Today, I'm going to give a quick biology primer about self-regulation and relaxation, offer some thoughts on how to let your body regulate stress, and answer a few questions. Down at the bottom of the post, subscribers (new and old) will find a pdf coaching guide.
Your autonomic Nervous System has two parts, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic (SNS/PNS). The SNS helps us mobilize under stress; the PNS restores our balance. Yin/Yang.
The PNS is the lesser-known system. About 80% of the nerves it involves run from the body to the brain: this is interoception (our interior senses). Just your lungs and guts can provide far more sensory data than your entire peripheral nervous system. This data should run straight to the brain centres that regulate your perceptions, emotions and everything else. Including what is sometimes called your default mode network - the part of your brain that helps all of this along.
Most people today have a chronically overactive SNS and suppressed PNS. Their bodies believe they are under stress, most of the time. And most of our tools for regulating stress only work when the PNS is dominant. So, it's a difficult cycle to extract yourself from.
This is at the root of much defensive thinking, chronic trauma, and the lack of mental peace most people experience. It's also at the root of many physical health disorders which have emerged through modernity.
If you don't relax in a way that gives the PNS space to work its magic, you're fighting against your nature. The PNS wants to work with you, if you will stop, and let it do its job.
So how do you deal with stress?
Popular methods include taking a break to partake in seemingly-enjoyable activities such as going on social media like Tik Tok or watching Netflix. However, these activities actually stop your PNS from working.
In order to let this secret superpower do its job, you must learn to relax properly. STOP placing your attention on activities that do not truly allow your body to rest.
Instead, try practicing generative leisure such as deep reading, immersive hobbies, or doing nothing. Avoid placing attention on social media and online entertainment that actually stops your PNS from dominating. Want a quick hack? Practice breathing exercises and meditation to shift your concentration on true restful exercises.
If you'd like to learn more ways to activate your PNS, signup to the newsletter then scroll to the bottom of this post to download your copy of a pdf training guide.
Let's explore this superpower even further...
Here's a video where I explain about the importance of your PNS and how it links to training your intuition.
🦸Why do I call the PNS your body's secret superpower?
Your parasympathetic nervous system is your body's way of rectifying basically everything that's wrong with you. It improves all of your health: mental and physical health. Many if not most present day ailments are actually maladaptations to the modern world; caused or exacerbated by us not allowing our parasympathetic nervous system to work.
So in the present day, most people are doing so much that they don't have time to stop or they don't make time to stop. And it's only when you STOP that your body actually does its job. It cleans you up.
So when I say secret superpower, it's not secret at all. Humans have had this for forever. It's part of our biology.
It's one of the reasons that we're such an adaptable species and able to thrive in so many different environments. But it seems secret today. Because those of us who have discovered what happens when you stop and rest properly have found peace, beauty, and time in a way that most people don't get to.
So it feels like a secret.
🧠 SNS vs. PNS
Parasympathetic and sympathetic are the scientific explanations for two different modes in which the body operates where different parts (nerves) of your body are increasingly and decreasing the active. So at the sympathetic end, you're full of adrenaline and stress hormones. Your body is primed for action.
That has a whole raft of consequences on you like your ability to focus increases. But also your ability to see what's around you and to kind of perceive the broader world and perceive different options, decreases.
The parasympathetic is where most people don't spend enough time. Your body is really relaxed. So think of it as stressed vs. relaxed at either ends.
So down at the parasympathetic, all of your regulatory processes are most active. Your digestion works best when you're relaxed. Even at that basic cellular level, the body systems work better at this end.
⚖️ Why is knowing how to let your PNS dominate important?
So I keep talking about your PNS to try and spread the words with a few more people and let them know that there is a biological system in you that activates when you STOP. There is a kind of scientific rationale behind all of the stuff to do with meditation, mindfulness and things like that is incredibly powerful and useful for people.
It's probably our best explanation of the parts of your body that allow you to tap into tap into things that you wouldn't normally be able to access -intuitive insights. Honest assessments of your feelings when so many people kind of feel and then rationalize afterwards and how to use your subconscious in a way that most people can't yet.
So when you're thinking about decision-making, most people try to fit some kind of logical proforma around their decisions, thinking about different outcomes and what they want and how they want to get there and the best process and best practice and things like that.
