Category Archives: Neuroscience

Cultivating Calm

When everything around you is crazy, it is ingenious to stay calm.”  –Mehmet Murat Ildan

Stressed-out, on-fire, freaked-out? Jittery? nervous? Sometimes, it can be like that. We have so many phrases to describe that state of mind and body. It’s helpful at those times to be able to put on the brakes and access more calm.

In this blog post I’ll be sharing mind-body exercises for calming your body and mind. I recommend that you treat these exercises as a practice – exercises that you’ll need to repeat and train over time in order to get their full value. I start with the idea of practice because we have our best access to tools that we practice and use frequently. Whether it’s a tennis serve, a business tool, a musical scale, or one of these calming practices, we improve our ability through repeated practice. My hope for you is that when the game gets hot and fast-paced that you’ll have access to your practiced ways of creating calm.

Most of the practices that I’m going to suggest have their calming effect because they stimulate the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system. Our bodies can be understood by dividing them into major systems like the endocrine system, cardiovascular system, and immune system. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is one of those major systems. It’s the unconscious part of our nervous system that handles things like our regulatory and mobilization functions. It does much of its work in a behind-the-scenes unconscious kind of way.

The ANS is divided into two branches called the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. The parasympathetic branch of the ANS handles restoration, growth, regulatory functions, and unconscious social engagement.  It’s the control system for relaxation, restoration and many of our feel-good states. Cultivating higher tone in the parasympathetic branch is the gateway toward reducing the freak-out or jitters and getting back to relaxation and calm.

All of the mind-body exercises that I list below achieve their calming effect by stimulating the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. I invite you to try the exercises below and find one or two that you like and can do. Practice them so that you know them well and can use the exercise when needed. Later, you might re-visit the list and adopt some other exercises so that your toolbox for creating calm will be more broad. The key thing for now is to get started and to practice.

None of the exercises below are a recent invention. Most have been in use for thousands of years in disciplines like Yoga or Tai Chi. Here’s my list:

  • Belly breathing
  • Muscular relaxation
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Mindfulness
  • Visualization

Belly Breathing

One effective way to create calm is to stimulate the parasympathetic wing of the ANS through “belly breathing”, sometimes also called diaphragmatic breathing. A long out-breath is especially useful in stimulating the parasympathetic.

I suggest that you at first practice belly breathing either lying down (to relax your core musculature) or sitting in a relaxed and supported way.

  • Place your hands on your belly, a few inches beneath your sternum. You’ll be watching your hands to see your belly move out and inward as air moves in and out of your lungs.
  • Slowly breathe in using your diaphragm muscle, breathing in a way that makes your hands on your belly visibly move, your belly rising outward as your diaphragm moves to pull air into your lungs.
  • Slowly breathe out by relaxing your diaphragm and watch your hands fall as your belly moves inward on the out-breath.
  • It may be helpful to focus more on the movement of your belly than on the idea of breathing air. Focusing on your belly’s movement outward and the relaxing movement as your belly moves inward. Air will flow in and out as your diaphragm muscle moves downward and then relaxes.
  • As you get familiar with this kind of breathing, try making the out-breath last longer than the in-breath. Longer out-breaths act to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and actually cause your heart to beat more slowly during the out-breath. One researcher who studies this effect refers to it as a “braking system”.
  • If you’re accustomed to breathing mainly by moving your upper ribcage or shoulders, you may need to consciously practice the diaphragm movement to learn the movement pattern.

If belly breathing helps you to create calm, you could practice it when needed throughout the day, even in public settings.

Dr. Stephen Porges, a researcher at the University of North Carolina has spent his career studying the parasympathetic nervous system. His research findings include the effects that long out-breaths (such as what we do when speaking or singing) have on slowing down heart rate and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. He’s an interesting public speaker and you can find interviews with him on youtube and elsewhere where he talks about the importance of engaging our parasympathetic nervous system to promote restoration and recovery.

Muscular Relaxation

This exercise focuses on using muscular relaxation to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This exercise requires a little more time than you might have spent on belly breathing. I suggest that you set aside 10 minutes.

