These days, we spend far too much time in “fight or flight” mode. Whether we’re stressed out at work or reeling from a newsfeed, our internal defense mechanisms that evolved to keep us safe from predators can also keep us trapped in cycle of heightened adrenaline. This is human physiology. When we feel threatened by something, our sympathetic nervous system tells us to either run and hide or get ready to throw down with an adversary. While this is helpful if our lives are regularly in danger, it’s less helpful when an email subject heading from a colleague or family member that says “we need to talk” causes the same stress response.
No wonder we’re all so tired all the time!
However, our bodies also have a built-in antidote called the parasympathetic nervous system - where our bodies receive signals telling us we can relax, or at least calm down enough, to think straight. Elite soldiers, for example, are trained in careful breathing techniques, to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and lower combat stress. Similarly, religious contemplatives, from Buddhist monks to Christian abbesses, know well the power of meditation and mindfulness to quiet the mind and reclaim the body.
There are many ways to trigger the parasympathetic system including laughter, outdoor walks and the affection of a pet. However, gratitude is one of the most potent. Giving thanks and expressing gratitude has a calming effect on the body, allowing us to take deeper breaths and rest more fully.
As our annual giving campaign winds down, I've had the pleasure of expressing my gratitude to each person who made a pledge. Full disclosure: it makes me feel very good to do that. Each time I get to say “thanks”, it triggers my parasympathetic nervous system and I breathe just a little more deeply and rest a bit more in the abundance of God.
This thanksgiving, I pray that the act of gratitude will do the same for you. May we, each time we say thank you to God and to one another, rest even more completely in the perfect and generous love of God.
The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens