How we can pay closer attention to our nervous system

Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen explores our nervous system, what our automatic responses look like, and how we can work towards slowing down and recovering.

As restrictions ease how do you feel?

It might be helpful to pay attention to our finely tuned system

Moving towards normal life after this extended period in lockdown will stir up many thoughts and feelings. Our finely tuned nervous systems have certainly been put through their paces, and will continue to provide useful information as we navigate the months ahead.

The Automatic Nervous System consists of two parts:

  • The sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight

  • The parasympathetic nervous system - rest and digest

Our sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body for a perceived threat or danger, commonly referred to as fight or flight. This efficiently prepares our body to act quickly to the threat by generally making us more alert and able to react, and much less able to be reasoned and rational. The flight or fight response kicks in automatically. Feeling your mouth dry up and your heart racing just before you’re about to give a big presentation – this usually happens in response to thoughts, and although its unpleasant, it can be helpful.

Obviously this response is key to survival of our species, but the less time spent in fight or flight mode, the better.

Prolonged and repetitive stress can take a toll on our body. If you can become more conscious of the way that your body reacts to stress, it will pay enormous dividends.

Our parasympathetic nervous system -rest and digest- has an equally important role in our health. This is the body’s way of slowing down and recovering, which is important to lead a healthy, sustained life balance. Rest and digest response doesn’t happen automatically, which is why awareness of our body and how we respond and react, enables us to take steps to slow down a little and be kind to ourselves.

When we activate the rest and digest response, the body responds in various ways:

  • Saliva is increased

  • Digestive enzymes are released

  • Heart rate decreases

  • Muscles relax

  • Energy is conserved

This function seems even more important in today’s pandemic and threatening world. Anything we can do to tone down our “fight or flight” response and promote “rest and digest” mode is worth the effort.

Deep breathing exercises are helpful as they can stimulate the parasympathetic system to tell it “all is safe and well”. Mindfulness is a tool which, with regular practice, will help us to notice “mind threats” and become more aware of physical sensations in our body. We can learn to pause, shift our awareness and take a step back – like a pressing reset button.

Find practices that work for you within the OK Positive app. Whatever it is, pay close attention to your feelings and thoughts in moments of calm, and try to recreate that mental and physical state (e.g. slower breath) whenever threat is detected.

Thank you very much to Marina Moreno for providing the image for this blog.