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Anxiety,  Brain Care,  Lifestyle

A Tale of Two Nervous Systems

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:23

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

Jesus talks about peace and rest. The entire Bible talks about peace and rest. We long for them and yet don’t always arrange our lives to find them. How often do you live life at breakneck speed, imagining you have more to do than hours in the day? I know I do it. Even when life isn’t busy around me, I let my mind run, overthinking and worrying.

But Jesus says He gives us peace. He says He is the way of rest. Our weary souls have an Advocate, and He wishes to send us calm.

And health. Yes, if we live as Jesus suggests, finding rest and peace, we also find improved physical health. Jesus isn’t worrying just about the state of our weary souls. He also offers us physical health, because peace and rest and health are intertwined.

When balance is lost

When I was in the depths of my latest anxiety bout, I couldn’t calm down. My body and mind ran flat out at light speed all the time, and this took a toll. Doing some reading on this issue, I discovered we have two nervous systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

I think most of us have heard of the fight or flight response. When my body perceives stress, it dumps some chemicals to get me moving—I can leap out of the way of a moving car or run from the zombie apocalypse. Then, if my body still perceives stress, other chemicals keep my body in this state, because hey, another zombie might be around the corner, so I need to be ready to run.

In time, that second part, where the body remains at a high state of alert, has negative long-term effects. High blood pressure. Heart disease. Chronic illness of many varieties. And yes, anxiety and depression.

God made the body, so there’s a fix for this stress reaction. That’s the nervous system that is meant to run long term, the parasympathetic nervous system. One article I read called it the digest and rest system, another called it the feed and breed system. This system regulates digestion, keeps chemicals at an even keel, and deals with sex hormones and procreation.

When stressors come to an end, the parasympathetic system kicks in and restores us back to ground zero, that place where we work and eat and sleep and play and don’t peek around every corner looking for zombies.

Another term for this system might be the system of peace. Funny that Jesus offers us that very thing. Not only that, He recognizes that it’s not easy to find. If it was, He wouldn’t have to offer his own divine version, the one where we experience the calm of the digest and rest life even in fight or flight circumstances.

A lesson from my pets

I have pets, three cats and two dogs. When my animals are healthy, they show interest in three things: food, sleep, and play. (They’re all fixed, so they miss out on the fourth thing that drives most living creatures, which is procreation.). It’s when they deviate from these things I know something is wrong. Usually appetite is the first thing to go in a sick pet. For pets with allergies, sleep can be disrupted if they scratch and sneeze. And an animal that simply stares at his favorite toy with no inclination to grab it and run… Something is wrong.

sleeping kittens
Jesus promises peace and rest.

We’re a lot like this. Yes, God made us more complex, but when we eat well, sleep well, keep up with jobs, friends, and playtime, we live happier, healthier lives. God is all for this. He made our system to be this way. We were never meant to live at light speed.

I mentioned this in another article on self-care, but Jesus modeled this balanced life beautifully. He walked all over the place. He spent his life with his friends. He dined at various houses. He found time to pray alone.

Jesus had a huge mission. He had to reach the world. And yet He lived life largely within the parasympathetic nervous system. Even at the end, when He was arrested and tried, He spoke with authority and kept everything on His terms.

Was he nervous? Did he feel stress? I think the blood drops from his forehead in the garden say yes, Jesus’ human body had all the normal human body responses. But Je also knew how to tap into the peace His Father offered, so He could perform His mission to the very end.

When it all goes awry

When I was struggling, I couldn’t get the fight or flight to settle down. I had to use a few days of medication to get back to ground zero. Once I got there, it was easier to stay. It’s like I had to remind my body: Oh, yes, this is what it feels like to sleep and be hungry and settle down. I like this. Maybe I’ll do more of this on my own.

Once I settled, I was able to use more non-medical methods to find that calm. An article by Harvard Medical suggests three main ways to calm the sympathetic and restore parasympathetic responses: relaxation response, physical activity, and social support.

In the relaxation response, they mention breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation. What they don’t mention, being a secular article, is that we can find relaxation responses through faith practices. Read the Word. Pray. Practice solitude and silence in God’s presence. Study the Word for promises and guidance. Worship.

Jesus modeled all of these. He prayed alone. He attended synagogue. He spoke of spiritual things on the road, at dinner, in the temple, pretty much everywhere. He kept his mind on spiritual things and let things of the world go.

The next is physical activity. Again, let’s look at Jesus’ model. The man walked. Miles and miles. While He did He preached and healed, and that’s what we read about, but the man must have worn through more than one pair of sandals in His day. A healthy parasympathetic nervous system benefits from a healthy physical body.

Finally, we get to social support. I’m older now, and my kids aren’t here to get me involved in things. My social life used to revolve around whatever my kids were doing. Now I have to get involved on my own, and it’s not easy. Finding physical, in-person groups is even harder, and as we are physical beings, social interactions that include all our senses impact us more than online interactions, but start where you can.

There ARE enough hours, but maybe not enough hands.

Again, Jesus modeled this one. One of the first things he did was surround himself with people. Sometimes they nearly crushed him. No, we don’t have to have a cast of thousands in our lives. An inner circle will do. However, isolation isn’t good. One of the first things God said about his human creation was that he wasn’t meant to be alone, and that hasn’t change.

There isn’t an app for that

This weekend my husband traveled, and he sent me an email that linked me to his phone. I had no idea phones could do this. It meant I could see where he was on a map at all times in his journey. Oddly, it also showed me the amount of battery in his phone.

I thought about that a lot. I don’t have a little battery icon over my head. People don’t automatically know when I’m running out of juice. Frankly, people can’t always see where I am on the map. With my husband, I could see his destination and get an estimate of how long it would take to get there.

We need to be this app for our people. Where are your people going? Are they moving forward? Are they stuck? How much battery life do they have left?

That’s a social support system. We need to answer those questions for those we love. The parasympathetic nervous system runs well when we care for ourselves, but sometimes we need someone to point out when we’ve started off the rails. When life’s obstacles smack us down, someone else might need to intervene to make sure self-care happens.

Bringing it home

God gave us the ability to jump into danger and save ourselves and others. This is for our good. But He meant for us to spend most of our time living from another system, where we find peace and balance, where we can clearly see needs around us, calmly learn about Him, and rescue those along the way who might be struggling.

I can’t remember where I heard it, but this year someone said to me that no, there aren’t more things to do than hours in the day. That isn’t God’s plan for us. We aren’t set up to fail. If we protect our time, clearly ask for help determining what needs to be done and what needs to be abandoned, and go to Jesus for peace, we will accomplish what we need to accomplish, what, according to Ephesians 2:10, God set for us to back at the beginning of time.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

Does this mean life never spirals out of control? No. But it means we go for help when there aren’t enough hours, because there ARE enough hours, but maybe not enough hands. It means we protect our rest time, look for balance and rhythms, and don’t do more than we are asked to do.

Jesus came into a world with thousands upon thousands of hurting people. He healed dozens or even hundreds, but he left many more than that, because even He was called to do what God asked and to leave some things alone. How much more must I live within the limits God sets for me. Peace, Jesus said. He offers it to us for our minds, our souls, and our bodies. Thank him for it and embrace it as the gift that it is.

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