Tips for returning to ‘normal life’
Most of us spent last year doing one thing, and one thing only: staring at our own four walls. It forced us to slow down and take things easy, and now we are no longer used to interacting with people, getting enough exercise or dealing with annoyances.
Many people are finding that it’s not that easy to return to ‘normal life’ after a period of restrictions, worries and uncertainty, and some may even be panicking about what comes next. But there is good news: they are not alone. Plenty of people feel exhausted, uncertain, and stressed. Switching from a life of lockdown and isolation to a life out and about in the world might not be so easy.
So this month, we want to help prepare your mind, body, and refrigerator as you find your own path and set your own pace for a return to normal life. Our next three articles will contain tips on mindfulness, fitness and nutrition. In no time at all, you’ll be able to get your nervous system to relax and let life take you where it will.
‘Just Relax’ isn’t helpful
For over a year now, we have lived in a worldwide state of emergency. And as we emerge from this period, almost every single one of us has to deal with some form of anxiety or worry.
The introverts are worried about crowds, aggressive interactions on social media, social pressure, infection, suddenly being thrown outside the safety of their bubble or losing their safe space.
Extroverts often suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and want to experience everything there is on offer. After all, you never know when the next big change is coming.
Regardless of how you feel right now, phrases such as “just relax” or “get over it” are definitely not helpful. After all, we’re talking about our feelings here. Their roots run deep, and there is no switch available to simply turn them off.
After a year of worry, many of us have reached our limit
The Danube University Krems has repeatedly studied mental health over the course of the pandemic. An initial study in April 2020 showed an increase in mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders – all of which were three to five times more common than they were before the pandemic. Additional studies in June of 2020 showed that these issues are still affecting us. A look at our nervous system can help us to understand why that is.
The Vagus Nerve: balancing the body and the mind
Dr. Stephen Porges is a renowned scientist and the founder of Polyvagal Theory. According to this theory, our autonomous nervous system, which helps to keep us alive, is made up of three parts:
- The ventral vagus nerve
- The sympathetic nervous system
- The dorsal vagus nerve
The ventral vagus nerve comes into play as we self-soothe, relax, and digest, and helps with contact and communication. It is usually active in healthy people. For example, we ask for help with problems and thus find solutions.
However, if we are unable to solve the problem in this manner, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This taps into the primal instincts inside us and protects us when we are in danger. Our body produces adrenaline, our heart rate increases, our breathing gets shallower and our palms get sweaty. It all leads to one question: fight or flight.
When even this response is not enough, our dorsal vagus nerve takes over. And we freeze. Our body gives up, we lose strength and shut down emotionally, sometimes we check out completely. Basically, somebody has pressed the panic button. You can see a similar effect in reptiles when they ‘play dead’.
Feeling safe, according to Dr. Porges’ polyvagal theory, is the most important prerequisite for feeling good, and for the health of our nervous system.
In an interview on the podcast “Psychologists Off The Clock”, Dr. Porges explained that the vagus nerve can also help us to communicate with people by means of facial expressions or tone of voice. A smile and a relaxed tone of voice have a positive effect, making us feel safe.
But for over a year now, we have mostly only heard serious voices on the news, seen only people with worried or upset facial expressions. And of course, it’s done a number on our nervous system, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it.
When faced with an ongoing stressful situation, we might start to see even the smallest problem as a danger, and find that challenges that used to be a breeze to master suddenly seem insurmountable. We run out of patience, have trouble regulating our emotions and are stuck in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. It feels like there’s no way out.
Even if we think we’re fine, it’s unlikely that this global disaster has left us untouched. Our nervous systems are out of balance, and we need to take special care of them to get them back on track.
Tips to calm and balance your nervous system
Tip 1 – Breathing exercises
We can’t very well tell our heart to slow down during stressful situations, but we can use our breath to directly affect our heartbeat.
Imagine breathing exercises as a kind of plank pose for your vagus nerve. By breathing deeply, we tell our brain “Hey, there’s no real danger here, you can relax now.” Our brain then sends the necessary signals to the rest of our body, via the vagus nerve, and we begin to relax.
But ‘just breathe’ might be easier said than done. When we are stressed, we tend to disconnect from our bodies, letting our unconscious mind direct our actions.
Never fear, there is a solution! Start with this daily, one-minute exercise and see what effect it has on your nervous system (for best results, try it in the morning or in the evening while lying in bed):
- Take a long, deep breath through your nose, allowing the air to fill first your stomach and then your chest.
- Once your lungs are full, hold the breath for three seconds.
- Slowly and steadily breathe out through your mouth.
- Now take one normal breath, in and out.
- Repeat this exercise 10 times each morning for at least two weeks.
Tip 2 – Movement
Any type of movement is great for your nervous system. There are so many studies that confirm that physical activity has a positive effect on our health.
Yoga, in particular, is fantastic for the vagus nerve. Dr. Porges’ scientific studies have revealed that many types of yoga activate our bodies’ own stress reactions, that is our fight, flight or freeze responses. Challenging yoga poses push us to our limits.
And then, with help from the vagus nerve, we learn to regulate stress and find our way back to a state of relaxation, a state of healing.
In our Humanoo app, you will find many different types of yoga, a great way to relax in the comfort of your own home.
Tip 3 – Play
You probably have fond memories of running wild through the house or backyard as a kid. Nothing could hold you back as you laughed and laughed and laughed.
Unfortunately, for many of us as adults, these are lovely memories and nothing more. But why? And what would happen if we introduced some play back into our lives, maybe as a way to calm down our nervous system?
Singing or humming is another great way to naturally regulate your nervous system. Remember how freely and often we sang as children? Sometimes in completely inappropriate situations, like the doctor’s waiting room, or during class. But back then, we didn’t even think about it, just intuitively followed our impulses as a way of helping our mind and body relax.
As adults, we’ve forgotten how to let intuition guide us, forgotten how it can help us to help ourselves. But you can relearn! Play hide and seek with your kids or your adult friends, spend some time on the couch with a video game, play a board game at home or play tag in the woods. It is never too late to be playful or maybe just to sing your blues away.
So, what can you do for your nervous system?
There are so many options for naturally calming your nervous system that we just don’t have time to list them all here. Plus, there’s really no need to. Each person is different, and so what’s really important is for you to discover what works for you and will help bring your nervous system back into balance.
Maybe you could use this month to really pay attention to what it is that allows you to calm down and relax (spoiler alert: turning off the news will help!)
Whether you are ready and raring to get back into the swing of things or are planning to take things slowly: it’s all normal and natural, and you get to decide how fast you want to go. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too sensitive, too anxious, or too willing to take risks. You and you alone get to decide what is good for you. If you begin to follow your intuition and move consciously through life, your vagus nerve will love you more than ever, and thank you by introducing well-being and relaxation into your life.
We are happy and ready to help you as you balance your mind and body in search of a more fulfilling life.
Your Humanoo Team