Learn how to live more peacefully



Between protection and connection (Part 2)

‘Notice your patterns, bring self-compassion to your experiences of protection, and take delight in your times of connection.’ Deb Dana 

In the last blog, I explored the relationship between our protective and connecting nervous systems, and how each have an important part to play in our lives. For most of us, the protective nervous system is activated quite easily – often far more frequently than is actually required for our safety. When we are busy and stressed, it can be more difficult to engage the connecting part of our nervous system – that state where we feel at ease, with a sense of connection to ourselves, the environment, and those around us. People often find that learning to move flexibly between the nervous systems takes both intention and practice. Yet, feeling connected is very important for our mental wellbeing, and it’s worth exploring what practices might help us to feel a greater sense of connection in our lives.

In this, we are all individuals, and there isn’t ‘one way’ which will work for us all. Also, as our life changes, some practices which worked in the past may no longer meet our needs. It can be helpful to have a number of different ‘go-to’ practices we can choose from. One of the most direct ways to access a sense of connection is through the breath. A popular breath pattern which was first developed by Andrew Weil, M.D., and which helps to bring us into the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system, is 4-7-8. We breathe in through our nose for a slow count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, and then release it through the mouth, preferably with a ‘shh’ sound, for a count of eight. Another version is to breathe in for four through the nose and out for eight through the mouth. The benefit comes from having an outbreath which is twice as long as the inbreath, and while the ‘shh’ sound is helpful, we can also breathe out more quietly if we happen to be in a public place.

For myself, I find singing or humming quietly to be a wonderful way to calm my nervous system. It doesn’t need to be a whole song – just singing a few long random notes can be very grounding. The sound ‘Om’ is rich in vibrations and can feel nice to hum, but we can choose any sound we like. Spending a few minutes sitting under a tree, or walking barefoot on grass, smelling herbs and flowers, or listening to birds or a piece of music, can also be very helpful.

The point is not to simply follow someone else’s program, but to experiment and feel what works for us. It can be useful to attend meditation classes, or learn yoga or Tai Chi, or join a choir – often it’s much easier to relax when we are with other people and have the guidance of an experienced teacher. And sometimes it can take time and persistence before we can learn to relax – our first meditation class might be little more than a sore back and racing thoughts and feeling annoyed at a barking dog nearby!  It is useful to have some support and guidance, but there is also a lot we can discover for ourselves. I remember a workshop participant a few years ago, who said she found watching the washing blowing in the breeze very relaxing. When she said this, I realised that I quite enjoyed this as well! As Deb Dana said in her quote above, it’s about noticing our own patterns of protection and connection, and learning to ‘take delight in your moments of connection’. 

Mindfulness practice:

This week, experiment with the 7-4-8 breath and notice how that feels. Are there other practices which bring you a sense of connection? Can you incorporate these more into your day to day life?

Anja Tanhane