The autonomic nervous system regulates heart rate, digestion, and other unconscious functions of the body. It has two branches for two different modes of being. The fight or flight response we've all heard of is counterbalanced by a rest/digest/socialize system. In general, when one is more active, the other gets inhibited.
When the flight or fight takes control you are on high alert and your:
- heart rate increases
- muscles tense
- palms sweat
- digestion stops
- vision narrows and colors become less noticeable than contrast and movement
- face and voice become less expressive
- understanding of facial expressions is distorted
- ability to detect threats is sensitized, and it becomes difficult to notice anything else
- frontal cortex shuts down so you can't think logically, plan, or understand differing perspectives
When the rest and digest takes over, your heart rate slows and it is easier to:
- relax muscles
- use peripheral vision
- shift perspectives
- think clearly
- be creative
- appreciate beauty
- enjoy humor
- understand facial expressions and vocal intonations
- have more animated facial expressions and an expressive voice
When our flight or fight is too active, we can calm ourselves by stimulating the rest and digest system in the following ways:
- Exhaling completely, letting your ribs collapse in. Imagine your diaphragm rising up to support your heart (the heart does indeed sit on top of the diaphragm).
- Take a large but comfortable deep breath in and notice your exhale. When the exhale stops, exhale more. When the exhale stops again squeeze the last air out of your lungs. Only do this once or twice before letting your breathing be more relaxed.
- Let the your inhale happen all on it's own and gently encourage your exhale to continue after it stops.
- Notice the weight of your body. Let it drop so that the ground (or chair) is holding you up. Remind yourself that you don't have to work so hard to hold yourself up.
- Use your peripheral vision.
- See how far to you can see to the right and left simultaneously.
- See how far to you can see up and down simultaneously.
- Let your eyes move as far as they can go in all different directions.
- Look as far up as you can (you may feel a bit of a strain - this is ok, it just means you need to stretch those muscles more).
- Look up to the left and up to the right.
- Try to move your eyes slowly and smoothly as you look around and notice different lovely or interesting things.
- Notice the sensations on the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands.
- Use a sing-song voice
- Mobilize the muscles of your face
- Scrunch up your face, squeezing your eyes and your mouth tight, then open as wide as you can.
- Make as many different silly faces as you can.
- Smile the way you would when you're trying hard not to laugh and notice how the muscles around your eyes relax.
When something intense or triggering happens and you feel really threatened (even if only for a moment), it can take around 20 minutes for the flight or fight response to fully calm down. Be patient with yourself.