  • I suggest that you at first do this exercise either lying down, or sitting in a large chair that can support your entire body including your head and neck.
  • Take a few deep, calming breaths with a long out-breath. Focus inwardly on your body. Your eyes could be open or closed according to your preference.
  • Become aware of your body sensations and body tensions.
  • Notice a place in your body where you feel some tension.
  • While consciously focusing on the tension, take a full in-breath and then exhale slowly while releasing the muscular tension. Some folks find it helpful to softly voice in their mind, “relax”.
  • Breathe in an ordinary way for a couple of breaths while sensing the relaxation in the body part you have just relaxed. Get to know the relaxed feeling.
  • If you sense that you have more tension in that body part, repeat the above relaxation process, relaxing those muscles even further.
  • To continue, pick another body part where you feel some tension and repeat the breathing and relaxing process. Savor the relaxation.
  • You could continue until you feel complete with the relaxation, depending on how much time you have available.

A feeling of safety is essential for activating the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. Muscular tension sometimes sends the mind a contradictory message that there’s some threat to be anticipated or mobilized about. Muscular relaxation can be a body message to the mind that says “It’s OK now, and safe enough.”

Progressive Relaxation

A variation on the muscular relaxation exercise is to systematically scan through the body to induce and then release tension. This technique was named in the 1920’s by a physician, Dr. Edmund Jacobson, who taught it to his patients to help them sleep better and reduce hypertension.

  • I suggest that you at first do this exercise either lying down, or sitting in a large chair that can support your entire body including your head and neck. Plan to spend about 15 minutes on this exercise.
  • Take a few deep, calming breaths with a long out-breath. Focus inwardly on your body. Your eyes could be open or closed according to your preference.
  • Choose a muscle group in your body – for example your neck, a leg or hand.
  • Voluntarily tense the muscle, hold it for a few seconds and feel the sensations of the tight muscles. Try to tense only the muscle group that you choose. If you feel other muscles tensing try to let them relax.
  • Really get to know the sensations of tension in the muscles that you’re working.
  • After a few seconds, release the tension. Exhale as you release the tension. Feel the relaxation as the tension drains away. Really get to know the sensations of relaxation.
  • After delaying long enough to feel the relaxation, select another muscle group and repeat the process.
  • After working and relaxing several muscle groups, pause and feel your overall level of relaxation. Savor any pleasant sensations, especially any increased sense of safety.

Muscular relaxation can help to reduce mobilization of the “fight-or-flight” response to life’s demands.

Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness meditation is a powerful way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to create calm. I sometimes teach it in my practice. If you’re new to mindfulness (sometimes called Vipassana, it’s eastern name) and would like to try it, here’s a brief getting-started guide:

  • Find a comfy place where you can focus and won’t be disturbed. You can decide how long you’ll meditate or be spontaneous about ending. Eyes open or closed as you like. Sit comfortably.
  • Take a relaxing breath. Be aware of sounds around you. Let them be whatever they’ll be. Accept them. Imagine setting down a heavy rock and set down your concerns.
  • Become aware of the sensations of your breathing. Notice the sensations of air coming into your nose, throat, and chest – and then air leaving as you exhale. Notice your chest rising, falling.
  • Continue noticing the sensations of breathing. Pay attention to the sensations. Can you be fascinated with your own breathing?
  • Your mind will do what minds usually do as you’re breathing. It will think its thoughts and will probably wander all over your mental landscape and concerns.
  • It’s natural for the mind to wander. When your mind wanders, gently notice “wandering mind” and return your attention to the sensations of breathing.
  • Be gentle with yourself – kindness matters. Return your attention to your breath.
  • See if you can become absorbed in the sensations of your breath as you pay attention to the sensations.
  • When your mind wanders, gently notice “wandering mind” and return to awareness of the sensations of your breath. Be friendly with yourself.
  • Be aware of the plans, thoughts, statements, memories and imagery that arise in your mind. Let them rise and fall away. Don’t engage your mind by fighting your thoughts. But don’t go on the mental journey with them either. Return your attention to your breath.
  • Continue until you’re ready to end.

When you complete your meditation, notice how you feel and relish the goodness.

