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Stress – Balancing the sympathetic nervous system

‘Stress’ is a topic which is regularly talked about and is generally recognised by the average person. However it’s significance is often not reflected in the everyday state; failing to be prioritised, and leading to a multitude of cascading issues. It is believed that 75-90% of all GP visits are stress-related. When we talk about stress, what we really mean to say is that our ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (our fight, flight or freeze response) is unduly activated and overused, becoming the more dominant system. This overuse diminishes your ability to alternate freely between your other systems over time, leading to an habitual preference, and undesirable sensitivity changes to the body’s chemicals that enhance this state. The ultimate result being fatigue to the organs supporting this sympathetic drive (adrenals, followed by thyroid, then sex hormone displacement via heightened cortisol), and a ripple effect to all other body systems (kidney, liver, gut…), leading to ill health.

The sympathetic drive clearly has it’s uses throughout our evolution, ensuring we survive as animals, for ourselves, and for those we care for (our community). It is also very useful for athletic and high physical demands on the body, where the sympathetic drive promotes an array of neurotransmitter releases into the body’s systems, leading to changes in metabolic process prioritisation. However a balanced eb and flow of our nervous systems provides an optimal state for physical functioning, as well as for the psyche and mental processing; particularly in relation to focus, accuracy, movement and expression, i.e. improved physical movement, from thought creation to the motor-cortices, including speech and expression through language.

It is therefore important to understand that stress is about balance. We should not be striving for stress elimination, as stress plays a significant role in everyday life. Instead we need to look at developing coping strategies such as yoga, meditation, bodywork and breathwork to create adaptability. These strategies build awareness of the self and through this perspective can help form, for example, a lighter more playful approach to a task rather than seeing it as a chore. This task may be your occupation, relationship or simply operating day to day. Indeed, in a class or even one-to-one environment, mirror neurons feed off a collective positive feel to the group, or a therapists’ inspiring touch and encouragement.

In the current climate, particularly in western society, the sympathetic drive is often overused, even in a sedentary environment (e.g. a stressful phone call) without the need for an increased heart rate or blood flow to muscles, and, in the absence of the subsequent recovery of the body via the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system). This is obviously to the detriment of the health of your mind, body and soul, as it does not provide a balance within the body’s systems for everyday functioning. Furthermore, the little mentioned enteric nervous system which has substantial control over the gut (gastrointestinal tract), and often considered as the second brain, is highly influenced by the interplay between these 2 (mostly opposing) sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

It is understood that when we balance out our sympathetic and parasympathetic drives appropriately: we think more laterally, make better rounded decisions, and our physical and metabolic processes become more efficient and more variable. A common example of this failing in a sporting environment is the saying of ‘choking’ on a matchpoint/penalty where the muscles stiffen in readiness for danger, rather than relaxing through the shot. The importance of variation in the mind, body and soul can not be emphasised enough. Neuro-genesis in child development for example has shown the vast capacity for variation and change to adapt to the environment; providing an effective way to survive in their current environment and society. Having a ‘brain like a sponge’ is often the way this is described. This ability for neurological variation and ‘plasticity’ seemingly lingers as we age, but this has less to do with time and more to do with our engagement strategy choices in response to external stimuli or challenges in life, and our desire for comfort and safety.

Let’s take a look further.

Studies have found that by engaging with your parasympathetic drive you actually provide a platform for increased variation of each heart beat (HRV), one to the next. Whilst your initial thoughts to this might be of concern, it is actually a profound realisation that the rhythm of the heart and mind are intertwined and flexible, given the chance, to the encounters of everyday life. Physically it is known that stress in moderation to provide dynamic influence is important – from muscles and tendons to nerves and fascia. It is interesting to note that this gentle ‘stressing’ is an important factor for development and adaptability of the body, as long as it is regulated appropriately. This is also relatable to the development and conditioning of the mind to provide the same functional versatility for longer. Commonly termed the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, and often advocated amongst neurological physiotherapists and those treating older people.

The body also has a vast capacity for different metabolic systems, supporting and inhibiting one another, whilst in synergy. It is significantly dependent on the sympathetic / parasympathetic interplay. The use of this diverse capacity of metabolic systems is stunted when the sympathetic drive is over-prioritised. Nurturing the ability to function without a heightened sympathetic drive, but instead interchangeably using our drives in balance, provides the body with more options to function metabolically, and therefore allows more efficient and diverse functioning across the mind, body and soul. This can be seen in receptor site, and even genetic expression changes, leading to any number of outward changes in how you function. Whether these changes tip the scales in your favour when recovering from serious illnesses e.g. cancer or MS, or to help clear brain fog or even depression and mental illness. This diversity of physical functioning has also been indicated by a growing body of evidence to prevent illnesses and issues such as these in the first place. ‘Metabolic flexibility’ is currently a topic of discussion, with the fad of intermittent fasting and the genuine medical research into its’ use for resetting insulin resistant cells following diagnosis of diabetes (Goodpaster & Sparks, 2017), particularly in a sedentary population.

With continued use of our different drives, our habitual functioning will then accommodate this change, making diverse functioning a new habit – but one which still needs to be continually practiced to balance out any chaos and traumatic experiences, generally found in day to day life. An inability to achieve this leads to an inability to function at a high level, limiting your soul performance and a feeling of under-achievement. As with all habit manipulation, repetitive practice and development is the way to go, but repetition of parasympathetic activation can take many forms!


So how can I begin to make these changes?

The best way to create change, in an holistic way across the mind, body and soul, is to work on balancing these systems in an ever-changing environment. Yoga is an excellent way to achieve this in our crazy, fast-paced world. It focuses on breathwork, which has a direct connection to heart rate and engagement of the parasympathetic drive via the diaphragm and vagus nerve. It is through this that you can allow your mind to connect with your body, tuning into your myofascial tonicity. As you breathe through different postures, your myofascial tone consciously releases having a knock-on effect to emotional stress and physical tension held in the body. Furthermore the rhythmic connection between the breath and movements between postures (asanas) creates a type of ‘moving meditation’.

In a western world we find this ‘doing’ far easier to identify with, rather than just sitting and clearing our mind, as is traditionally linked with meditation. However, we are totally supportive of ‘still’ meditation practices. When doing still meditation, it is often easier to recognise your emotions and the wishes of the ‘heart’. Importantly, it is even better if you can achieve all of these things together so that you link your mind, body, heart, and soul, as these are all as yet inexplicably intertwined. This is something that is rarely achieved however without a conscious approach, which is why we advocate starting a yoga practice to make these changes together! There are many different types of meditation and collaborative yoga styles, to varying levels of quality and attention, from which you can determine what suits you best. Being aware of these components of self will help you get the most out of your practice and save you time achieving a more balanced and less stressed state.

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