There are many ways to approach healing the nervous system, from one-on-one support, like therapy, to group or solo work with meditation and the breath. One approach I’ve found immensely valuable in my life is a somatic approach, which simply means “relating to the body.”
It’s so important to take care of your nervous system because prolonged stress forces it into high alert. Over time, this can lead to serious health risks such as inflammation, hypertension, digestive issues, heart disease, low immunity, high cholesterol, and stroke. In fact, 58 percent of Americans currently have at least one chronic illness from dealing with constant stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
No matter your circumstances, healing the nervous system will help you better manage anything that comes your way—and let’s be honest, life has been known to throw us some doozies! Add these reliable, effective somatic practices to your self-care toolbox so you can approach each day with greater balance and peace.
How Somatic Practices Restore Nervous System Balance
The term somatic might sound overly complicated or technical, but it just means, “relating to the body.” As such, a somatic practice is any self-care or therapeutic modality that teaches you how to become more aware of physical sensations and what they’re communicating to you.
For example, a somatic breathwork practice might draw your attention to areas of pain, discomfort, tension, or imbalance in the body that are representative of something you’re struggling with emotionally. This is critical because you are an interconnected organism—what you feel in your mind lives in the body too. We can’t just address one area and not the other and expect to feel good.
From a scientific standpoint (you know I love the science!), somatic practices nurture the connection between body and mind. When you do this, you anchor your awareness in the present, create a sense of embodiment, and feel more integrated within yourself. This is key to finding that balance and peace you’ve been craving.
5 Somatic Practices for Healing the Nervous System
Healing your nervous system through somatic practices not only helps you handle a current challenge, but allows you to build more resilience for future challenges too. Luckily, if you’re new to this concept, it’s easier than you might think to incorporate these practices into your routine.
Here are a few options that are accessible for all of us no matter where we are or what we’re experiencing. Reach for any one of these when you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
As you try each one, remember to be patient and open. It may not come easily at first. We live in an always-on world, so learning how to slow down and tune into the body can be challenging. The more you do it, though, the easier it gets. This is your permission slip to trust the process and yourself.
1. Body Scans
A body scan allows you to quickly turn your focus inward and start attuning to the sensations within your body. Stress lives both in the mind and the body. Instead of approaching relief just from the brain, you can do it through the body and physically release the tension that’s present there. This in turn helps release the stress in your mind, alleviating your entire being.
To do a body scan, follow this process:
- Stop what you’re doing and take three deep breaths. Let go of whatever is happening and simply tune into the present moment. It can be helpful to count to three as you breathe in and then again as you breathe out to anchor into your breath.
- Now begin to scan your body from the top of your head all the way to the bottom of your feed. As you do, check in with each area: do you notice constriction in your throat? Is your breathing shallow? Do your neck or shoulders feel tight? Is there sweat or tingling in your hands or feet? Don’t judge these sensations—simply feel them and concentrate on releasing the tension.
- Once you’ve scanned your body, send your breath to any area that is tense, anxious, tight or tingly. As you do this, imagine breathing in peace and giving that feeling to each of those areas.
- When you feel calm and centered and are ready to be done, follow the same process of taking three deep breaths in and three deep breaths out before returning to your day.
You can also try this practice with progressive relaxation. Contract and relax each muscle group as you move through your body. Each contraction should be slow and intentional. As you do this, imagine any emotions, stress, or tension being flushed out to create room for peace, balance, healing, and self-love.
2. Intentional Breathing
Your breath is a vital mechanism for healing the nervous system because it quickly connects you to your body. The best part is, it doesn’t have to be complicated! Simply breathing with intention (noticing or counting your breath in and out) will help you tune into the present, let go of whatever stress or anxiety is hanging out, and start to feel more balanced.
As you tune into the breath, you may notice how your breathing becomes shallow when you’re anxious. This is that good old fight or flight response that your body moves into automatically when the brain thinks you’re in danger. The brain doesn’t know the difference between real danger (like a tiger chasing after you) and perceived danger (like a stressful email from your boss) so it shifts into full-on protection mode. Cue anxiety, shallow breathing, and fear.
However, as you slow down that reaction and focus on taking deep, rhythmic breaths from low in the diaphragm, you initiate a parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous response. This calms your body in the moment (so needed!) but it also improves your health long-term, allowing for:
- Increased heart rate variability
- Healthier blood pressure and circulation
- Lower depression, stress, and anxiety levels
- Enhanced cardiorespiratory fitness
- Relief from migraine and gastrointestinal issues
- Improved metabolic function
Use this somatic practice any time you need it, even if you’re in the middle of a stressful meeting. No one has to know you’re taking deep breaths to calm your nervous system! No matter where you are, remember to breathe low, breathe slow, and through the nose. Even better if you let out a longer exhale than the inhale. For example, breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of six.
