Your Nervous System Is Making You Nervous: Be Resilient!

Energy Express


August 2020 Issue
by Marilynn Preston

Your mind attaches to the negative.

Who cares? So what? Why is that even helpful?

See? You’re doing it already. You’re thinking negative thoughts about thinking itself instead of relaxing into the fact that your brain is hard-wired to be fearful and anxious. The trick is to consciously shift to the positive, taking full advantage of your brain’s neuroplasticity.

This “negativity bias” isn’t your fault as much as it’s your autonomic nervous system kicking into survival mode, managing your body and your mind through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. (Just seeing the words “sympathetic and parasympathetic” may make you want to cut and run. Resist. Relax. If you hang in there and learn a few things, it’ll be easier for you to start rewiring your brain for a much calmer and healthier future. Really. It’s possible.)

“The parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the nervous system are connected like a seesaw: If one goes up, the other is pushed down,” explains neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson in his book Resilient: How To Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness, written with his son Forrest. “Think of these like the brake (parasympathetic) and gas (sympathetic) pedals of a car.”
Most of us go around every day with the pedal to the metal, in a heightened state of anxiety, especially now, when there’s so much scary stuff going on.

“Fight-or-flight reactions are stressful and upsetting,” Hanson writes. “Unfortunately our modern go-go-go culture pushes people into sympathetic nervous system overdrive with few opportunities for sustained parasympathetic recovery.”

And that’s when our bodies begin to break down, along with our minds and our relationships.
“The healthy resting state of your body and mind involves substantial parasympathetic activity with just enough sympathetic activation to keep things interesting.”

Hanson’s latest book is very interesting, filled with clear, compassionate and easy-to-understand practices to engage your parasympathetic system in ways that help you grow strengths, such as grit and gratitude. These are the keys to sustainable well-being in a world that is rapidly and chaotically changing.

For more on all this, visit And here are a few more highlights from the book:

“In our overheated society, relaxation needs to be a conscious priority,” Hanson writes. To relax and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, make your exhalation longer than your inhalation. For example, inhale for one, two, three; exhale for one, two, three, four, five, six.

Hanson explains that your brain naturally and routinely scans for bad news out in the world and overreacts to it, losing sight of the big picture.

“Our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones,” he writes. “If 10 things happen to you during a day at work or in a relationship, and nine of them are positive while one is negative, what do you tend to think about most? Probably the negative one.”

The good news is that we can engage the mind in ways that shift us away from negativity toward positivity, what Hanson calls leaving the red (reactive) zone and entering the green (responsive) zone. One way is to be mindful of when you are starting to feel pressured, uneasy, upset. Just naming the feeling helps you calm down.

“Step back from red zone reactions and observe them, like stepping out of a movie and moving 20 rows back in the theater to watch it.”

LET GO. Reactive thoughts and feelings are toxic for you and others. You can consciously decide to let them go. “Exhale slowly, and relax your body,” Hanson suggests. “Let go of whatever is untrue, needlessly alarmist, or mean-spirited.”

LET IN. “Give yourself some pleasure,” Hanson suggests. Eat an apple. Listen to music. Read a favorite poem. Think of things you’re glad about, things that bring a little smile. Congratulate yourself on small successes every day. Let yourself feel cared about. These behaviors may sound small and inconsequential, but really, they’re huge when it comes to rewiring the brain. “Pleasure releases natural opioids that soothe and settle the brain’s stress machinery.”

I’m feeling a little stressed now, because there’s so much more smart stuff in the Hansons’ book about unlearning helplessness, about self-reliance, about generosity and other things I can’t fit into this column.

It’s OK, I tell myself. I feel good about the points I made. I did my best.

Exhale. One, two, three, four, five, six...

“You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”
-Pema Chodron

Marilynn Preston is the author of Energy Express, America’s longest-running healthy lifestyle column. Her book "All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being" is available now on Amazon and elsewhere. ©2020 ENERGY EXPRESS LTD.

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