The repercussions of our current health crisis have impacted every part of our lives leaving everyone I know feeling agitated and anxious. What used to be simple and taken for granted is now complex and uncertain. We need to be aware of day to day things like washing hands, opening doors, and touching. Who knew we touched our faces so much? Travel, events, school, and anything social has been cancelled. Our work routines have been totally disrupted or discontinued altogether. Add to this, the worry about long term financial, health, and shelter security. No wonder we feel stressed out.  

Knowing how stress undermines our ability to be resilient and adapt to change, it’s particularly important right now to find ways to calm your nerves and get some rest. This can be a challenge when mind and body are plugged in to survival mode. You know how it goes. Even though you’re exhausted and want to settle down, your mind is buzzing, muscles tense, and physiology churning. Just telling your body to let go and relax adds to the problem. And, when you finally nod off, sleep ends up being fitful and spotty. When this happens for one night, it effects your ability to show up responsibly, resiliently, and lovingly. When it happens night after night, it undermines long term health and well-being.  

In order to interrupt the pattern of stress and tension so you can get the rest you need, you’ll need to set aside a few minutes to relax before sleep. Lots of people report good results when they take a soothing bath, listen to spa music, meditate, or do some restorative yoga. 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. Amongst 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. So, any time you’re all worked up without an immediate fight or flight reason, your PNS needs to step in and tell your brain to chill out. With over eighty percent of vagal nerve flow going from your gut to your brain, deep breathing is a good way to stimulate the PNS and activate a relaxation response. Then, your physiology shifts 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 it out for yourself. 

  • Thirty minutes before sleep, dim the lights and turn off the screens. Even better, put your iPhone in another room. This let’s your body-mind know it’s time to get ready for bed.
  • 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. Even in normal circumstances, sustained body awareness takes practice. You may find it helpful to know that 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 inherent 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. Put your hands on your belly and take a few deep breaths. Then, whatever you do next, you’ll be more relaxed. Instead of being driven by your deepest fears, you’ll be able to access your deepest knowing to negotiate this time of change and challenge. The truth is, learning how to calm your nerves is a valuable skill for life. 

Note: Check out my helpful S.L.E.E.P. video.