Balancing Your Nervous System to Relieve Stress

Stress & Emotional Health Post 7

For my own personal journey with stress and fear, I was eventually able to master it and create a state of emotional well-being. I was mindful of the different aspects of my health. At one point, I decided to do some advanced testing on myself to assess my health. While I’m healthy overall, there was one indicator that perhaps my cells were struggling with a certain function that’s important for our health.

I knew the different factors that could influence this, so I decided to dig deeper. However, when I did an inventory of my habits, I really couldn’t identify any areas that would be impacting my cellular health. The one area I thought I might not be properly understanding was stress.

A Stethoscope

Ever since medical school, I had been working very hard to complete my training while building a business and raising a family. I had taken very little time off, and when I did have time off, I tended to be reading, writing, and thinking about my business or about human health. I think it might be possible that I was more stressed than I knew, and that I just knew how to create a positive mindset about how busy I was.

I used a physiological measurement called heart rate variability to assess my autonomic nervous system stress. Heart rate variability can be further subdivided into low-frequency and high-frequency nervous system parameters that give an indication of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. Your sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight system and your parasympathetic nervous system is your rest and digest system.

I realized quickly that you can’t always hack your way to better health. At some point, you do have to give yourself space.

Although my resting heart rate was low and my heart rate variability was often very good, what I learned was that my sympathetic nervous system was turned on all the time. When I was waking, when I was going to bed, when I was meditating and breathing, when I was working, when I was relaxing—it didn’t matter. My sympathetic nervous system was always dominating my autonomic nervous system.

With all my study of how to use meditation and breath work to hack your central nervous system and induce the response you desire, I thought for sure I could take control of this. I used different forms of breath work and meditation, but none of them actually created the response I wanted to see, which was a balanced autonomic nervous system. No matter what I did, my sympathetic nervous system was on all the time.

I realized quickly that you can’t always hack your way to better health. At some point, you do have to give yourself space. You have to give your mind and body periods of deep rest and recovery. This is something human beings have had through most of history—periods of rest. There were seasons of harvest, but also seasons of resting and recovering before the next planting season. There were times of hunting, and times of rest.

We now live in a time where we never turn off, and I certainly didn’t allow myself to turn off back then. I did this because I felt like it was necessary. It’s what you do if you’re a doctor with a family who owns a business, I thought. This was just a construct I’d come up with. I began to realize how attached I was to the outcomes that I envisioned, and that I would do whatever it took to see to it that those outcomes were realized. If an area of innovation that I had been trying to implement wasn’t working, I would just work harder to make sure that it eventually worked out. I never thought about adjusting the plan or being more patient.

We usually are not able to identify our own blind spots. This was certainly one for me, and I’m grateful it was exposed.

When I realized this, I knew that there was only one thing I could do—let go of my attachments, take time away from my responsibilities, and just let things be as they are. I began to schedule time off for myself much earlier in the afternoon than I ever had before. I would take long walks in the woods with my dog and would not carry my phone; all I would do was walk and contemplate. I did not allow myself to turn this into a run, or do periods of high intensity intervals to get my exercise. I simply had to walk and observe.

After several months of this, I actually felt a sense of release. This was something existential, not something that I can explain, but I knew that I felt the internal motor winding down for the first time in a long time. It was much like being in a room where the air conditioner has been running and then it suddenly turns off. You had no idea it was running until it turned off. I felt a calmness and a lightness of being.

After that, when I would check my heart rate variability, it was generally balanced. My parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems were balanced. During periods of relaxation, my parasympathetic system would dominate, and when needed, my sympathetic system would dominate. I was finally back in balance.

We must create structure and rhythms to our lives that honor the design of our bodies and mind.

It’s important to note there was no supplement, medication, or form of breath work that could have done this for me. At some point, I just had to be realistic about what my mind and body were capable of. I had to give them the rest they needed to perform for me. I had to have periods of solitude, be in nature, let go of all my attachments, accept that things work out on their own time, and understand that it’s OK to let some things go.

This is not a process that I can describe and formulate for you. I cannot create a formula for how to do this. Only you will find it, but you must be open to the idea of searching for it. We must allow our bodies real rest and real recovery. We must allow our minds real rest and real recovery.

I’m thankful there were tools I could use to help me understand that not all was as I thought it was. We usually are not able to identify our own blind spots. This was certainly one for me, and I’m grateful it was exposed.

My sense of well-being is exponentially greater than it was when previously I just created a positive mindset. I desire that for you as well. Ultimately, it points to the fact that we must create structure and rhythms to our lives that honor the design of our bodies and mind. We cannot allow the economic agendas of our society to create a lifestyle that’s not sustainable for us. We must do this for ourselves, and we must encourage each other to do it together. It will make a substantial difference in our well-being.

In my next blog post, which is the last post in this series, we will go over all the techniques and tools we have discussed over the course of this blog series.


I understand the importance of integrated healthcare. If you have questions about a more personalized approach to your well-being, contact me. You also can like me on Facebook.