Raise your hand if you've felt burnt out, stressed, exhausted from the general state of things the last few years, or perhaps an overall feeling that you're always behind. Burnout is insidious, especially if you're on the go and balancing work, home life, relationships, squeezing in a workout, social events, and all the things that make you feel on all the time. But isn't that all of us?
The conversation around burnout used to be workplace-specific, and we'd be remiss, not to mention the relationship to the pandemic and how it's drained everyone. Still, the American Psychological Association notes that "burnout and stress are everywhere." Various stressors can leave you feeling depleted, negative, unmotivated, and trapped–all symptoms of burnout, but not limited to your job. It's become a state of our modern lifestyle.
Other common symptoms include insomnia, change of appetite, headaches, body pain, and fatigue that doesn't go away with a good night's sleep. That's because one of your nervous systems is in overdrive, and the other (where all healing takes place) is subdued. So, yes, you have two nervous systems. Let's unpack that because if you're going to chill out, you'll need to know what to do.
You have both a voluntary and an autonomic nervous system. We use the voluntary nervous system to control movement, for example, giving a thumbs-up or lifting a coffee cup to our lips. So the main thing to know is that it's under your control.
The autonomic or involuntary nervous system functions on an unconscious level and regulates internal organs even while we sleep, like heart rate, lungs, and digestion. Within the involuntary system, there are two branches:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System This is how we get into fight-or-flight mode. Stressors and triggers activate a response to perceived danger, and our body pumps out stress hormones that ready us to act quickly. In caveman times, it was lifesaving, like when encountering a saber-toothed tiger. These days, we set off our fight-or-flight mode with emotions like stress and anger. What was once a survival instinct is now a typical stress response. You may notice increased heart rate, breathing, and tension in your body.
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System This one will be your favorite because this marvel of the human body is all about relaxation. The opposite of fight-or-flight mode is rest-and-digest. (Remember this from biology class?) This is where you need to be for healing, restoration, regeneration, and easy digestion. The rest-and-digest state is where your body should theoretically be whenever you're not in danger. Unfortunately, when you’re in a state of chronic stress, it’s harder to get there and when you do, there’s a lot to untangle.
In our modern life, many people experience an updated version of fight-or-flight. They often feel tired but wired, have trouble quieting their busy mind, or have difficulty calming down to a genuinely restful state. Hitting the wall bone-tired at the end of the day is not the way to rest and digest.
When you have a stressful trigger, it takes 20-30 minutes to return to your natural state, but if you're burning out and feeling stressed all day, when do you recover? How do you begin to regulate your nervous system in an over-productive, results-driven world?
You can start by taking comfort from the fact that the conversation is pushing back on hustle culture. For example, a recent article published by Harvard Business Review says, "Einstein wasn't trying to "crush it" or "kill it" at work. In fact, the behaviors and language associated with hustle culture don't typically lead to great accomplishments." More people and organizations are realizing this.
Of course, you'll need more than a new outlook and a mindset shift to regulate your nervous system and tap into the unconscious controls of your miraculous body. (Although the mind/body connection is strong here, as you'll see.) So here are four of our favorite ways to stimulate the involuntary nervous system to start incorporating into your routine and finding balance:
- Cold showers - Cold water vitalizes the immune system and stimulates the vagus nerve, the largest nerve in our autonomic nervous system. Sure, you'll feel a rush at first, but post-plunge, you'll ride a wave of dopamine or the feel-good hormone.
- Float - Regular sensory deprivation sessions also stimulate the vagus nerve and bundles of connected nerves, relaxing the body and lowering cortisol. Dr. Robin Berzin, Founder and CEO of Parsley Health, America's leading holistic medical practice, says about floating, "You'll be surprised at how quickly your body can reset and restore when you make deep relaxation part of the program."
- Meditation and Breathwork - Deep breathing and meditation are proven to relieve acute stress, and you can do them almost anywhere safely. One calming way to regulate your breathing is with a three-part count. Inhale deeply for three seconds, hold your breath for two seconds, then exhale for four seconds. Repeat for several minutes.
- Massage - Massage is well-known to have a calming effect on the nervous system. It reduces heart rate, slows breathing, and releases more of that feel-good hormone dopamine.
If you're ready to kick-start your reset, you can combine all four at our spa. First, start with a cold shower. You've got to shower before your float session; why not activate your vagus nerve and get some dopamine flowing while you're at it? Then, practice meditation and breathwork during your float. Finally, finish with a hands-on massage or a 30-minute session in one of our magnificent massage chairs. After that, you'll be so chilled out you may want to arrange a ride home.