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When Doing Nothing Is Good for You (and Your Nervous System)

How to reset your stress response to find greater balance.

Key points

  • Our nervous systems are designed to respond to immediate "threats" and then to reset and return to baseline.
  • Many people experience high states of nervous system arousal and stress without any opportunities to reset.
  • Spending some time in states of "being" but not "doing" can be restorative to the nervous system and enhance our well-being.
  • Taking short moments throughout the day to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system can help you find your way back to calm more easily.
A man sitting against a tree.
Source: josealbafotos/Pixabay

I’ve spent more time than usual lately resting on the floor on my back, with my legs elevated and supported by the cushions of my couch. It turns out that this position happens to be helpful to release tight psoas muscles. Besides helping me release these tight muscles that play an important function in so many movements, I have discovered the added benefit of feeling fully supported, letting go, and “doing nothing.” For someone who habitually tends to be always doing “something,” these daily minutes on my back have been a welcome reprieve from the busyness to which I am accustomed.

Running on stress

The culture that I live in is one in which productivity is valued and sitting idly is not. There is plenty of emphasis on doing and a whole lot less focus on being. Being keyed up and stressed is for many an accepted and familiar mode of going through the day, and for some, it can even feel necessary in order to get things done. For a long time, I was someone who thought running on stress was normal, and I felt some “addiction” to stress and busyness in that when I wasn’t stressed and busy, something felt wrong. I know I am not alone in this.

What I have discovered in this posture of surrender and support on my back is an invitation for a deep letting go, not only of physical tension in my body but also of anxious patterns of thought and an automatic urge to get something accomplished. Similar to what I have experienced in the Shavasana pose at the end of a yoga class, there is something deeply restorative in giving the body this opportunity to reset. In fact, there is a whole type of yoga called restorative yoga, which is based on the idea that spending time in supported postures where the body can fully relax is deeply nourishing for the nervous system.

The role of our nervous system

The problem is not that we do a lot in our culture. Productivity has many benefits. The problem is that many of us do not give ourselves opportunities to reset.

Our nervous systems are designed by nature to spend the majority of time in a “rest-and-digest” mode (thanks to our parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve), with only short bursts of our fight-or-flight response (high activation of the sympathetic nervous system) to help us escape external physical threats as necessary. When those threats are over, our nervous system is designed to return to baseline, where the branches of our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems come back into balance to perform their regulatory jobs (including digestion, regulating our heart rate and blood pressure, metabolism, etc.). However, for many people, we can live in a state of more chronic sympathetic nervous system activation without those opportunities for the body to reset.

Another framework to consider is Professor Paul Gilbert’s theory of the three emotion regulation systems from which we operate. He proposes that we have a threat system that responds to perceived threats through emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, and disgust. This threat system is designed to protect us and involves the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. We have a drive system, which involves emotions that motivate us toward goals and accomplishing and achieving things. This system is highly influenced by the dopamine reward system. We also have a soothing system that involves feelings of safety, kindness, calm, and care, as well as hormones such as oxytocin and the activation of the ventral vagus nerve. When we have a balance of these three systems and can move freely between them as needed, we can experience the satisfaction of working toward goals in our drive state and also spend plenty of time feeling safe, connected, and in a more “resting” state of calm. However, many people spend the majority of their time in the threat system and the drive system (e.g., being driven to achieve, do, and accomplish, sometimes even in an addictive way), and this imbalance can cause emotional (and sometimes physical) distress.

What can we do to find balance?

Here are some suggestions to help your body, mind, and nervous system find moments to reset:

1. Become aware of what emotional system and what aspect of your nervous system you are operating from as you move through the day. This basic mindful awareness, of being able to notice what is arising without judgment, can give you helpful information when choices and possibilities arise. For example, only when I notice that I am walking around in a heightened state of stress and tension can I invite in a softer, more relaxed breath, a release of tight muscles, and a mindset that shifts me out of that internal (and often unnecessary) state of pressure that I put on myself.

2. When going through your day, imagine is a faucet with two handles that represent mobilizing energy (sympathetic nervous system activation) and relaxing energy (parasympathetic nervous system activation). In small to moderate doses, turning on the handle that represents your mobilizing system gives you energy and motivation to do the things that are important to you, but in larger doses, it can become too much and tip into unproductive stress. Some tasks and things in your day may require more of this mobilizing energy (e.g., getting something done by a deadline), but other things in your day (such as “turning off” at the end of your workday) may require more relaxing energy and less sympathetic energy. Just as you can adjust the handles of a faucet to find the temperature that feels best, imagine that you can adjust your imaginary nervous system “handles” to find the optimal amounts of mobilization and relaxation needed for various tasks as you go through your day. (Hint: Check in periodically throughout the day and visualize adjusting your faucet to the needs of the task at hand.)

3. Find some time each day to give yourself permission to completely turn off the stress faucet, even if only for a few minutes at a time. Become familiar with what allows your body to find its way to moments of deep restoration and reset, where you are in a state of being and not doing, in a state of calm and relaxation. Find what works for you, as there is no one size that fits all. Some suggestions include:

  • Try out different restorative yoga poses in which you are awake and alert but fully supported and where you can give over to deep relaxation.
  • Spend time in nature and soak in the peace and stillness of the natural world (even if just savoring the sunshine on your face during a lunch break or gazing out your window for a few minutes at the trees and birds).
  • Do a short (or longer) guided meditation.
  • Listen to a piece of music that puts you in a state of relaxation and ease.
  • Soak in a tub and let yourself daydream.

The more we give ourselves over to moments of relaxation and calm, the more our nervous systems remember what this feels like, and the easier it is to find our way back there. Remember that sometimes doing nothing does a whole lot more for your well-being than you may realize.