One of the most frequent conversations I have in my practice is about how many people are living most of their lives in the “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system. This system is designed to help us in an emergency, like when we are running from a bear. When we become stressed, the amygdala in the brain, the center of emotional processing senses danger. As it processes this information, it sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the adrenal glands that there is a danger. The adrenals then release epinephrine (adrenaline), which circulates through the body and causes physiological changes. These changes are meant to give us increased alertness, increased energy, and increased muscle strength to maximize our chance of survival in an emergency situation.
The sympathetic physiological changes include:
- Decreased saliva output
- Decreased gastric secretions (bile and hydrochloric acid)
- Decreased peristalsis (movement of the large intestine which produces a bowel movement)
- Increased heart rate and irregular heart rhythms
- Constriction of the arteries
- Dilation of the lung bronchi
- Increased oxygen to the vital organs and away from the non-vital areas of the body
- Using glycogen to make more glucose
- Inhibited bladder contraction causing decreased urine output
- Increased pupil size and increases peripheral vision
This system is designed to be alerted every once and awhile and is not meant to work full time. As the world becomes more stressed, many are alerting this system numerous times in one day or are basically “running from a bear” all the time. When these normal and helpful physiological changes become part of our daily lives, the repeated activation takes it’s toll on the body and many symptoms can arise.
These symptoms include:
- Cardiac arrhythmias, palpitations, and tachycardia
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased blood sugar, which leads to insulin resistance and type II diabetes
- Cold hands and feet
- Trouble concentrating
- Startling easily, nervousness, and fear, leading to anxiety and panic
- Blurry vision, reading issues
- Elevated cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Constipation, abdominal bloating, abdominal pain
- Urinary issues, frequent infections
As I tell my patients, when you are running from a bear, you do not stop to have a bowel movement or take a nap. But, very likely, there is no bear, so what are you running from???
The first thing I recommend if you feel like you are in a constant state of sympathetic stress is awareness. Start to notice when these physiological changes are happening in your body. What are the triggers for you? You have to be aware of what is happening before you can change. Maybe it’s a phone call from a certain person, driving in traffic, or your cranky kids in the evening. It could be just about anything. If you are living in a constant state of stress, notice this. Notice these things without judgement, because our own judgement of ourselves can even put us in fight or flight.
When the we are relaxed and calm, we are in the parasympathetic nervous system mode, often called, “rest and digest”. This is where we should be all the time, unless we are in a true emergency. When the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, we experience these physiological processes:
- Arteries dilated = decreased heart rate and blood pressure
- Bladder contracts = urine flows normally
- Increased peristalsis = bowels move at least once daily
- Increased saliva and increased gastric secretions = no bloating or pain
- Bronchi constricted leading to increased oxygen to all parts of the body = warm hands and feet and no neuropathy
- Decreased stress hormones = calm mood, restful sleep
- Proper utilization of glucose = lower blood sugar, reduced insulin levels
Once we have non-judgmental awareness of how we are reacting to stress, we can begin to do something about it. Are you living in the now or worrying about the past or future? Are you breathing throughout your day? Are you moving your body every day? Are you spending some time in nature every day? What about fresh air? Do you have a support system in place to decrease your stress? How much balance do you have in your life? Are you celebrating the awesomeness in your life every day? Are you listening to your true inner guidance or are you trying to be what you think society or your family wants you to be?
Here are some suggestions to add to your daily life to stay in “rest and digest” mode:
- Take a bath
- Breathe. Use 4-7-8 breathing throughout the day
- Meditate (even 5 minutes of quiet time can be beneficial!)
- Spend time being grateful for what you already have
- Take a class to learn to relax like Yoga Nidra
- Move your body
- Have fun!!!!
When I ask my patients what they do for fun, many cannot even come up with an answer. Isn’t our purpose on this planet truly to enjoy life? I find it hard to believe that a higher power out there wants us stressing, worrying, and feeling awful every day. It’s up to you. Start slowly by recognizing your patterns. Then, stop, rest, and digest, because you guys…we don’t have bears in Indiana.
Please share this post widely. It is so important.