I suppose one could see autumn as a depressing time…when the grass and flowers wither and the golden leaves are gone. But I experience the season as hopeful and a reminder that change is ever present, because if everything remained the same, there would never be an opportunity “to refresh, to start again.” The trees know that…that holding on to their exquisite leaves would not allow for their new growth in the spring. The trees remind me that holding on to past grievances or current worries won’t allow me the growth I need and want, and that there’s always the opportunity to start again.
May Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude writes, “I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep.” I typically view spring as a time of renewal, but the trees tell us that fall is also a renewal time – a time for sleep and rest and preparation.
I’ve been thinking about the commonalities between the fall season and the vagus nerve. Do you know anything about the vagus nerve? I didn’t, but I’m learning, and I’m fascinated by the connection between our emotional and physical states and this longest and most complicated of the body’s 12 cranial nerves. The vagus nerve carries signals from the brain to organs like the heart, lungs, and stomach and consequently impacts inflammation levels, digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as our emotional responses. The coolest part is that we have control of how our vagus nerve performs, and one of the ways we do that is by concentrating on our breathing.
Many integrative therapies have a component focusing on breathing exercises, emphasizing the value of taking slow, deep breaths. Why? Because they stimulate the vagus nerve resulting in a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, improved pain management, and a feeling of well-being and resilience, just to name a few of the benefits. Author Caren Osten Gerszberg points out that slow, deep breathing “signals to the body that it is in a state of calm. It can now rest and digest, tend and befriend” resulting in a “profound impact on our sense of safety and connection.” Deep breathing also impacts our thoughts because when we’re focused on our breathing, we’re not focused on our stressor. In addition to deep breathing, a number of modalities (yoga and meditation, for example) can improve one’s “vagal tone.” (The internet has additional techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve that you can benefit from on a daily basis.)
Autumn is a time when nature relaxes from the heat of the summer, shares the beauty of the moment, and prepares for the conditions of winter, confident of the rebirth to come. Stimulating the vagus nerve allows us to direct our bodies and minds to a calm state, to more fully enjoy the moment, and to prepare for difficult days that may come, confident we have the capacity to do so.
“Imitate the trees,” says May Sarton. “Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long... Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” The beauty of fall has many lessons for us as it’s a time to let go of what isn’t helpful, to refresh, to recover, to reflect…in preparation to start again.
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SUE'S GIFT BLOG
Sherry Martin is the Patient Services Director for Sue's Gift, a licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years of experience in the field of oncology social work, and author of the book, Beginning Again: Tools for the Journey through Grief: A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators of a Grief Support Group. Sherry lives with her husband in Woodland Park, Colorado.
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