By Thrive Sacramento’s Clinical Director, Gillie Francis, LCSW
HOW MINDFULNESS PRACTICES CAN HELP REGULATE THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Focused and Thoughtful States of Being
We often fluctuate between two states of being — focused and thoughtful.
In the focused state, a person is typically immersed in an activity, concentrating solely on the task at hand. This preoccupied state allows an individual to feel in control, purposeful, and engaged.
In the thoughtful state, a person isn’t distracted by a task and the mind is free to wander. As a result, they often face regretful thoughts about the past and worries about the future that arise within their mind. While exploring their thoughts, they may experience a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (abandoning one’s needs to please others and avoid backlash) response as they struggle with feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and fear.
Bridging the Gap Between the Focused and Thoughtful States
Mindfulness practices such as movement and breathing can bridge the gap between these two states, regulate the nervous system, and bring one back to the present moment. A person’s fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response is triggered by their sympathetic nervous system. The response causes feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty often prompted by the thoughtful state. Mindfulness-based task-oriented actions, like yoga, breathwork, and meditation can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system to soothe this fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response and stimulate a rest-and-digest response, which evokes feelings of relaxation.
Rest and Digest Rather Than Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn
The easy-to-implement mindfulness practices described below can help you access the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest-and-digest mode when your emotions are heightened. Through the repeated implementation of these mindfulness practices, you can train your mind to manage internal and external stressors more calmly instead of automatically being consumed by a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn stress response.
IN-THE-MOMENT MINDFUL MOVEMENT
Mindfulness practices are often associated with quietly meditating while perched cross-legged atop a plump cushion. While stationary meditation is beneficial, mindful movement can also provide a path to the present.
Mindful movement practices include yoga, tai chi, and qigong to name a few. Even simpler, taking a mindful walk can allow you to dive deep into the present moment. If possible, get outdoors – even if you’re in an urban environment, exposure to sunlight and nature can nourish you and enhance the experience. As you walk, use your senses to explore your environment, allowing yourself to truly appreciate being here and now. Notice what you see, hear, and smell. Pay attention to any physical sensations you feel in your body. If you find your mind wandering to your thoughts, which is a completely natural occurrence, gently bring your attention back to your current reality.
ON-THE-GO BREATHING PRACTICES
Essential, easy, and effective, breathing exercises can help you relax when you’re feeling overwhelmed while also allowing an opportunity to be in the moment. They don’t require equipment, elaborate preparation, or much time.
Explore some of Thrive’s favorite breathing exercises and directions for performing these practices below.
- Square or Box Breathing: Breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat these steps until you feel centered. (Note: You can adjust the length of your inhales and exhales as needed, as this practice should not cause added stress in the process. For example, if four seconds is a strain, you can start with three seconds and extend over time as you become more used to the practice. Alternatively, if taking longer breaths feels more beneficial, you can increase it to five or six seconds.)
- Count the Breath: On the inhale, count to one. On the exhale, count to two. Continue to count the duration of your breaths until you reach ten. Begin again at the count of one. You can continue moving through these steps for a few minutes, remembering to take your time with each breath.
- Four-Seven-Eight: Inhale for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale for a count of eight. Repeat the cycle for a few minutes.
- Children’s Breathing Practice: Short breathing exercises can be beneficial for children as well. To begin, encourage children to imagine smelling a flower by inhaling. Then, invite them to “blow out the candles” by exhaling. Have them repeat this series a few times.
Additionally, taking a deep breath in any given moment can make a difference. The simple act of slowing down the breath – especially the exhale – can significantly ease your nerves.
HOW TO CULTIVATE SMALL MOMENTS OF MINDFULNESS
Building short mindfulness breaks into your daily routine can be more natural and effortless than you might think. While engaging in everyday occurrences, such as art, music, self-care, common tasks, and chores, you can soak in the calm awareness of the present.
Next time you’re sipping your morning coffee or washing dinner dishes, try cultivating a moment of mindfulness. Immerse yourself in the experience by enlisting your senses to inventory the affair. The seemingly mundane task may just transform into a meaningful ritual.
THRIVE IS PASSIONATE ABOUT MINDFULNESS-BASED THERAPY
Thrive’s team of multidisciplinary clinicians specializes in the intricate relationship between mental, emotional, and physical health. Because mindfulness strengthens the connection between the mind, body, and spirit, Thrive incorporates mindfulness into our outpatient therapy, eating disorder treatment, and perinatal mental health program to help foster holistic healing. Find out more about our therapeutic services by reaching out.
About the Author
Gillie Francis, LCSW — Thrive Sacramento’s Clinical Director
Gillie Francis received her master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Nevada and is a fully licensed LCSW in both Nevada and California. Her experience spans a variety of settings and levels of care including inpatient, residential, and outpatient and crisis services. Gillie has experience working with adults and adolescents with severe mental illness, eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation, personality disorders and other co-occurring disorders. Gillian is passionate about honoring each individual’s journey and utilizes approaches that emphasize empowerment with clients. Approaching her work with integrated modalities, she works with individuals to find their voice and engage in pivoting towards their values. She believes that each individual has the capacity for meaningful change in their lives. When she is not working with clients, she enjoys time outdoors with her spouse and dog, Charlie.