In this segment of Corner Office Anatomy, I want to talk about one of the most vital parts of your body, but one that you might not think about so often while you are in the office (or at any other time for that matter).
It’s a part of your body that could hold the key to your success or failure as a professional in this modern urban era. Still, you probably power through day after day of your career without giving it a single thought. What could be so important yet so easily ignored?
Your autonomic nervous system, of course.
Unless you are an anatomy buff, you are probably wondering what in the world is that, and what does it have to do with your workaday experiences?
The autonomic nervous system is extremely complex, and it is impossible for me to explain it you entirely in this post. To put it very simply, it’s a system of neurons, nerves, plexuses, neurotransmitters, etc. that is responsible for regulating the involuntary (a/k/a unconscious) functions of your body, you know, things like your heart rate, blood circulation, sweat glands, digestion, and the basic rhythm of respiration. Basically anything in your body that carries on without your needing to think about it.
There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system that are constantly interacting with each other to react to your environment and maintain your body’s essential functioning. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body for emergencies—it’s the famous “fight or flight” system.
The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, is known as the “rest and digest” system because it supports the day-to-day functioning of your internal organs. The parasympathetic system always working, it’s just that when the sympathetic system kicks in, certain of the parasympathetic functions (like digestion, elimination, basic rhythmic breathing) are altered while the body prepares to deal with a threat.
So, what does this all have to do with you and the office?
Well, the sympathetic nervous systems gets triggered when you perceive stress (for example, a tiger is chasing you or your home is on fire). In response, your body does a number of things, like increasing your heart and respiration rate, releasing bunches of adrenaline, and slowing down the other bodily functions (like digestion) that are not absolutely necessary to deal with a threat to your survival.
Obviously, this kind of reaction has been hugely effective for us humans as we have evolved through extremely dangerous environments. But even though our modern urban living is (usually) far safer than it has ever been in our evolutionary past, our day-to-day lives are still full of the kind of stress that triggers our sympathetic nervous system.
Especially in the workplace.
Things like difficult bosses, office politicking, deadlines, incessantly beeping electronic devices, and overwhelming task lists frequently create a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. Basically, our bodies can’t process the difference between fighting a woolly mammoth or running away from a spear wielding enemy, and a constantly buzzing phone or preparing for a career-breaking presentation.
The physiological experience of the sympathetic nervous system being triggered—increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweating, out of control breathing—is the same no matter where the stress comes from.
Our bodies were not designed to withstand the near constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, which is such a common occurrence in the modern world of work (and, thanks to technology that allows you to be connected to your work 24/7, the modern world of rest).
The more the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, the less the rest of your body is able to maintain its regular, peaceful functioning—and the more wear on your nerves. Over time, your overall health will suffer and your ability to handle stress will decline. I know I don’t need to tell you what a breakdown of your nervous system will do to your effectiveness at work, or your ability to handle all the other aspects of your life.
So, in order to counteract the effects of stress, it is vital to learn how to calm the sympathetic nervous system. This is exactly what many of the yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques are designed to do.
There are numerous techniques I could teach you, but in this post I’m going to give you just 3 mini-practices that you can use to calm your sympathetic nervous system particularly while you’re in the office. You don’t even need to leave your chair for these techniques to work!
Seated forward fold
Forward folds are hugely calming (for a variety of anatomical reasons that I won’t get into here). You can certainly stand up, or sit on the floor, and fold over your legs, but that’s not always possible in the office so try this one right from your chair.
Sit about half way between the back and front edge of your chair with your feet flat on the ground and set widely apart (about as wide as the two sides of the chair seat). Take a deep breath in as you sit up tall with your hands resting lightly on your lap. Then, exhale as you drop your arms in between your legs and roll yourself forward until your fingers or hands touch the floor. If your fingers/hands don’t reach the floor, you can let them dangle, or if that is uncomfortable, then just rest them on your thighs. Stay here and breathe deeply for at least 5 breaths—or as long as you need to feel calm and stable.
Double exhale breathing
Yogic breathing techniques (which are broadly called “pranayama”) have long been known to calm the sympathetic nervous system by slowing the heartbeat, reducing blood pressure, and producing a sense of calm and stability. How it happens is not entirely clear, but it has to do with our ability to consciously control a function–respiration–that is affected by all the other involuntary functions.
One of the most effective, simple breathing techniques is the double exhale.
Practice like this. Sit comfortably in your chair, with your feet on the ground and your hands resting lightly in your lap. Inhale for a count of 3 (or 4 or 5, depending on your lung capacity and state of mind); exhale for a count of 6 (or 4 or 10 etc.). Continue like this for at least 5 minutes.
It’s now well-known that meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) lowers your stress levels and calms your sympathetic nervous system. But it’s also well-known how hard it is to spare any time for a dedicated meditation practice.
Worry not—there is a way to incorporate some mindfulness meditation into your very busy day. Just practice this “pause meditation.”
To do it is simple: at different moments in your day, such as before you make a difficult phone call, respond to an email, or go into an important meeting, pause and take 3-5 deep inhales and exhales (take more if you have the time or are feeling particularly stressed out).
You are sure to feel more calm and stable, even after just a few breaths. Remembering to pause is as much part of the practice as the breathing, so the more you train your mind to take the pause, the more you will experience the mental clarity that comes with a focused practice.
Will you try one or more of these this week? Tell me if you do, I want to know how it feels for you.
Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class). In the meantime, start practicing what I’ve shown you in this post and you will get a good start on calming your overworked sympathetic nervous system.
As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can help your life in the office run smoothly then inquire here.
And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them!
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