Traffic signals taught us at a young age that green indicates “go,” red means “stop,” and yellow, “slow down and proceed with caution.” The actions associated with these colors, when it comes to traffic law, are not suggestions, but rather legally binding mandates put in place to avoid chaos. All three lights are necessary for safety. In the same way that traffic laws facilitate and support accident-free roads, our minds and bodies have similar laws that must be adhered to for a sustained state of wellness. It is only when the practice of go, slow down and stop are balanced that our physical fitness, cognition and emotional balance can reach optimal levels.
As a culture, when it comes to our lives, we are masters at “go.” We struggle with but are forced to “stop,” and we completely ignore “slow down.” We are addicted to doing, connecting, and accomplishing. A combination of continuous access to information and images, constant social media interaction, and the ability to develop and build professional networks all day and night feeds these addictions. Because there are endless opportunities to do, connect, and succeed, we have the ability to—and often do—jump on every opportunity. We live by the rules of the green light.
When the red light comes on, even when we feel as if we haven’t accomplished enough or lived as fully as we wished, our body and even our brains turn off. Sleep is a fundamental, natural, and cyclic body process that restores and recharges the brain. The brain is literally preparing for the next day by forming new pathways to learn, retain and implement new information. It is a critical process that every human is biologically required to adhere to, and thankfully so! So, our bodies toggle between stop and go states. So easily and without effort, in fact, that it’s practically automatic. Slowing down (aka resting, meditating, acknowledging, witnessing), on the other hand, takes effort and forethought. So the question is, why do we need to live by this triad? What’s so important about slowing down, when living in stop and go is so seamless?
To understand the benefits of slowing down requires an investigation into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Housed in the nervous system—the information and communication system of the body responsible for transporting messages from the brain to the body and the body to the brain—the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to help the body respond to information about the external environment. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for stressful or emergency situations—fight or flight—by increasing heart rate, opening airways to facilitate easier breath, releasing stored energy, increasing muscular strength and, at the same time, slowing processes like digestion and elimination that are less important during emergencies. The parasympathetic nervous system maintains optimal body function during everyday life by sustaining a healthy heart rate and blood pressure, keeping the digestive tract functional to process food and eliminate waste, and restoring and conserving energy needed during emergencies. We are designed to sustain ourselves with the help of the parasympathetic nervous system, and only occasionally call on the sympathetic nervous system during emergencies. Living in a state that allows those body systems to work as they were designed is a primary key to optimal health.
Unfortunately, it is that “go” energy that we thrive on and live in that continuously triggers the sympathetic nervous system and puts our bodies in a constant state of emergency. This state, also known as a state of stress, sustains elevated heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Over time, muscle, immune, heart, and brain tissues break down, and hormonal balance is disrupted, inhibiting recovery from injury or illness and potentially even opening the door to disease. To avoid this fate, we must go back to what nature intended and flip the switch: from primarily living in the sympathetic nervous system to primarily living in the parasympathetic nervous system. We literally have to train our body to relax and release in order to restore the appropriate relationship between the systems. This requires awareness tools and techniques. Essentially we are training the body how to rest or, in other words, how to live by the principles of the yellow traffic light.
Rest is a deliberate process that, through the use of conscious breath, triggers and nourishes the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to drop into a state of physical, mental, and emotional relaxation and balance. Once we know how to use our awareness tools and techniques to access the parasympathetic nervous system, we can learn how to sustain this state for incremental periods of time until we can more naturally live in this state. It requires time and effort to identify the tools and techniques that work best for you and your body, to practice those techniques to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, and to employ those techniques over a lifetime. The reward, however, is a longer, healthier, and more vibrant life.
- Redefine your relationship to time. Time—how you view time and how you spend time—can be a trigger for the sympathetic nervous system. Most often time itself (or a lack thereof) is being blamed for the inability to live a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. But let’s face it, you are in charge of how you spend your time and can take ownership of your choices. To facilitate a new relationship with time, try changing how you think about time. Rather than saying, “I don’t have enough time to eat breakfast before work” or “I don’t have time to kiss my partner goodbye,” try saying, “I didn’t leave enough time to eat breakfast before work or kiss my partner goodbye.” By taking responsibility for how you use your time, your life choice priorities become clearer.
- Breathe. Set aside sanctioned time for deliberate breathing—it’s a great tool to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. You can breathe anytime and anywhere. Set your watch alarm twice during the day; once mid-morning and once mid-afternoon or mid-evening. When your alarm goes off, simply sit tall or even stand tall and take a few deep breaths. Build up the number of times per day you remind yourself to breathe.
- Set aside time to practice structured rest. Whether this means sitting in a quiet place or going to a restorative yoga class, be as consistent as possible. Start with a simple timed practice while lying in constructive rest. Constructive rest is a shape used in restorative yoga to help facilitate breath and nourish the parasympathetic nervous system. Lay on your back (supine) with knees bent, feet grounded, hands resting on the belly and head resting on a pillow. Place feet wider than the hips and drop knees toward center to support each other. Inhale for two counts and exhale for two counts. Continue this process of counting your inhale and exhale for three minutes, twice a day. Gradually add time.