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“FIGHT OR FLIGHT” VS. “REST AND RESTORE”

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The Central Nervous System

Stress is becoming the no 1 “dis-ease” of our century! Knowledge is power and the more we learn about the nervous system, the more we realise how important it is to keep it balanced in order to have optimal health, physically and emotionally.

So, what exactly is the nervous system?

Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response, the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger. Many, however, have never heard of the “rest and restore” response. This system activates the more tranquil functions of the body and helps maintain a healthy and long-term balance. These systems are both part of a larger system named the autonomic nervous system, which controls and influences the way that our internal organs function.

Our nervous system is made up of three nerve types:

Motor nerves: help our brain command our muscles to move, or not move around.

Sensory nerves: help us see, smell, taste, hear and feel.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight” response, prepares our bodies for action. All the organs involved in getting ready for a physical challenge (“fight”) or preparing for a retreat (“flight”) are activated through this system. It evolved to protect us from real physical dangers like dangerous animals or a threatening person. However, it can also be triggered by the ordinary stressors we face on a daily basis. These might be things like work deadlines, phones ringing and simply being pulled in too many directions.

In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Your body goes through a number of changes when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

  • Your heart rate increases
  • The bronchial tubes in your lungs dilate
  • Your pupils dilate
  • Your muscles contract
  • Your saliva production is reduced
  • Your stomach stops many of the functions of digestion
  • More glycogen is converted to glucose

As you can see, all of these changes are designed to make you ready to fight or run. Non-essential systems like digestion and immunity are given much lower priority, while more energy is made available to your muscles and your heart rate increases.

Many diseases and illnesses have been shown to stem from chronic stress. Cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, and immune system suppression are classic symptoms. Other symptoms include constipation and digestive issues, cold sores, jitteriness, sweats, and anxiety. In the longer term, more advanced adrenal fatigue can lead to symptoms like chronically low energy levels, respiratory problems, decreased sexual function and much more.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS)

The parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and restore system” helps produce a state of equilibrium in the body. Both are part of the greater Autonomic Nervous System, responsible for involuntary and reflexive functions in the body.

The parasympathetic is a much slower system which is responsible for the balance and maintenance of the body’s systems. When our PSNS is activated our heart slows and our breathing calms down. Because we don’t need to run, fight or hide, our body sends blood to our organs and away from skeletal muscles. We digest our food. We make hormones. We repair our muscles. We build strength. Our body is in a state of relaxation, and this relaxation helps the body heal. It restores the body to a state of calm and counterbalance and allows it to relax and repair.

These are your body’s responses when in parasympathetic mode:

  • Your saliva is increased
  • Digestive enzymes are released
  • Your heart rate drops
  • The bronchial tubes in your lungs constrict
  • Your muscles relax
  • The pupils in your eyes constrict
  • Your urinary output increases

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Decrease Anxiety

When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. People can learn to trigger their parasympathetic nervous system to immediately reduce their sense of anxiety and stress. This also lifts their mood, strengthens their immune system, and reduces their blood pressure.

There are many techniques that a person can use to strengthen and activate their parasympathetic nervous system, causing a relaxation response in their body. For example:

  • Spend time in nature
  • Get a massage or Cranio Sacral therapy
  • Take warm baths
  • Walking in nature
  • Practice meditation
  • Practice deep abdominal breathing from the diaphragm
  • Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or peace
  • Play with animals or children
  • Practice yoga, Qi Gong, or Tai Chi
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Do something you enjoy, such as a favourite hobby

Actually, anything that brings you in the “now” and brings you joy activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

 We are all under some level of chronic stress these days. By learning to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reducing the effect of your sympathetic nervous system, you can reduce the stress on your heart, digestive system, immune system and more. This will not only make you a happier person, but it will also help to avoid many of the diseases and conditions that are associated with chronic stress and adrenal fatigue. If you can become more conscious of the way that your body reacts to stress, it will pay enormous dividends in the future.

Emmanuelle Passes,

CranioSacral Therapist and transformational coach

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