Breathe

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” croons Andy Williams every December.

And for many of us, it is. Kind of. For some, it’s also hectic, busy, stressful, and downright exhausting. And cold. Frankly, there are barely enough hours in the day to cram it all in.

I’m pointing out the obvious by declaring this frantic, frenetic, frenzied, feverish state as, well, out-and-out undesirable. It’s a dark spot that not only puts you and those around you into funk-mode, but also directly and negatively impacts your health.

Fight or flight. This state of being – formally called sympathetic state – is one of two major divisions of the autonomic nervous system. It’s a real thing! Essentially, when you are feeling like a hot mess, your vagus nerve (which runs from your neck to your diaphragm) signals the brain to turn up your sympathetic system. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are triggered. Loitering in the sympathetic bog is less than ideal, and diverts energy from healing, building tissues and eliminating waste/toxins from the body. Persistent, long-term stress can thus lead to the inability to absorb nutrients from food, weight issues, depression, exhaustion, insomnia. And so on.

What’s the alternative?

Rest and digest. Formally, this is the parasympathetic state – the division that is marked by a slower heart rate, increased intestinal activity, and relaxed sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract (this is a good thing!). In other words, you enter a calmer, more relaxed state of equilibrium. In this state, healing and regeneration takes place at the cellular level, and you are better able to digest food, detoxify, eliminate, and bolster your immune system.

How do you get into the parasympathetic state?

Fortunately, it’s easy. You can learn how to turn down the sympathetic system, and gently ease yourself into the much-preferred, pro-health parasympathetic zone. For some, it’s as easy as reading, snuggling with the family dog, or going for a walk. Yoga and meditation work wonders for others. As much as possible, try to slip out of ‘alarm’ state as you prepare to eat…for best assimilation of nutrients. Bring yourself into the moment – lower lights, create mood with soft music, really focus and be in the moment, practice gratitude for your meal, family, friends…and for yourself!

Deep breathing exercises are quick, sure-fire ways to shift into a parasympathetic state. There are many ways to do this, and here is one:

Sit in a quiet spot, either feet on ground or in lotus position OR lie on your back, head slightly raised on pillow

Inhale through nostrils to count of 4. Hold breath for count of 7. Exhale to count of 8 (or longer if you can; try to expel all the dust in your lungs)

Repeat cycle 3-5 times. You will actually feel your heart rate slow down as your body shifts into The Zone.