ourselves. Rick Hanson, senior fellow of UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, describes how the ability to regulate our sense of inner calm has great bearing on our ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. In his newest book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, he describes key capacities we can hardwire into our nervous systems so we can better handle the stresses of living in our fast-paced modern world.

Hanson writes that we can meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction and connection, by “recognizing what’s true, resourcing ourselves, regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and relating skillfully to others and the wider world.” He explores capacities such as grit, intimacy, generosity, and courage. At the core of regulating ourselves, he insists, is our ability to remain calm through the storms of life.

When our sympathetic nervous system is activated by a real (or perceived) threat, we will generally have one of three reactions: fear, anger, or helplessness. Hanson explains, “because the need for safety is so vital, it’s equally vital that we regulate ourselves to meet pain and threats with calm strength.” When we can do this, we will be able to navigate whatever twists and turns we face along the way. Here are two ways to access this calm strength within ourselves:

Relaxing and Centering. We all know how crazy life can get. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to things is wise, but there will be times when we need to keep going, maintaining our level of engagement in life, but in a calmer way. To do this well, we have to be able to access our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which governs our ability to relax, digest, and settle down. Hanson suggests that in order to “establish a calmer baseline for yourself plus recover more quickly after stress, set aside a few minutes or more to relax deeply many times a week.” He also suggests finding moments in your daily life, especially when things are getting heated, to calm yourself down. Some ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system are:

  • Extend the exhalation. Your exhalation and PNS are closely linked, so by simply making your exhale longer than your inhale, you activate your ability to be calm.
  • Release tension. You can focus on one body part, perhaps your jaw or your shoulders, and imagine your breath filling that space and draining away any tension in the exhale.
  • Use imagery. We have the ability to amplify and lessen stress to a larger degree by how we handle the internal dialogue we have around different situations. Focusing on images can shortcircuit this internal, often negative feedback loop.

Recognize Paper Tiger Paranoia. We have evolved to have a heightened awareness of potential dangers. Our ancestors that did not fear the tiger that could be lurking in the tall grass did not survive. Fear of the unknown, often showing itself as anxiety, is harmful to our health in the modern world. Hanson writes, “to feel safer, we need to stop inflating threats and start recognizing all our resources. Then we don’t have to be afraid of not being afraid.” Try these steps to harness runaway fear:

  • See threats clearly. Hanson suggests choosing a worry—any worry. Try journaling or talking with someone about the following: How big is it—get down to the nitty gritty, exploring the worry fully. Then consider how likely it is to happen, and be honest with yourself about the chances of this big worry really happened. Next, consider how bad it would actually be if it did happen. Finally, take all that in. Hanson insists you will most likely be relieved after this exercise, and that the scary, nebulous fear might not be that bad after all.
  • Once you see the problem from a truer perspective, consider the resources you have to handle it. Consider resources in your mind—inner strengths that you’ve harnessed to handle past difficulties. Then mine resources in your body—ways you feel strong, capable and full of energy. Finally, look to resources around you in the world—friends, family, and mentors are all great places to draw strength from.

At the end of each of these processes, consider using Hanson’s HEAL technique, described here, to access the full experience of feeling calm and capable, and to effectively rewire your brain’s response. Taking these steps to reshape our habitual patterns will support us in feeling more able to weather the invariable storms of life.

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