3. Mindful Movement
Sometimes the quickest way to move past difficult or uncomfortable emotions is through the physical act of mindful movement. You can work on healing your nervous system with movement-based somatic practices like Pilates, Tai Chi, yoga, stretching, walking, or even dancing. The type of movement doesn’t matter—what does matter is that you’re intentional and mindful as you do it.
The goal here is to become attuned to the sensory connection between physical action and emotional release. This type of mindful movement can promote emotional regulation, behavioral and impulse control, focused attention, and cognitive flexibility. It can also help you avoid certain maladaptive coping outlets such as substance abuse or eating disorders.
What’s even better is that just a brief 10-minute mindful Pilates session can leave you feeling more balanced, refreshed, and emotionally lighter—you don’t need a 60-minute intense gym session to get there. (In fact, that type of workout might have the opposite effect, building even more stress in your body during some seasons.)
Practice mindful movement as often as you want with the support of Lindywell. Start your free trial of Lindywell today and get access to 300+ Pilates classes, dozens of breathwork sessions, and hundreds of nutritious recipes that are also easy to make!
4. Sit with Emotions
Sitting with emotions is so important—and yet, it can be incredibly difficult to do. Not only are we often taught to push past our emotions from a young age, but these feelings can also hold pain or challenging experiences that we’d rather ignore.
Sitting with your emotions, however, is one of the most powerful tools for healing your nervous system because it gives that emotion less power. Instead of running from it (remember that flight or fight reaction we were talking about), you shift into a less stressful state by addressing it head-on with compassion and kindness.
In fact, a brief meditative moment with your emotions can help soothe the intensity and reactivity around them, which makes it easier to process them. Not to mention, the sheer intentionality of pursuing stillness creates more space in your mind. This is such a rare gift in our culture of productivity, rush, and hustle.
How to Sit With Your Emotions
If you’re feeling a challenging emotion like sadness, frustration, or anger, wrap your arms around yourself. Take deep breaths and sway back and forth. As you do this, ask yourself: “What do I need right now?” If no answer comes in that particular moment, give yourself a few more moments, or even 24 hours, and ask again. It will come if you’re compassionate and honest with yourself.
This practice might feel awkward at first, but over time, you can build a tolerance level to emotions that were once impossible to face. Below are some questions to reflect on as you learn how to sit with emotions:
- How is this emotion showing up in my life?
- What is its impact?
- Can I be with it?
- Can I breathe with it?
- Where is the sensation of it located in my body?
- Am I ready to let it go?
- Is there something it needs to tell me?
A lot of times when I picture the emotion, I tend to see a small version of me, as a child, and I pretend to pull up a chair as my adult self to sit with her. I know that I am a safe adult and can be trusted so I comfort that little version of me. If it becomes too much, I can leave the situation. I just give myself a hug, breathe until I feel relaxed enough to move on, and know I can come back to it.
When we experienced trauma or pain in the past, we most likely didn’t have autonomy or power of choice. With this work, we are in total control. Plus, we don’t have to heal it all in one sitting, we can come back to it again and again.
5. Body Check-In Routine
Start each morning and close out each night with a somatic body check-in. Tune into the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that enter your consciousness in the first moments of waking, then set aside quiet time in the evening.
Use this time to journal about any patterns, insights, habits, or experiences that are present for you. Even if all you have time for is a quick head-to-toe body scan, you’ll feel more in touch with yourself.
As basic as it might sound, when you bookend your days with some intentional time like this, you build resilience and start to shift your mindset. By the way, that mindset is so key—read our blog post, 5 Reasons Mindset is Everything in Wellness and Life (Backed By Science!), to learn about why.
You may notice you’re able to approach challenges from a place of balance and resilience instead of stress or frustration.
Restore Your Nervous System With Somatic Practices
Somatic practices are invaluable for healing your nervous system. These self-care tools can nurture your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing in the midst of life’s inevitably stressful moments. Make time each day to do one or more of these somatic practices and remember to be patient with yourself as you try them. Even a few moments of deep breathing each day will help you begin to heal and reset your nervous system so you can feel balanced and connected no matter what’s going on around you.