Fear is our nemesis. We have been hardwired for survival. Although our stress response is trying to keep us alive, it’s killing us. When faced with prolonged states of stress—whether from a chronically activated autonomic nervous system or excessive exposure to harmful stimuli—the body counters the attack with inflammation.
I conceptualize inflammation as a chronic fear state of the body; it wreaks havoc on our physical and mental health. Fear also erodes relational health. The protective stance of either attack or withdrawal leaves us further isolated and alone. As it turns out, connection is a biological imperative, so fear screws us there too. As I see it, then, our health and happiness depend on our management of fear.
The relationship with our bodies is the longest and most enduring relationship we will ever have. We are born with a body, and we are stuck with it until we depart from it at death. Whether we like our bodies or not isn’t important. Beauty has nothing to do with it. We must collaborate with it to facilitate the quality of life we desire. As with any relationship, both safety and trust are key.
How to make the body feel safe
Self-care practices that protect and activate the vagus nerve are especially important. The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and regulates the vast majority of the autonomic functions of the body. It wanders throughout the body and acts as the gut-brain axis of communication. Managing our inflammatory system is a major function of the vagus nerve, as well as slowing down the body's sympathetic stress response and allowing for the body to rest and digest. A healthy vagus nerve translates to a healthy body. Many of the practices listed are great for conditioning the vagal response.
- Breathe. Slow abdominal “belly” breathing activates the diaphragm, which, in turn, signals the vagus nerve to pump the brakes on our sympathetic stress response, slowing our heart rate. The long exhale is the key; that’s why a sigh, a yawn, humming, and singing are natural calming methods for us. Yoga and Pilates are based on breath control and therefore are excellent ways to start your intentional practice. I’ll speak about meditation later.
- Great sleep. Sleep is our superpower. We were made to spend about a third of our life sleeping. Don’t fight it; embrace it. Make sure you are getting quality sleep. Many people have sleep disorders that go untreated. We have a scheduled maintenance and repair plan that needs to be executed every night. Lack of sleep interrupts the body's essential processes.
- Sunlight exposure. The sun governs light and darkness, establishing our biological rhythms and setting our internal master clock. Our clock doesn’t keep good time without sun exposure, especially the hours of sunrise and sunset. The body loves routine.
- Laughter and social connections. We are hardwired for connection, and without social interactions, we begin to shut down out of protection. The pandemic was a great example of what isolation can do to our emotional health. Humor and a healthy dose of “belly laughs” sweeten the deal, so lighten up and let your silly out.
- Meditation and other mindfulness practices. Meditation has been part of the human experience since ancient times. Mindful practices slow the mind and body, so we can make intentional decisions, have a singular focus, and appreciate the here and now. As the body loves routine, the brain seeks novelty, creating drama in our life. Meditation or mindfulness is a practice that counters this tendency and brings us back to safety. It really is the little stuff that brings moments of joy.
- Listen to music. The eardrums are a portal to the vagus nerve. Rhythm is grounding to us, especially when the beat is between 80 and 100 bpm. The heartbeat is soothing to our nervous system, as it dates to our origin in the womb. Music can transport us to a memory of another time, move us to tears, and shift our mood in moments. Sing along and get twice the benefit.
- Smart dietary choices. The evidence is becoming quite clear: The food we eat, our gut health, and our level of inflammation are connected. An anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean diet can calm the fire that can be stoked by irritating substances consumed in our Western processed food diet. Some are affected more than others, but with mindful eating, you can easily identify the culprits of GI distress and systemic pain flare-ups.
- Daily movement and exercise. Exercise is brain fertilizer. It is by far the best medicine a doctor can prescribe. The nervous system loves movement, especially when performed in a playful and connected way. Combine it with music and other people you love, and you’ve created a healing trifecta. Anyone care to dance?
- Practice gratitude. The heart and brain respond to thoughts and feelings of love and gratitude in a special way. It forms a congruence that synchronizes our heart rhythms. Add some closeness and touch, and we get a burst of oxytocin. Spread some love around, and you’ll be healthier for it.
- Befriend the body. We can be friends with our bodies without loving them. The neutral stance of collaboration is enough. Learning to listen mindfully to the continual feedback it offers us can help us in our self-care decisions. Try thanking the body for warning you with its stress response rather than being frightened and numbing or detaching from uncomfortable feelings. Sensations are the language of the body, and responding with curiosity is key to the befriending process.