Thirty years ago mindfulness practice was viewed with skepticism, but in the 21st century mindfulness has gone mainstream. It’s now taught in public schools, by HMO’s for its health benefits, and it’s widely used in state-licensed therapies. Science has studied mindfulness meditation and experimental results have demonstrated a long list of benefits, including increased attention span, increased compassion, and empathy. It’s been shown to be helpful for insomnia, and helpful in reducing worry and levels of stress-related hormones. Studies have shown it to strengthen the immune system.

Interested in more resources for mindfulness? Rick Hansen’s book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom” is an excellent guide to mindfulness practices. It’s an easy read and full of practical tips and exercises. If you’re looking for guided mindfulness practices in the form of podcasts or mp3 files, check out UCLA’s Mindfulness Library at http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22

Visualization

Visualization or imagery is another powerful way to create calm. Much of our brain activity is linear-verbal in nature – talking, writing, reading, and also the background verbal chatter that seems nearly constant. Threat assessment or other commentaries that keep us activated/aroused make up much of that verbal chatter. How calming it can be to put my brain to work doing something else – something deliberately calming. Visualization and imagery activate a variety of brain regions other than those worried verbal centers.

Some suggestions for using visualization/imagery:

  • Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet place without distractions. Take a deep relaxing breath with a longer out-breath.
  • Recall a place you’ve been where you felt relaxed. A place with visual and other sensory memories that you feel interested in and engaged in. A relaxing place.
  • Depending on your needs, it may be helpful if this remembered place was peaceful, calm or evoked safety for you. For example a beach, a stream or river, a favorite park, or a room at home that you like. A place where you have felt safe.
  • Recall the visual highlights or appeal of this place. Be interested and immersed.
  • Recall the smells, sounds, and other sensory experiences from that place – other senses along with the visual. Get immersed in it.
  • “Roam” the area if you wish. Imagery that I sometimes use involves movement along with the visuals.
  • Re-experience the imagery until you feel a difference, immersed in the visualization.

Practice. You’ll experience the benefits more if this exercise is familiar and second-nature. You might try using it for a few self-care minutes during a difficult day or other circumstances. It can be helpful to “come up for air” when you need to create some calm for yourself.

Come Up for Air

When you notice that you’re in the grip of an endless cycle of worried ruminating, or when you’ve gone far enough with some feelings, it can be helpful to “come up for air.” Being able to come up for air is a bit like being able to use your mind’s brakes. You’d never set a car rolling without first knowing how to put on the brakes to slow down or stop.

Coming up for air isn’t always so easy. And that’s why it’s helpful to practice so that the skill is at hand when needed.

The exercises that I’ve described for Cultivating Calm can be used to practice the art of coming up for air. Many of those exercises are physical and work with mind-body interaction. It’s helpful to learn to come up for air in your body so that in those moments when you realize that you’re rolling along faster than you like, you can have access to the brakes.

Additional Stress Relief

Aerobic exercise provides another means of support toward cultivating calm. I’ve written in another blog post about the stress cleanup that follows after exercise. Check out Dr. John Ratey’s Spark for Well-Being for more info.

Wrapping it Up

In this post I’ve shared mind-body ways of calming the body and mind. Creating calm can be helpful, but we also have to acknowledge that a calm mind alone often won’t be enough to meet all of your life’s demands. Such an expectation would be unrealistic. A calm mind can be helpful but meeting life’s givens usually requires other capacities and skills. Our world is rich in resources to develop those capacities – self-help books and counseling therapies are some resources that come to mind. I encourage you to draw upon resources like those as you turn toward meeting whatever life sends your way.

Interested in additional reading? Here are some books you could check out related to stress and practices for cultivating calm:

  • Hanson, R., & Mendius, M. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. [Kindle Edition]. Amazon.com
  • McEwan, B. S., (2002). The End of Stress As We Know It. [Kindle Edition]. Amazon.com

And if you’re interested in a deeper read about the bodily processes for relaxation check out:

  • Ratey, John J. M.D. (2008). Spark [Kindle Edition]. New York: Little, Brown.
  • Porges, Stephen W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory [Kindle Edition]. New York: W.W. Norton.