As a woman, you will never, ever feel safe, and therefore calm, if you have high levels of adrenaline running through your body. That is the point of adrenaline. Adrenaline, or epinephrine as it is medically referred to, is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands when the body registers a threat, real or perceived. It signals the heart to pump harder, causes an increase in blood pressure, opens airways in the lungs, and narrows blood vessels in the skin and intestines all of which increase blood flow to major muscle groups thus enabling the body to defend or run when encountering a threat. This is the sympathetic nervous system at work.
When the perceived threat is gone, the body is designed to return to a state of physiological relaxation via the relaxation response, which occurs through the parasympathetic nervous system. In this state, blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormonal levels return to their normal state.
The problem, however, is that our bodies are in a constant state of physiological arousal over perceived threats. It isn’t the routine stress that causes this constant state of physiological arousal. It is the unpredictable that we experience that causes this steady state of arousal. If you experience unpredictable events enough, you start to anticipate the next occurrence of this event. As you are always waiting “for the next shoe to drop” your adrenaline levels remain high. Eventually, your adrenaline levels remain on high alert.
This leads to an even bigger problem. The body becomes addicted to the adrenaline that it is releasing. As with any addiction, more and more of the substance is required to satisfy the craving. In order to keep our levels of adrenaline up, we keep the memories of what happened to us activated. This keeps our adrenaline flowing which continues to make us feel unsafe.
If you grew up with violence, alcoholism, abuse or any other unpredictable behavior pattern, your body was trained to release high levels of adrenaline. You never felt safe or calm. And, even if you no longer experience those behavior patterns, your body has established the expectation of those patterns so your adrenaline constantly flows in anticipation. Even if your unpredictable events are more recent – perhaps for example, you are being bullied by your manager at work or you were fired from your job or the mother of your child’s friend makes random, disapproving comments to you – they set up the same adrenaline responses in your body. These kinds of events set up the expectation that something bad is going to happen to you. This expectation keeps your adrenaline levels at high alert.
In order for you to feel safe and calm, you need to shut off the constant flow of adrenaline. In order to shut off unnecessary adrenaline, you need to retrain your body to respond differently. Instead of having your sympathetic nervous system working in overdrive, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated in your gut.
The vagus nerve runs from a part of your brain called the limbic brain all the way down to your gut. When you stimulate the vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, you activate feelings of safety. Feelings of safety, in turn, trigger your hypothalamus (the hormone command center of your body) to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that increases feelings of trust, safety and connection while reducing fear and anxiety. As women, we need high levels of oxytocin in order to feel safe, connected, and at peace.
The easiest way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is by stimulating the vagus nerve with a vagus breath. Start by relaxing your shoulders. Relax your jaw muscles. Relax your tongue. Allow a deep, loving inhale for a count of 4. Exhale through your mouth, while your tongue remains relaxed. While exhaling, make a pleasurable sound for a count of 4. This pleasurable sound stimulates the vagus nerve which, as mentioned above, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and so forth.
You need to do 5 or more breaths in a row at one time. And, you need to do the breaths throughout the day. Oxytocin remains in the bloodstream for about 5 minutes so its effects are fleeting. Your hypothalamus needs to be retrained to release oxytocin instead of adrenaline. As you continue to activate the release of oxytocin through the vagus breath, your hypothalamus will start to recognize that you are not constantly at risk and the biochemistry in your body will start to change for the better. As your biochemistry activates feelings of safety, your body will become calm.