How Movement Can Help Us Recover Our Range of Resilience
There’s no question that movement – vigorous exercise, gentle yoga, the chores of daily living – is good for the optimal functioning of the brain.
Our brains are organized through movement. As we introduce new patterns of movement, combined with attention, our brains being making thousands, millions, and even billions of new connections. These changes quickly translate into thinking that is clearer, movement that is easier…and action that is more successful.
– Anat Baniel, Move into Life: The Nine Essentials for Lifelong Vitality
We can use movement to restore the optimal equilibrium in our nervous system, too, coming to a calm and sense of ease that helps us face and deal with whatever might be challenging us in the moment or over the long haul.
Exercise: Recovering Our Range of Resilience through a Relaxation Response
I often “prescribe” this exercise to clients who are having difficulties falling asleep because of stress and worry. It’s excellent for restoring a sense of calm to the body-brain’s nervous system.
Because you do not activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your nervous system at the same time, your body cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. This exercise in progressive muscle relaxation activates the parasympathetic branch and helps you relax your entire body, step by step, moving through the body either foot to head or head to foot. [These instructions are given foot to head.] The entire exercise takes about 7-10 minutes and can be done lying down or sitting.
1. Begin by curling the toes of your right foot, holding that muscle tension for the count of seven. Then let that tensing go and relax as you count to fifteen. Then curl the entire arch of your right foot as though pointing your foot, holding that muscle tension for the count of seven. Then let that tensing go as you relax and count to fifteen. Then flex your foot, toes back toward your leg, holding that muscle tension for the count of seven. Then let that tensing go as you relax and count to fifteen.
The counting to seven while tensing and then counting to fifteen while relaxing ensures you are relaxing more than tensing. You can breathe in on the tensing and breathe out on the relaxing to activate the parasympathetic more than the sympathetic. Focusing your attention on the counting keeps your brain from wandering into the worry and rumination tendencies of your default network.
2. Continue tensing and relaxing various points of your body as you count to seven and then fifteen. Move slowly through your entire body, breathing in as you tense, breathing out as you let go and relax. Tense your right calf, your right thigh, your right hip/buttock and let that go. Then tense your left toes, your left foot, your left calf, your left thigh, your left hip/buttock and let that go. Tense and relax through your torso, your pelvis area, your belly, the muscles around your ribs and your spine. Tense and relax the fingers of each of your hands, the palms of your hands, your wrists, your forearms, your elbows, your upper arms, your shoulders and neck. Then tense and relax all of your facial muscles in turn – jaw, throat, lips, cheeks, ears, eyes, nose, forehead, and let it all go.
3. End the session with another deep sigh; rest a full minute in the relaxed state.
4. Practice this exercise every night before you go to bed for two weeks. I have found the brain learns to relax; you’ll start to fall asleep before you complete the exercise.