If you allow yourself to listen properly, then most of that is totally unnecessary and stressful. You can sit back and make a decision, make the right decision for you as an individual. It's the rest and the fixing, whatever magic the parasympathetic nervous system does.
Nobody really knows but whatever magic it does, I believe that enables you to make those intuitive decisions so easily.
🛑 What should I do to let my PNS dominate?
It's not like you're either in sympathetic mode or parasympathetic mode, it's a spectrum. If you're really stressed, scared, or fearful, you're in sympathetic land. And if you're completely Zen and relaxed, you're all the way over in the parasympathetic land.
Try and move yourself a little bit down the spectrum for a greater majority of your time.
What that might look like is instead of spending some spare time scrolling on social media which is deliberately designed to be stimulating, find something slightly more immersive and present that stops you from doing quite so much.
If you're a desk worker, try an immersive hobby. One of the best ways for you to immerse yourself in a completely different world and move yourselves down the spectrum is to take up a crafty hobby that involves your hands, something physical like a sport or an instrument, etc.
This shifts your mindset and takes you away from the stresses towards a more relaxed state. It might be meditation, which is a really helpful kind of practice or at least some of them. Not all of them are useful but some of them are.
Generally, just try and move from wherever you are slightly down the spectrum towards parasympathetic land for more of your week. It doesn't have to be immediate and it won't be for most people. But the direction of travel needs to go towards that way.
How do I personally rest?
So the funny thing is, I don't. My natural state is already in parasympathetic land. I don't do anything to deliberately relax. It's just that the majority of my time is spent doing things that other people would consider relaxing. Like walking, playing with the children, swinging in a hammock, reading a book you know, standing here gazing at all the beautiful scenery, listening to the birds, watching sunsets, that kind of thing. That's my normal activity.
What I'd like to emphasize is, I think more time should be down at the Parasympathetic state. Not necessarily all your time, but more time down here is good for you.
📱Is it bad to rest with social media?
It's fairly well-proven now that social media and the majority of online entertainment is deliberately designed in a way to inflect habitual patterns to make you habitually scroll so that when you have nothing to do, you pick up your phone and start flicking the apps before you even know what you're doing.
It's designed to be addictive.
Should you spend less time on social media for nearly everybody? Yes. Is it easy? No. To this question, think of how you spend your time on social media or browsing Netflix, watching documentaries etc. with pros and cons. If you're getting lots out of social media that you feel contributes to your life, carry on.
But my favorite example is when Netflix CEO in 2017 admitted that sleep was their main competitor at that time. That's true for Netflix and most media companies too, because rest has had already been vanquished. Most of these apps are competing for time that you could spend doing something more restful and peaceful.
If you don't have much parasympathetic restful time in your life, you need to spend less time on social media or watching stuff. It's a tough message, but people need to hear that.
😥 What if I'm too stressed and can't STOP? My mind won't stop working...
It's tough for people who are already in that situation to extricate themselves from it. When you're that busy, it makes everything that would help you stop more difficult. In this case, try stepping stone habits to more relaxation. Meditation deep breathing are more difficult to do if you're already really stressed and feel that you're too busy with important things.
If you're in this situation, I'd recommend reading Cal Newport's DEEP WORK. He has specific practices that you can do to help to space out seemingly insurmountable amounts of work. Try checking your emails in intermittent periods to prove to yourself you don't need to be continually present. The same goes for any instant messaging services. Turn off your notifications for half and hour and see if it works for your working environment.
Instant replies = Reflective of good work...?
Many people have the belief that instant replies are reflective of a good job. Some managers who think that believe it's true yet it's partly about app design. All the the notifications, the unread message counts, the little sounds and buzzes are all designed to grab your attention immediately and to make you think there is something you need to attend to instantly.
⏰ What if I don't have the TIME to stop?
That's OK. Some people just don't have time. The best I can offer is really short transitionary practices like taking some deep breaths between things that are stressful, just to help your body relax.
Because even a couple of minutes of steady state breathing where you focus your mind on your breath just for two minutes has benefits as well. They help you deal with the stress that's building up in your life.
So if you're in that kind of situation where you're constantly busy, whether it's with life and death stuff or whether it's just with the work that you have to do because that's how you pay your bills, try this type of short practice.
For returning subscribers...
Welcome back. Download your copy of "How to Activate your PNS/Superpower" here. Let me know if you found it useful, I'd love to hear your thoughts!