Mental health expert Isabel Baylor, LMSW on how stress impacts your nervous system & tools for regulating that stress
At Elektra, we believe optimal health is a state of balance across one’s physical and emotional wellbeing – the two are deeply intertwined. With all of the turmoil in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re doing what we can to ensure our community’s physical and mental health.
In addition to offering free OB/GYN telemedicine care to women in need or remote care, we’re hosting a weekly virtual salon “Cultivating a Sense of Healing”, facilitated by Elektra’s mental health expert Isabel Baylor, LMSW (pictured right). Learn more about what for Baylor’s better understand how the nervous system handles stress & evidence-based, actionable tools to help you regulate and heal your nervous system.
The Stress Response
Before understanding tools and tips, let’s chat briefly about how trauma and stress impact our nervous system. From a biological perspective, stress is an evolutionary tool our body developed to keep us safe – if you’re thinking about the term “fight or flight” you’re on the right track.
Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the “fight or flight” response – in addition to helping us mobilize energy when faced with challenges or danger, the SNS causes an increase of adrenaline and cortisol (aka the stress hormone) to be released. It can also suppress the immune system, something we want to avoid more than ever.
With all of the traumatic headlines, state emergencies, and disturbing news triggering our nervous system & causing stress, prioritizing your self-care and overall health is more important than ever.
Tools for Healing and Regulation
Being grounded is feeling connected to your body in the present moment. In my somatic psychotherapy practice – a type of holistic therapy that studies the mind-body relationship as it relates to psychological past – grounding refers to our ability to connect to our bodies, and feel connected to the earth. As a result, you are able to become more aware of yourself in the present moment, therefore bringing a calming effect to the nervous system. Grounding can be as simple as putting your feet on the ground.
How to Practice at Home:
Take a moment to notice where you are. Sitting or standing, bring awareness to the bottom of your feet and pay attention to any sensations. Begin to notice your breath. When you feel ready, begin to notice the following:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
After you’ve completed your observations, take a moment to notice any internal sensations. What is coming up for you? Do you feel more connected? Less tense or more tense? Approach this exercise with a sense of curiosity and less judgement about what might come up.
Image credit: Max van den Oetelaar
The breath is a wonderful tool to communicate safety and release stressful energy. Breathing can be both involuntary and voluntary. We can use practices to manipulate the breath for personal well being, as well as a tool to regulate the mind and body.
How to Practice at Home:
There are hundreds of different breathing techniques that have shown to decrease stress, stimulate rest, assist in digestion, and slow you down, but here are the three breathwork practices I recommend starting with:
Method One: Box Breathing 4 -4 -4-4
Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breath out for 4, hold for 4. It can be calming to know that you can hold your breath because it allows your nervous system to know that you are in control. If it’s helpful, imagine a box or square while performing this technique. Try starting with 2 – 3 minutes of this breath technique.
Method Two: 4 – 7 – 8 Breath
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth to a slow count of 8. This is one breath. Repeat 4-8 cycles. When you hold the breath, watch the body. Do you increase tension anywhere?
Method Three: Lion’s Breath
Inhale deeply through the nose. Exhale by opening up your mouth, sticking out the tongue to stretch the face, and adding an optional “haaah” sound to release tension. This breath increases energy and is great in the morning or when you are feeling depleted. We love this breath because it encourages you to use your voice and take up space.
More Resources on Breathwork:
Research shows that meditation can help us foster awareness and regulate our emotions and feelings. Meditation allows us to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” response, slowing down our heart rate, stabilizing our breathing and blood pressure, and improves circulation.
How to Practice at Home:
While there are many different types of meditation and ways to tap into a relaxed state of mind, here are some recommended resources to start your practice:
A final note on emotional health: There is no one-sized-fits all self-care practice that works for everyone – it will often include a combination of exercise, rest, and nutrition. Remember to take your time to find practices that work for you and your schedule. If you’re looking for help getting started or an accountability partner to cultivate your practice, I invite you to join my upcoming weekly Elektra virtual salon, where we put several of the tools listed above into practice. RSVP on Elektra’s Community page here.