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Joe Weston
Power Within #3: Regulating Your Nervous System

We have already explored how self-care and resilience can help you gain more agency in stressful times. Integrating these practices into a daily routine can bring balance, vitality and stability, fostering foundations that will move you from surviving to thriving.  As a resilient Agent of Hope, you have confidence that you can engage life with grace and skill.

Now is the time to add the third power within: your ability to regulate your nervous system and maintain this regulated state when engaging with the world and its challenges. You can use this new power in conjunction with the others to quiet the inner storm and cultivate equanimity, presence, awareness, balance, and skillfully flow with the challenges you may face.

Here’s some very basic information about the nervous system: our autonomic nervous system helps to keep up safe and alive. If it perceives a threat, it activates a flight-flight-freeze response to enable us to do whatever is necessary to seek out safety. As the nervous system picks up environmental cues, signals are transmitted to the brain, which then activates a cascade of hormonal and neurological impulses that get the body ready to take appropriate action.

This autonomic nervous system also has a built-in re-balancing mechanism. When it perceives that there is no longer a threat, the system activates different hormones that allow us to rest and recover. This calibration process is called allostatic balance. An effective Agent of Hope has acquired the ability to sustain a balanced state, flowing effectively between calm and activation with practiced agility.

It’s important to note that stress isn’t always bad; ask any athlete, or performer, or student taking an exam. An appropriate amount of stress hormones makes us energized, alert, focused, and ready to take on challenges with enhanced performance, skill, and finesse. Too much adrenaline or a lack of a regulated response can increase risk and reduce our efficacy. So, when we integrate the ability to consciously calibrate these hormonal shifts, we improve not only our responses to stressful situations, but also our overall emotional and mental well-being. Balance and stability = Resilience.

Problems arise when we activate too many stress hormones at once or we don’t downshift the nervous system so that we can come to rest and calm. Staying perpetually triggered can have harmful health repercussions. Likewise, a history of traumatic experiences – personal, generational, cultural – if left unattended, can flood the system, leaving us in a dysregulated state. A constant state of fight, flight, freeze, can render us disoriented, reactive, feeling powerless, and perceiving existential threats where none may exist.

Here is an effective exercise that helps balance out the over-activation of the flight-flight-freeze stress response and brings you back to balance and stability. This exercise may seem simple, but it has been proven effective to restore your balance if you are in a panic, and increase your connection with yourself, others and your surroundings:

  • Sit or stand with your spine straight but not rigid; jaw, shoulders and belly relaxed.
  • Focus in your core – a spot in your lower belly, approximately three finger-widths below your navel, one third of the way into your body from the front. This is your center of personal power, presence, awareness and deeper listening.
  • From your center, become aware of your feet (and perhaps your lower body if you are sitting) on the ground. Feel the stability of the ground, allowing your nervous system to register that you are held and connected. Let yourself be held.
  • From your center, become aware of the middle of your chest, or your heart center. This is where you access the power of the heart – compassion, courage, connection, to name a few.
  • With this awareness of your feet on the ground, your core and your heart, take a slow deep breath in through your nose, hold the breath for a moment, and then let the breath spill out of your mouth with no effort.
  • Do this at least 3 times: in through your nose very slowly, releasing through your mouth, maintaining connection with your feet on the ground, your core and your heart.
  • Notice how this effects your heart rate, the depth of your breath, your inner state and connection with your surroundings and others.

Regular practice of this exercise will help to form new habits of resilience. This means that you will instantly do this practice without having to think about it, minimizing the reactivity that can cause us to harm ourselves and others. You may hear yourself saying in stressful moments, “Feet on the ground, focus in my center and heart, take deep breaths.” Keeping our nervous systems regulated, when coupled with self-care and resilience, can help you maintain internal balance, fostering a stronger sense of hope and personal agency.

Contact us at the Weston Network to find out more about our courses in Stress Reduction and Resilient Power. If you’d like to read more about the workings of the nervous system, trauma and resilience, take a look at the book, Widen the Window, by a good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, Georgetown University professor and founder of Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training.

— Joe




Amazon #1 bestseller in 14 categories, including Leadership Training, Business Conflict Resolution & Mediation, and Stress Reduction

Communities Change Fierce Civility

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