nervous system mindfulness

Maybe, like me, you sometimes feel that you can be “too emotional” at times. You might be relieved to learn that it is not you – it’s your nervous system. And your nervous system changes with your environment. Solid research shows that green space or nature is where your nervous system feels safe and calm.

Your nervous system is kind of like a kid’s playground seesaw or teeter-totter moving up and down all day between the two sides with ease. One end is the speedy (sympathetic) and the other is slower (parasympathetic). This up and down body balance between quick and slow happens automatically.

When Your Automatic Nervous System Gets Stuck

Stress is when your nervous system gets stuck for too long on one side or the other. When this happens you feel unsafe, kind of like you are stuck in the air on the teeter-totter or crashing to the ground. Your body is out of balance – out of homeostasis – where it likes to be.

You Don’t Have to Guess

In the past we have had to guess how our nervous systems are doing. But now we have access to the tools that were available only in the scientific research world. For decades researchers have used one single reliable measure for psychological stress and physical stress combined. This is your heart rate variability or HRV.

I take my HRV every morning at the same time of day to tell me how my mind and body are doing. It takes two minutes. I use a chest strap and a free app. I’ve written about this in my book Optimize Your Heart Rate: Balance Your Mind and Body With Green Space.

Your Thoughts: Your Biggest Source of Stress

In my previous article for Sixty and Me, Do You Know What An Outside Mindset Is?, I explained how getting outside into green space “magically” takes away your negative rumination or overthinking. Our thoughts are our biggest source of stress.

Notice New Things

It was only after I was able to recognize and control my own negative rumination with the help of green space that I discovered an easy and fun form of mindfulness. I started using Dr. Ellen Langer’s technique of simply “noticing new things” when I was outside.

Langer, a renown social psychologist at Harvard says by “actively noticing new things that you thought you already knew, you think gee… maybe I didn’t know this as well as I thought I did….your attention goes to it and gives you energy and excitement. Your neurons are firing, you are enlivened figuratively and literally.”

Langer says one way to do this kind of noticing is to pretend you are on a vacation. In 2019 a team of Danish researchers wanted to know if mindfulness was easier to do in nature. The short answer is yes, it is easier to be present when you are in nature.

Be OK With Uncertainty

Langer’s big picture view helped me too as I was struggling to understand my lupus diagnosis. The mother of mindfulness says, “We all want to run away from uncertainty. Everything is always changing, and things look different from different perspectives, so we can’t know what is going to happen.”

 Here are some Langer phrases that help me when I get scared. I say to myself:

  • Is this a catastrophe or an inconvenience?
  • How do I know what is going to happen?
  • I don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know, so let’s help each other.

Send Your Nervous System Safety Signals

These two techniques: noticing new things and being ok with uncertainty are freeing and simple. As we know, being outside in green space sends your nervous system many safety signals. So when you add noticing and being ok with uncertainty… you tap into your power to calm your emotions and balance your nervous system.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

When you get outside today, please try to notice one new thing about something you thought you already knew. Is it possible for you to pretend you are on vacation and see your same old walk through the eyes of a tourist? When you get outside, would you consider saying to yourself (and your nervous system): “I am feeling good about myself… closer to other people… confident… loved… cheerful”?