As I’ve been engaging at deeper and deeper levels with my body’s ability to heal on the physical level, I’ve been gaining a much clearer awareness of how stress and my nervous system tone so profoundly affect my ability to heal and to rest. While this is not a new concept, really getting a sense of how it feels on a body level has given me a new appreciation for the importance of rest and balance, and helps me to realize that I need to be reminded of its significance often, in order to truly create space for it in my day-to-day life. This is a challenging awareness to stay in touch with because it opposes many ingrained habits, ways of thinking and cultural influences. If you need to be reminded too, then I offer you this: managing stress, prioritizing rest and self-care and giving your nervous system the space and time to let go has incredibly profound implications for every aspect of your life, health and emotional and spiritual wellness. This is not something to be taken lightly, or to push off and say, “yeah, I’ll have time for that later”! This needs to be a daily remembrance and a continual awareness. Our bodies, minds and souls need help, and NOW is the time.
We live in a culture of stress, of push harder and do more, of be engaged and in action at every moment. While there are opportunities to get away and unplug here and there, the majority of our lives are spent in constant motion, either physically or mentally. This has become the norm, so much so that we may not even be aware that this is our regular state-of-being. It is only in those rare moments of stillness and connection, in nature, in relationship with others, or during self-care practices, that we may actually slow down and come into presence. The problem with this is that when we are on the go all the time (or drinking caffeine or thinking about the to-do list or feeling nervousness, stress or worry), our nervous system is, at least to some degree, amped. Even though it may feel relatively mild (and we are often used to feeling this way), our body reacts by switching into survival mode. In this state, you don’t heal, you don’t digest, and you can’t regenerate or rebuild during rest. This is a big deal, and is not at all how our bodies were meant to function. As we bathe ourselves in the hormones of stress, everything but the most necessary systems, are, to some degree, shut down. This affects all of our bodily functions in an adverse way when experienced long-term. Our nervous systems require calm and rest for long stretches of time to function optimally and support our body’s natural healing and regeneration processes. This means full nights of sleep, and days where there are no to-do’s, obligations, or engagement with screens and technology.
Healing and restoration of the physical body also requires these periods of rest. We do a majority of the repair work to our tissues while we sleep, and, hormonal balance, healthy circadian rhythms and nervous system relaxation are all requirements for this healing to occur. One of the main effects of stress is that it greatly decreases the functioning of our digestive system, making digestive enzymes less available, slowing down the movement of food through the digestive tract and decreasing blood flow to the digestive organs. As food sits around in the gut, there is an accumulation of waste products in the system and a proliferation of undesirable bacteria and fungus, leading to a build-up of toxicity and phlegm. Constipation, also often a result of sluggish digestion, further contributes to the toxic load in the body. This in turn overburdens the liver and leads to poor elimination of toxins and an even greater build-up of waste products. All of this causes a variety of symptoms and problems in the body, damaging the microbiome and disrupting many important physiological processes. Add to this the environmental contaminants coming in from the external world, and we are bathing in a soup of toxicity, microbes and waste products. If this state is prolonged, layers accumulate, systems become more and more compromised, and health declines. In this scenario, it is easy to see how things like dysbiosis, malabsorption of nutrients, brain fog or even auto-immune reactions could result. On the other hand, when we take the time to slow down, allowing our nervous system to relax, our bodies can digest, assimilate and clear toxins appropriately. In this scenario, the back-up of toxins is minimized and the likelihood of chronic illness decreased or prevented.
In addition to supporting digestion, being in states of restfulness and presence have a huge influence on how we feel and function emotionally, both because our physical systems are working properly, but also because of the space offered in these times for awareness, processing and integration of emotions and experiences. When we are constantly busy and thinking, there is no opportunity to reflect on, integrate, or even be aware of how we are feeling. Moments of quiet and presence give us space to check-in and deal with what needs attention, preventing the accumulation of emotional baggage and toxicity that can lead to depression, anxiety, confusion, or even, the establishment of patterns of wounding and trauma.
Coming from a Chinese Medicine point of view, I see these patterns of stress and compromised digestion in nearly every person I treat, and, commonly, with some degree of anxiety, worry or overthinking accompanying the physical symptoms. Deficiency of the spleen with a build-up of dampness and a stagnation of liver qi is an almost universal diagnosis at this point. This is, essentially, the process discussed above, where digestion is compromised, things become sluggish, and an accumulation of toxicity and waste products result. These factors, in addition to stress, damages the liver and its ability to circulate qi throughout the body. This can lead to all sorts of issues, ranging from body pain and PMS to anger, feelings of constraint, digestive pain and discomfort, muscle tension, or headaches. While each person’s expression of these patterns is unique, the underlying problem is often rooted in a similar place, namely, too much stress and weakened digestion, often coupled with poor or inappropriate diet. This is the way of our culture, and one which is having very wide-spread, detrimental effects.
It makes me wonder: could this be related to the societal and cultural issues we are experiencing in modern times? On a larger scale, what does widespread stress, under-functioning digestion, fatigue and an accumulation of toxins look like? While there are obviously many factors contributing to the state of our world, it makes sense that this could be one of them. The accumulation of waste products in our bodies, inability to clear toxins, and feeling stuck in a constant state of stress and overwhelm could certainly relate to foggy thinking, aggression, anger, and/or survivalist and overly-competitive behavior. This is a powerful lens to put on our own healing: by taking care of our bodies, we not only experience greater health, but also lay the foundation for the healing of humanity and culture. With healthy, functioning bodies, we then are able to act from a place of clarity and integrity, rooted in our own vital force.
So, how do we get there? Well, for starters, we need to recognize the patterns that keep us stuck on the hamster wheel, running from one thing to the next and regularly existing in a state of stress, overthinking and overwhelm. We need to be able to value ourselves and our time without the measuring stick of accomplishment and productivity. Then, we need to learn to prioritize and truly value rest, relaxation and presence. This could look many different ways, including just making time to rest or zone out. Taking a walk, being in nature, doing yoga or meditating, getting a massage, dancing, working out, taking a bath or spending time with someone you love are also ways to promote relaxation and support well-being. These things should become part of our everyday routine and be carried out with regularity and consistency with an appreciation for what they have to offer to us. Additionally, limiting caffeine, going to bed at a regular and reasonable time, slowing down in the daily routine and making a conscious effort to deal with stress and emotions in positive and proactive ways will further support health in all aspects of life. Upholding boundaries and saying no to invitations or obligations may also be necessary to create the space for things that fill you up and nourish your body, mind and soul. Making time for these practices is the only way to tap into the vast healing potential our bodies possess, while also helping heal the cultural patterns that keep us bound in cycles of dis-ease and overwhelm. Let’s recreate the expectations and lifestyles that do not serve us and move into living life with greater ease and joy, taking time to appreciate and honor our bodies and this incredible journey of life.
Hi! My name is Ashley and I'm a transformational healer, writer and artist. Here you will find articles on a variety of topics related to health and healing, conscious living and self-growth. Hope you enjoy!