Chill Out! How Stress Sends Your Nervous System Haywire

Stress! Even that exclamation mark makes me slightly anxious. We all know it as the ugly monster lurking in the wings waiting to pounce on us anytime, at work or at home. In this current age of information overload and technology within our reach every minute of the day, there is hardly any respite from it. Large portions of the population aren’t even aware that they are under stress. We aren’t talking about the type of stress that occurs when you are running away from a lion, we’re talking about the type of stress that flows from the inside out, not the outside in. 

Some typical signs of ‘stress’ include high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, headaches/migraines, excessive sweating, constipation, jaw problems, hair loss, and reflux just to name a few. These reactions by the body are controlled by our nervous system. 

Now, bear with us for a moment while we explain a bit about our nervous system. Our nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (brain & spinal cord) and the peripheral division (everything else). The peripheral division consists of the somatic (information to your muscles) and autonomic nervous system (everything else crucial to your survival – heart, kidneys, digestive system, reproductive system that kind of stuff). Within the autonomic nervous system we also have two parts, our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, and our opposing “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system.

When your body experiences any type of stress (lets think being chased by a tiger, a job interview, or even worse, dinner with the mother in law) your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) reacts in a way to support you through this ordeal. Stress hormones are released (ever heard of cortisol & adrenalin?) and with this signalling the heart starts to beat faster, rate of breathing increases, digestion slows, blood sugar increases and blood moves towards your arms and legs (to help you run) and away from your digestive organs.

We should thank our wonderful bodies for its intelligence in helping us deal with an unexpected emergency or short term stress, because if this wasn’t the case the human race may not be here today! Once this perceived moment of crisis is over, the body should goes back to its previous, relaxed state. A state of digestion and healing.

In the majority of people this isn’t the case – we are too often in a “fight or flight” state with no stimulus at all. How many times have you caught yourself worrying in bed? Or thinking about work when you should be having a good time with your family? When your body is in a sympathetic state for an extended period of time it doesn’t get a chance to rest and recover.

Allow your body to slip into a parasympathetic state (rest & digest) more often. You will find you are more relaxed, happier, digestion is more efficient, your headaches will lessen, and your body will heal better if you injure yourself. For all those people with chronic low back pain and headaches; how do you expect your body to heal if it is in a state of “go go go!” all the time? Want to know how to activate your “rest and digest” nervous system? Take a look at this post!