We all have stress to deal with on a daily basis. Some stressors are large (e.g. personal health or family challenges) and others are relatively small (e.g. traffic or forgetting your snow boots when IT IS SNOWING IN AUSTIN!?!? – it’s been a crazy winter so far).
Physiologically, we all respond to stress in a similar way, too. Specifically, when we encounter a stressor, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates. The SNS (often referred to as our “fight or flight” response) modulates several systems in our body so we can deal with the stressor effectively. Specifically, our SNS activates a cascade of hormones that increase our heart rate, widen bronchial passages in the lungs and increase blood pressure allowing for more oxygen-rich blood to get to the brain and muscles. All of these changes allow us to run and think faster moments after the SNS is activated.
Now, these changes in physiology were ideal when our main stressors were running from predators or otherwise trying to stay alive. For short bursts, it was in our body’s best interest to move as many resources as possible to making sure we were not killed by a tiger. But while the stress hormones have “positive” effects, they also decrease the functionality of the kidneys, the digestive system, and detoxification by the liver. The idea being that if you are fleeing for your life, it is not the time to spend precious resources on digestion or detoxification.
Hopefully you see the problem here already: If we are in a chronically stressed state, the systems that are down-regulated by the SNS are consistently not given enough resources in order to perform the functions they need to do. That is why this chronically stressed state can lead or contribute to an enormous range of health problems – autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, frequent colds, digestive issues, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction… the list goes on.
So, now the question is: how do we turn off the SNS? How do we avoid the chronically-stressed state of health and everything that comes with it? The answer is simple in theory, but can take work in practice. We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS (also referred to as the “rest and digest” system) is the other part of our autonomic nervous system and when it is on, the SNS cannot be on – it is one or the other. When the PNS is activated, digestive, kidney and liver function increase. Hormones effectively regulate the release of other hormones and bodily functions when the PNS is activated. When the body is given the chance to heal itself, it will take it.
Here are some extremely effective ways to turn on the PNS:
- Breathing exercises – taking deep breaths, either on their own or as part of a meditation, yoga, or tai qi practice, influences the PNS. When the SNS is activated, breathing becomes shorter as you hyperventilate and take in more oxygen. PNS breathing is longer, deeper and calmer and you can “trick” your body into a PNS-activated state by mimicking the breath of that system. Taking long, deep breaths can effectively activate the PNS and deactivate the SNS.
- Acupuncture – an increasing amount of research is showing that acupuncture can directly affect the autonomic nervous system, specifically heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of hormones and neurotransmitters. If you are struggling to put together a wellness routine for yourself, a skilled, Licensed Acupuncturist can also help you create a reasonable plan to lower your stress.
- Walking in nature – there is evidence that a “brief forest walk affects autonomic nervous system activity”.
- Yoga, mindfulness meditation, tai qi or qigong – as mentioned above, focus on your breathing throughout your practice to get the most out of it’s calming effects.
There is a lot you can do for yourself to lower your stress. The most important thing is that you actually do it! If you need support or have questions, give us a call.