Fight or Flight? Rest and Digest? Optimizing your Life with the Power of your Autonomic Nervous System

Yoga or Pilates

Fiona McMahon PT, DPT, She, her, hers

You aren’t a zebra getting chased down by a lion on the Serengeti. You know that. But your body might not. Our modern day stress usually doesn’t involve us having to defend ourselves against wild animals. It often involves chronic seemingly unrelenting stress of work, relationships, and life. Stress, our perceived threats, chemically elicit the same type of response whether that is fending off a tiger or stressing over trying to care for your child while simultaneously crushing the game at work. These stress responses are governed by the sympathetic autonomic nervous system of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is a powerful system that governs virtually every function in our body to help optimize our responses to things we encounter day- to-day. It is essential to our survival. We can get into trouble if our stress response is perpetually turned on. You can’t fight or flight forever, we must transition out of that sympathetic nervous system back into our rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system. In this blog we will go over the different parts of the ANS and how we can optimize it to live our healthiest and happiest lives.

Parasympathetic versus Sympathetic

In a perfect world our sympathetic and parasympathetic operate in concert to provide us with optimal functioning. When we go out for a run we need our sympathetic to quicken our heartbeat, stimulate glucose release from our liver, and allow us to sweat. After we finish our run and settle in for our post run snack, we need our parasympathetic to stimulate some saliva production, and get digestion started for us. See how the sympathetic and the parasympathetic can work perfectly together? Check out all the functions of the ANS below

Sympathetic Nervous System

  • Dilates pupil
  • Inhibits salivation
  • Constricts Blood Vessels
  • Accelerates Heart Rate
  • Stimulates Sweat Production
  • Stimulates Glucose Release
  • Stimulates secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine
  • Inhibits urination
  • Stimulates orgasm

Parasympathetic Nervous System

  • Constricts pupil
  • Stimulates tear production and salivation
  • Slows Heartbeat
  • Stimulates digestion
  • Stimulates secretion
  • Promotes voiding
  • Stimulates erection

Health effects of stress

As you can see, the sympathetic nervous system provides us with some really important functions. But you can tell by looking at what it does for the body, that living in chronic sympathetic drive would be pretty uncomfortable. No one wants to walk around with their heart pounding and sweat pouring off their forehead. Beyond discomfort, chronic stress can deeply affect our health. Chronic stress can affect your immune system negatively making it harder for you to battle infections. Importantly for our pain patients, chronic stress can increase inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. This is important because that inflammation can actually make your pain worse. Chronic stress can also affect your digestion through a mechanism called the brain-gut-axis, which can affect how you absorb nutrients and the overall level of inflammation in your gut. You can listen to the details of how the autonomic nervous system can effect your gut on our Pelvic Messenger podcast.

Treatment

So you’ve read this far. You may now be feeling stress about being stressed, which definitely was not the intention of this blog post. Stress is part of life. Parents get sick, our kids get into trouble, money gets tight, life can be stressful. We simply cannot control events and the actions of other people that contribute to our stress. I call these things exogenous stressors, or stress that is occuring outside of ourselves. What we can attempt to control is how we react to those exogenous stressors.

That’s where mindfulness can be so helpful. Mindfulness can allow you to look at a problem without spiraling into extra stress. Let me give you an example. Say your boss gives you some negative feedback about a project at work. You can take the feedback at face value and use it as a tool to improve future projects or you can go down the rabbit hole. You can tell yourself that your boss not only didn’t like your performance on your project, but also doesn’t like you. You can create a narrative that you are inherently bad at your job, are on the verge of being fired, will not be able to afford to live in your house and so on and so on. The place you can take yourself in your mind can be so far from what actually happened. Travelling to those places can allow you to stress about things that haven’t happened or may never happen.

A way I personally learned mindfulness was through a smartphone app. I personally used Calm but 10% Happier, Buddify, and Headspace are also great. Getting into the practice of mindfulness takes… well… practice. I suggest giving it a full three weeks before throwing in the towel. There is no one cure for everyone and it is not a reflection on you, yourself personally if mindfulness is not your cup of tea.

Exercise is another great way to blow off some stress. Honestly, any exercise you do is good but throwing in some meditative movement practices to your repertoire can help up the returns you get from exercise. Meditative movement practices like Pilates, Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi have been shown to offer a host of benefits for the body and soul.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes we can shake the weight of stress ourselves. That’s when having a professional help can be so life changing. Mental health professionals can not only lift the burden of how we react to stress, but by teaching us to manage our stress responses, they can help set the stage for real and profound healing to take place and augment your treatment at someplace like Beyond Basics Physical Therapy.

As I wrap this blog up, I ask you to make time for you. Your health and sense of well-being are one of your life’s most valuable commodities and you are worth it.

Sources

Low P. Overview of the autonomic nervous system. Merk Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/autonomic-nervous-system/overview-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system Accessed May 23, 2019

Mariotti A, . The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future SCI OA. 2015 Nov; 1(3): FSO23

Won E, Kim Y. Stress, the autonomic nervous system, and the immune-kynurenine pathway in the etiology of depression. Current Neuropharmacology, 2016, 14 665-73

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