Calm Your Nerves

By Ann Brode   |   April 2, 2020

The looming threat of the coronavirus in our community has left everyone I know feeling agitated and anxious. To protect ourselves and our families, we need to fill the pantry, wash our hands, avoid doorknobs, and stop touching. Who knew we touched our faces so much? Add to this the downline repercussions of uncertain travel plans, a volatile stock market, cancelled events, limited social exposure, school closures, and a news stream full of alarming reports. It makes sense that we feel uptight.

Given what we know about how stress impacts clear thinking and good rest, the best prep for these uncertain times may be learning how to calm your nerves. When your physiology is plugged in to thoughts of survival, it’s hard to let go and relax even when you’re exhausted and need a good night’s sleep. You know how this goes. Worry takes hold and won’t let go. Then, sleep ends up being fitful and spotty. When this happens even for one night, it affects your ability to show up responsibly, resiliently, and lovingly.

Although you may want to settle down after a full, demanding, stress-filled day, your mind is buzzing, muscles tense, and physiology churning. Just telling your body to let go and relax adds to the problem. And, even when you fall asleep, you don’t stay asleep. In order to give yourself a break, you need to interrupt the pattern with some active, focused relaxation. Lots of people report good results when they set time aside for a soothing bath, meditation, or restorative yoga poses before bedtime. Recently, I’ve found that placing my hands on my belly and quieting my gut-brain does the trick.

A bit of simplified science will help explain why this works for me. It all has to do with the vagus nerve which connects the brain to the abdomen. Among other things, this wandering nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the rest-digest counterpoint to the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system. In other words, any time you’re all worked up without a fight or flight reason, your PNS needs to step in and tell your brain to chill out. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve activating a relaxation response in the PNS. This, in turn, shifts the physiology to reduce anxiety, stress, anger, and inflammation. Because of this direct gut-brain connection, it makes sense that focused belly breathing is a good strategy for calming your nerves.

Try this out for yourself:

•     Thirty minutes before sleep, dim the lights and turn off the screens. Even better, put your iPhone in another room.

•     Once in bed, get comfortable with adequate pillow support and cozy covers.

•     Scan through your body, letting each muscle surrender to Gravity. Tell your body that the day is done and all is well.

•     Then, gently place your hands on your belly, one above the solar plexus, the other a bit lower. Feel how your abdomen moves with each inhale and exhale. Locate pockets of discomfort and direct your breath to dissipate the tension.

•     Breathing deeply and slowly, string three or four inhale-exhales together and then see if you can do more. Before you know it, you’ll be tucked into a restful sleep.

Don’t be discouraged if your attention drifts away from your belly after just a couple of breaths. Once you discover that you’re off thinking, worrying, and planning again, just return to your body. In an over-stimulated world, simple body awareness takes practice. Notice how your focus is either centered on word thought or on body sensation. Never both at once. Because of this, belly breathing has the potential to calm both mind and nerves. And, if you awake with mind a-buzz and feeling wired, just take a few minutes to belly breathe and calm your nerves again.

Over the next few weeks of community lock-down, it’s important to take measures to mitigate the stress. Instead of ramping up and letting your sympathetic nervous system run the show, set aside some time to destress and reset your equilibrium. Before bedtime is great. But, any transition time is an opportunity to practice – when you first wake up, between appointments, after work, or before dinner. Then, whatever you do next, you’ll be more relaxed. Given that our community has become all too familiar with life-altering emergencies, I don’t have to convince anyone that knowing how to calm your nerves is one of the most valuable skills in your tool kit.


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