Tell tale signs your nervous system is in overdrive …and what to do about it!
A whopping 95% of all illnesses are either caused by, or worsened by stress. Yikes! Long-term stress also damages the hippocampus in the brain (the memory centre) and can contribute to long-term memory loss and dementia. Adrenals get depleted and burn out ensues if we exist in a stressed state for too long and the body will start to break down in a multitude of ways.
The good news is, there are some very very simple things that we can do to reduce stress in the body and mind and help ourselves calm and heal.
First, here are some of the common systems of an overly engaged sympathetic nervous system:
Irritability or short temper
Agitation and an inability to relax
Feeling overwhelmed and often able to focus on a task or be productive
Sense of loneliness and isolation
Depression or general unhappiness and discontentedness
Increased weight and fat gain – particularly in the abdomen
Body aches and pains
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
Diarrhea or constipation or alternating between the two
Frequent colds or taking a long time to recover from illness or injury
Eating more, or less
Sleeping too much or too little (inability to wake up or settle and sleep through the night)
Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
Relying on or using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing, picking)
Isolating yourself from others
So how does the nervous system work?
Stress in general is not a bad thing. Our bodies are wired for it and a certain amount of stress is normal in life. It’s when we have prolonged periods of stress without break that our body starts to wear down and show the effects.
Anything that requires quick attention (reacting to a car swerving in front of you in traffic, grabbing your toddler before they run onto the street, public speaking, having a rushed deadline or… running away from a bear) all engage the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Our pupils dilate, our heart pumps faster, our muscles get flooded with oxygen filled blood from our shallow rapid breath…all of which helps to prepare us to fight, run or survive by freezing. In an ideal world, we use this extra energy at the time needed or shake it off once the threat is gone and we can calm down again (animals literally shake once they are safe and out of harms way to release any extra adrenalin in their system). When we don’t release that extra energy OR we remain in that hyper alert state for prolonged times without break, we burn out.
The Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the exact opposite of the SNS. Instead of putting us on hyper alert, it returns our body to homeostasis. Our digestive system comes back on line, or reproductive organs work again, we can rest and recharge through deep sleep and our organs and cells can actually recover, recharge and heal.
Unfortunately our body can only be in one state at a time – Survive or thrive- and a flow between the two is normal. But unfortunately our modern culture, with all the busyness, constant stimulation (processed foods, constant activities, over-work, noise, pollution etc) and fear based news, has us living in our fight or flight state constantly and forgetting how to engage the calm and healing part of our DNA.
So what can you do about it?
There are some very simple natural ways to engage your parasympathetic nervous system. Many of which can be engaged throughout your day to help keep you calm, relaxed and rebuilding some of your natural vitality. Yay.
Nervous system calming activities
Laugh – Laughter not only helps get your body out of that stressed state, it also helps to release some of the build up tension that accompanies stress such as negative aggressive energy, tight muscles and trapped tension in the body. Not to mention, laughter actually helps decrease pain in the body. Seriously. It releases endogenous opiods (feel good hormones), which decreases our sensation of pain. There are even laughter wellness or laughter yoga sessions out there for those interested!
Meditate –calm and still that mind One. Breath. At. A. Time. (http://www.angelawarburton.com/2012/02/13/ahhh-meditation/)
Exercise Moderate exercise (under 40 mins if intense as over 40 your body will think it’s in a stress state and act accordingly) Brisk walking in nature or on trails is an ideal way to move.
Go to your happy place…even just in your head. Positive calming visualization helps to calm your nervous system immediately. Instead of engaging in a ‘disaster fantasy’ as I like to call them (imaginary fights, catastrophes, how the world will do you wrong thinking), picture yourself in a favourite calming environment (nature is a good start) and breathe, naturally calming as you pick apart all the different elements of your spot. What does it look like, what sounds or smells are there, what does the air or sun feel like on your skin…get specific and really try to FEEL it.
Generosity – giving -time, energy, love, acts of kindness – feels good, opens our hearts and, yes, calms the nervous system.
Creative activities – getting out of our head and all the worries that come from thinking too much and into something that is more from the right side of the brain can be deeply calming for the nervous system. The work of Jill Bolte Taylor talks about left and right brain differences and the stress we feel in our body. Getting creative is a great way to get out of the left brain and into the more peaceful right brain.
Practice Non-Doing. Wha?? Active relaxing (non-doing) includes things such as listening to music, meditation, colouring, cooking, allowing yourself to simply BE, and even (my personal favourite) the wall stare (allowing yourself to just sit. Still. That’s it. And perhaps stare at the wall or ceiling and let the day’s events just float away). Non-doing is considered a yin (parasympathetic) based activity, and is essential to being balanced. These activities are greatly lacking in our modern world, but if we can include some of them daily, we can help our system recharge and de-stress from the day-to-day busyness.
Whole food diet – adequate nutrition is essential to good health and reducing stress in the body. Processed foods have an inflammatory response in the body and tax our body causing additional unnecessary stress.
Connect – find like-minded or kindred people or a community. Spending time with other and in a place where we are fully able to be ourselves has been shown to have a significant impact on healing, stress reduction and health in general. We don’t need a study to tell us this – being with people we feel good around FEELS good!
Run your fingers over your lips. Yes, you read that right! There are a large number of parasympathetic fibers spread throughout your lips, and by lightly running your fingers over them, you are stimulating the PNS. This helps explain why so many people are drawn to eating in stressful times. You can also suck on a hard candy as that action also helps to calm the nervous system.
Address and face underlying cause of stress. Yes there are things that are beyond our control, but many of the activities and they WAY we engage in those activities in our daily life ARE within our control. Can you leave 5 minutes earlier to avoid rushing? Can you chose to only engage in social media or your email at specific times throughout the day and avoid the constant checking and avoid over stimulating or stressing yourself. Can you take one thing out of your day to free up extra time? Turn off the music or bright lights? Sometimes a job needs to be changed, a discussion had, a fear faced or a relationship issue address. These may be hard, but the ongoing stress of something that isn’t working can be taxing and leaving you in a constant state of stress.
Breath. Deep, Long, slow exhale. Try to double your exhale length to a 1:2 ration (breath in for 3, out for 6 or as close to that as you can). That’s the natural way we breathe when we’re calm and this ‘tricks’ the nervous system into thinking it’s relaxed.
Belly breathing. Deep, full belly breaths: When you inhale, fill your lungs fully and expanding your low belly. Hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Try breathing in this way for 60 seconds.
Just one thing at a time. When eating, eat. When reading, read. Avoid multi-tasking when you can as too much sensory input can increase stress levels for many people. Stimulating activities or environments (loud music, busy crowded spaces, competing visual stimuli etc.) or stimulants in general (caffeine, sugar, refined foods, pharmaceutical or recreational drugs etc.) can also send your nervous system into over drive.
Appreciate what you DO have. Enjoy your Life. There’s always something we wish was better or different, but when we can actually stop and smell the roses so to speak – appreciate living in a country where we are free to speak and work and get an education. If we have feet to walk, take a moment to give thanks for that. If we have food in the fridge and a roof over our head, take a moment to give thanks for that. When we focus on what’s ‘wrong’ we stress our body and nervous system. When we settle into the feeling of what’s right,our system calms accordingly. And in the words of the wonderful and wise Thich Nhat Hanh “take a moment and appreciate how wonderful it is NOT to have a toothache!” – Yay!
Some of these activities are very simple and can be done in moments anywhere. It is these very little things that add up to help make a calm, happy and healthy life. Try some right now and see what happens!