What Teeter Totters Can Teach Us
Did you ever play on a teeter-totter as a child? I used to enjoy finding the position that would balance me and my playmate midway between up and down. That position was hard to maintain. We’d sit there, seemingly suspended in midair, not quite perfectly still, but mostly pleasantly hovering above the ground. If we were different sizes, it would be even more challenging as the heavier one of us would have to slide in toward the teeter-totter’s fulcrum to reduce their relative weight. Most often, we’d simply trade off, each one of us taking a turn thrusting up while the other would descend, knees ready to absorb the force of the landing and anticipating the push off that would follow to keep the ride going. I enjoyed teeter-totters partly because we each alternated between the effortful thrust and the effortless portions of the ride.
Mother Nature's Energy Teeter Totter
Long before teeter-totters were invented, Mother Nature made use of this form of motion. For example, one of the body’s multiple nervous systems, which is called the autonomic nervous system, has two main branches. Throughout the day, the two branches alternate being active, depending upon what we are doing in the moment. Unlike riders on teeter-totters, however, the sharing of the duties is purposely not evenly balanced. The parasympathetic branch is charged with quieting, slowing and calming the body, and is devoted to energy conservation. The sympathetic branch is responsible for action and draws on our body’s energy reserves for the fuel more energy intensive actions we might take.
The teeter-totter oscillation between these two branches respects the biological fact that storing energy is tougher than spending it. Spending energy too quickly can leave us depleted or even with our account "over-drawn". That is why our autonomic system’s default mode is for the parasympathetic branch to be more active most of the time: it reflects our biological savings plan. The biological “cost” of staying too long in a state of sympathetic arousal, burning through energy reserves at a high rate, is simply too high. After all, energy over-spending, especially when done too often, throws our body into disarray and opens the door to all sorts of health challenges.
What is the "Cost" of Unbalanced Energy
In my practice, I work with people who suffer the effects of chronic, stress-based, high-energy over-spending. Irritable bowel syndrome. Sleep disorders. Various anxiety patterns, including generalized worry, hobbling ruminations or panic episodes. Mood disorders. Poor sugar control associated with diabetes. Low back pain. Blood pressure control difficulties. Migraine. These conditions are associated with energy over-spending. They inflict enormous suffering on people’s lives individuals, draining joy, limiting productivity, and generating untold and unnecessary hardship for too many.
IBS: An Example of the Price of Unbalanced Energy Spending
I am not saying that energy over-spending is the sole cause of these conditions. That is overly simplistic and inaccurate. What I am saying is that learning to tune into the cues our body generates related to how we spend our precious energy reserves is a potent wellness tool that promotes strong health. Let’s look at the example of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition strongly impacted by energy spending problems. IBS affects at least 20% of people. In any given year, an even larger percent of people experience symptoms of IBS but may not seek medical attention for them. More women than men report IBS-related problems. Symptoms of IBS include changes in bowel habits, with some people experiencing multiple bouts of diarrhea daily, while other sufferers can go many days without any bowel movement at all. Abdominal pain, bloating and gassiness are common. For those suffering with IBS, the unpredictable pattern of symptoms wreaks havoc on their social lives. For many, their mental focus suffers. Sleep patterns can change. Relationship suffer. Fatigue and work productivity losses are common. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that IBS is a royal pain in the a--!
In last week’s blog (http://bit.ly/BrainsAndBellies), I focused on the tiny bacteria that reside in our digestive tracts and how important they are for our physical, emotional and mental health. Today, I want to focus on the role of the mind, and how we can use it to regulate our energy spending patterns to promote greater overall health, including impacting the composition of the bacterial colonies living inside us. For instance, while the ingredients in muffins and cupcakes are the same, our mind's attitude about whether we are eating a breakfast food (muffin) or desert (cupcake) impacts the relative strength of different strains of our gut's bacteria. Our mind's beliefs can change physical reality!
Minding Your Gut; Mending Your Health
There is clearly a powerful two-way connection between our guts and our minds. A worried mind tells the body that danger is present. The body listens. The body gears up to protect itself against the threat. Our gut is powerfully affected by this internal alarm system. The alarm sends the gut into sympathetic activation. One result is changes in gut motility (i.e., how it moves along in the digestive process) that produce diarrhea, constipation or both. The alarm changes the gut’s pH level, making it easier for “bad” bacteria to flourish. The alarm creates an environment in which sugars in our digestive tract ferment, causing the build-up of gasses that lead to bloating, distension and pain. And, as we saw last week, the impact of this change in healthy bacterial balance in the gut has enormous consequences for our health in multiple ways.
Turning Worries & Fears into Steps for Growing Healthier
Unfortunately, needless, exaggerated or unfocused worries feed the body a constant stream of alarm signals for which no solution is ultimately available. Your body gets all geared up for action – work longer, push harder, strive higher, seek to please more actively, hide the distress more effectively, avoid the conflict more consistently – and yet, no release from the worry emerges. Worry begets more worry. And, constant worry keeps the gut and your whole body locked into sympathetic nervous system over-drive. Perhaps that is why IBS sufferers are also at increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, migraine or other headache patterns, sleep disturbances, and various body pain conditions. When our energy consumption patterns are off, our whole body-mind equilibrium suffers!
3 Steps for Re-balancing Your Energy System's Teeter Totter
Restoring better balance to our mind-brain-gut teeter-totter is essential to good health. Here are ways we can engage our minds to achieve that goal more easily.
1. Explore activities that encourage you to slow down, settle in, and become calmer and quieter. There’s a reason that “stopping to smell the roses” remains a valuable practice. Think of these activities (e.g., walking in nature, sitting with your feet up for a few minutes, taking a yoga class, taking a leisurely walk after a meal, regularly write in a journal for 15-20 minutes, learn to meditate, etc.) as part of your life’s teeter-totter energy re-balancing diet.
2. Practice tuning into and become familiar with your body’s signals. Learn to do a “body scan” in which you calmly, attentively and without judgment, pay attention as you tune into what is happening inside as you slowly and “mindfully” begin at your feet and work your way up to your head and face. Gently remind yourself “let go” as you notice any areas of your body that are carrying unnecessary tension or distress. Surprisingly, this can have the effect of deeply relaxing the body and turning off your sympathetic hyper-drive.
3. Track your worries. What are repeating themes or concerns? Are they about disappointing someone, avoiding conflict, fear of being judged, or believing in the myth of your own inadequacy or shortcomings? Learn to come face-to-face with your fears. As you learn to stand firm, with a calm but strong posture, like a mountain in the face of a storm, the fears can begin to dissipate. With the dissolving of the fear, comfort, confidence and competence can begin to take root and blossom.
I have found that these types of practices have helped hundreds of clients I’ve seen over the years. At their core, these are not helpful just with IBS. They are helpful with any condition for which unbalanced energy consumption is operating. Re-balancing energy is an important next step on the road back to healthy, joyful living.