20 Ways to Calm your Nervous System Before a Meal
Feeling overwhelmed? Filled with stress? Does it seem like the world around you is crumbling to the ground and all you can do is huddle under a blanket until it all goes away?
You’re not alone. A recent Statistics Canada survey showed, “during the period from April to June 2021, one-quarter of Canadians reported experiencing high levels of stress most days, and nearly half of Canadians considered their stress levels worse than prior to the pandemic”. We live in an increasingly complex and scary world and it’s completely natural that we are experiencing these feelings on a regular basis.
This stress, however, can have major impacts on us when it comes to how we relate to food, mealtime, and our bodies. Chronic stress can raise the body’s metabolic needs, increase the excretion and use of the nutrients we take in, create greater oxygen, energy, and nutrient demands in the body, and kill our motivation to eat balanced nourishing meals, to list only a few of the myriad impacts on nutritional health. Additionally, being in an increased state of stress before a meal makes the meal a less enjoyable and pleasant experience. We want to experience joy and satisfaction when we eat, and calming the nervous system before a meal is one way to increase the chance of our meal experience being more enjoyable.
All of these reasons and more tell us why it’s so important to try and maintain a calm nervous system before we sit down for a meal. Easier said than done, right? If you find yourself having trouble accessing this state of serenity at mealtime, try some of these 20 great tips to calm your nervous system before a meal.
1. Take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique at the center of practices like meditation or yoga. Just a few deep, cleansing breaths might be all you need to reach a calmer state of mind before a meal.
2. Listen to a recorded meditation. For the uninitiated (or sometimes even for veterans), meditation can be a deceptively difficult practice. Using a guided recording can take the guesswork out of the equation and make it easy to integrate this practice into your regular schedule. Need somewhere to start? Why not try this free one of mine?
3. Give yourself a big hug. Who needs to book an expensive massage when you can gain some of the same benefits in a few minutes on your own? OK, OK, that’s a silly notion—everyone loves a professional massage—but self-touch can be so beneficial that it figures into three full tips! Giving yourself an extended and hearty hug can lower cortisol in the body  and relieve some of the stress you’ve been holding onto.
4. Give your hands a massage with your favourite lotion. A soothing hand massage can stimulate that same self-touch cortisol reducing effect we gain from a self-hug, while the soothing aromas of a favoured lotion can elevate the positive impacts further.
5. Roll a tennis ball under your feet. Giving yourself a quick foot massage with a tennis ball doesn’t just lower stress. These quick exercises can also effectively stretch calf and hamstring muscles to improve lower back flexibility and relieve pain throughout your lower back and legs.
6. Dim the lights. Studies have shown that special cells in the eyes affect the brain’s center for memory, mood, and learning when activated by bright light. Dimming the lights can reduce this effect and effectively reduce the level of stress hormones present in your brain.
7. Light a candle. The dim, soothing light and aromas provided by a favourite candle can help clear your mind, lift your mood, and stimulate positive memories to list just a few of the myriad benefits provided by these timeless therapeutic lights.
8. Listen to music that relaxes you. Music has always been one of the most effective cultural touchpoints for soothing the raging soul. A 2020 meta-analysis showed that music can release endorphins and lower our heart rate and cortisol levels, increasing our sense of well-being and reducing emotional and physical stress levels.
9. Dance it out to an upbeat song. In addition to piggybacking off of the positive effects of music, dancing engages your body physically and can give a quick surge of exercise and endorphins, leaving you feeling refreshed and positive.
10. Sing along to your favourite song. Don’t like to dance? No problem. Turns out that singing can be just as good for us in some ways! Singing engages a broadly distributed network in the brain that releases endorphins, lowers blood pressure, and can even enhance our sense of empathy and social connection.
11. Lay on the ground with your legs against the wall for a few minutes. This simple yoga pose offers a whole array of benefits, including stress relief and relaxation, knee pain reduction, and relief of neck tension.
12. Splash some cold water on your face. We see this all the time in TV show and movies, but it turns out that tipping the temperature of our face can calm anxiety by diverting the brain’s attention and helping to ground yourself into your somatic feelings.
13. Take a walk outside. Simply going for a comfortable stroll can release endorphins to stimulate relaxation and improve our mood. A quick walk before a meal might be all we need to put ourselves in the right mental space.
14. Watch a funny video. Laughter is one of the most innate and easily available stress reducers for humans. It stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles, releases endorphins, and enhances the intake of oxygen-rich air.
15. Seek comfort from a loved one. Humans need connection and love. Even the smell of a loved one can reduce our blood cortisol levels, lowering our stress. Reach out to the nearest family member for a big hug and a sniff and you’ll be more ready for a calm meal.
16. Do some light yoga or stretching. Stretching reduces muscle tension and increases serotonin levels, which can decrease depression and anxiety markers. A few quick stretches can do wonders to calm our mood.
17. Visualize your happy place. Focusing your mind on calming and serene images is often a critical step in meditation and relaxation exercises. The happy place you visualize can be anywhere you find yourself at peace, such as a beach, a lush rainforest, or maybe just in a warm bed.
18. Cuddle with a pet or a loved one. Cuddling—whether with another human or a furry family member—stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin to increase happiness and relieve depression.
19. Make a cup of your favourite herbal tea. Herbal teas come in all sorts of flavors, aromas, and beneficial impacts, including the reduction of cortisol levels which will induce a calmer mood. Pick your preferred flavor and have a quick liquid stress-relieving appetizer.
20. Read a chapter of a good book. Reading is an example of a meditative activity, in that it fully engages the brain to be focused on a single task. These activities are proven to reduce stress and enhance relaxation, so grab that page-turner you’ve been obsessed with and do a quick chapter before it’s time to eat.
All of these tips are quick forays into relaxation and stress-reduction techniques, but any one or combination of these will likely be the quick boost you need to enter meal-time fully conscious and grounded.
Not everybody deals with the same stressors or personal histories when it comes to our relationships with food and our bodies, and it may not always be as simple as a quick relaxation exercise to achieve a balanced and healthy relationship with food. If you find yourself struggling to connect with your body and the food you eat in a healthy way, reach out today and find out how Superbloom Wellness can help.
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