June 11, 2020
Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of relaxed (those fortunate ones whose biggest concern is where to plant the basil or what new dish to prepare tonight) to stressed (“will I ever get unemployment benefits?!”), you know someone who is stressed about one or more aspects of their lives, the pandemic, and/or social justice/racism these days. There is no avoiding stress.
Decades ago there was a poster I loved, featuring an Indian yogi on a surf board (photoshopped I’m sure) that bore the caption: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Like that yogi, we can metaphorically learn to surf those choppy waves of stress.
The physiology of stress is such that hormones amp up our sympathetic nervous system for “fight or flight.” Leg and arm muscles become more toned, breathing and heart rate go up, digestion shuts down—who needs to digest food while running full tilt? But we indeed need our heart racing, as it were, and so much more oxygen into the blood and carbon dioxide out. The hormones also order the liver and other protein sites to dissolve parts of themselves into glucose to create more muscle fuel. All these changes together create high energy, ready-for-action, life and death sensibilities. (Is it any wonder then, that police who are routinely in stress environments frequently become unnecessarily violent? Their stress physiology/hormones are ruling them when they need their thinking to be ruling their actions instead)
Among the major players in this nervous system/energetic shift are the adrenal glands. Tiny little glands that sit atop the kidneys, along both sides of your spine, just inside the bottom of your ribs and diaphragm in back. They secrete adrenalin, of course, and also cortisol, both of which have to do with the changes mentioned.
Some people are continually in this hyper-arousal state, and enjoy it. Or don’t enjoy it, but don’t know how to get off the bus.
I’d like to offer a couple somatic practices that generally decrease the stress response in your body and support the relaxation response. In future blogs, I’ll offer some more.
1. Adrenal Reflex Points for De-Stressing
Due to the location of the adrenals, and the fact that they snug up to the spine when activated, this is most beneficial to do lying down on your back, inviting gravity to help the adrenal glands drop back away from the spine. But sitting is okay, too.
Contact your belly button, and from there move your finger up toward your head 2”. Then move a finger from each hand out toward your side, away from midline, just an inch. So it’s 2” up and 1” out from navel. Now you’re approximately at the location of a neurolymphatic reflex point for each adrenal gland. And the glands themselves are pretty much straight through your torso under your contact point.
The point may feel tender, sharp, lumpy, or just a bit different from around it. Or maybe you don’t feel much at all there, which is okay too. Simply contact the 2 adrenal points with ever so slight a pressure on the skin, the weight of a dime or nickel. If you’d like to imagine the 2 points “talking” to each other, or each point connecting to its respective adrenal gland, yes, do that.
Hold the points for 1-2 minutes. Then push a little deeper for just a moment to feel whether the area of the point has changed at all. Or does your lower midback, just above your waist, feel any softer? By any chance did you hear or feel belly rumbles or gurgles? Those sounds tell you that digestion has started up again, and therefore, the nervous system has shifted from sympathetic to parasympathetic or “rest and digest.”
Very often I hang out with these points when I go to bed and turn off my light. I’m calming my system to support a good night’s sleep. Of course, these points are helpful any time of day you might want to step back, pause, re-orient your nervous system, and lower your stress levels.
2. Easing Neck Tensions–to calm the nervous system and for your neck’s own sake as well.
The vagus nerve has a lot to do with whether we’re in aroused sympathetic state or relaxed parasympathetic mode. As the “wandering” nerve, it contacts most of our organs, communicating the brain’s directions to them. The vagus initially has a left and right branch–it leaves the base of the skull on both sides of the neck and finds its way to our esophagus which it wraps and winds its way along down to the stomach and beyond, with branches to heart, lungs and other organs. Tight necks can literally crimp its style (and yours too). Freeing up our necks is one of the easiest ways to decompress the vagus and lower our stress and tension levels.
There’s an easy, no-pressure, no-cracking way to ease your neck. I call it “Winnie the Pooh Looking at Butterflies.” Please go my blog of May 5, 2019 to find full instructions. As you do these slow, random head movements, listen for any belly gurgles, too—a sure sign you’re relaxing your nervous system. But even without the gurgles, if your neck feels happier, rest assured that you’re indeed decreasing stress levels.
Please practice Winnie the Pooh Looking at Butterflies whenever you like! It only takes a minute or 2. I find myself doing it when I’m at the computer and my neck starts hurting. Or sitting at a traffic light feeling annoyed that it’s taking too long, and then compounding it by being annoyed at myself for being annoyed! (The things we do to ourselves! But that’s another blog waiting to be written.) Watching Butterflies can help, even with my compounding thoughts.
Your life won’t become stress-free when you release the adrenal reflex points and relax your neck, but hopefully you’ll be surfing the choppy waves with a bit more ease. Enjoy the ride!
And should you want an online session for specific-to-you self-care guidance, please do be in touch. Take good care during these trying, self-reflecting, and curious times.