All of us experience some stress in our daily lives. Our lifestyles, the environment, our work and personal life are all external and internal factors that can stimulate our ´stress levels´. Each one of us is equipped with a nervous system, made up of the brain, the spinal cord, sensory neurons and nerves. The nervous system has two subdivisions, the somatic, voluntary response and the autonomic, involuntary response. We will explore the latter a bit more.
So, what happens in our bodies when we stress? First of all, let´s take a look at the subdivisions of the nervous system.
The autonomic, involuntary nervous system controls things we are both aware and unaware of; things we do not have much control over, such as digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, sweating and many others. This component of our nervous system is then divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as ´fight or flight´ – and ´rest and digest´ mode.
The sympathetic nervous system is what has kept us alive thousands of years ago when we were still living in the wilderness. It´s a simple survival mechanism, that helps us respond quickly to a life threatening situation. Today, the same response takes place in non-life threatening situations, causing increased anxiety levels, for example when we´ve had a heated disagreement with our boss, are late for a meeting, or are dealing with an illness of a loved one.
When this ´mode´ is activated, some physiological changes are noticed rapidly : an increased heart rate, sweat breaking out, muscular tension, dilated pupils and a quickened breath- are just a few examples.
The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated, calms us down, relaxing both mind and body. When this happens our mood levels increase and we feel instantly uplifted. On a physiological level digestion is promoted, blood pressure is reduced, pupils contract and digestion is promoted.
When we find ourselves in ´fight or flight´ mode, the brain continues to release stress hormones (cortisol) until it perceives the situation is no longer threatening. These hormones, when released into the blood stream in only a few seconds, trigger an immediate response by keeping the body and mind very alert and ready for whatever danger is lurking around the corner.
When the brain sees the threat is no longer there, cortisol levels decrease, relaxation hormones are released, we slow down, we feel at ease and peace.
Whilst some of us do enjoy the rush of it all, chronic stress affects us and our health in the long run. High doses of stress (and cortisol) over an extended period of time can lead to high blood pressure and cause changes in the brain that may cause anxiety, depression and even addiction.
How do we deal with it?
Here are some simple techniques that will help you to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system and bring a smile to your face:
- Spending time in nature
- Playing with animals
- Yoga, meditation, tai chi or chi kung
- Practicing mindfulness
- Going for a massage
- Drinking herbal tea
- Deep breathing or Breathwork.
Or just keep it easy and do something that you love and truly enjoy and observe the immediate effects of a peaceful, elevated state of being.
Join us on IGTV next week to find out how to quickly release tension in the neck, shoulder and upper back area.