Our autonomic nervous system controls many things without our conscious control, including our body’s reaction to stress. It is in charge of making sure your heart is beating and your lungs are breathing which is pretty amazing when you think about it. Our autonomic nervous is the reason most of us feel our heart pounding in our chest when we have to give a public speech or when we are startled or scared. This system serves many purposes and without it our species wouldn’t have survived very long.
There are actually two different parts of the autonomic nervous system: one for relaxation (the parasympathetic nervous system) and one for action/excitement (the sympathetic nervous system). Both of them are always working but it’s a “tug-of-war” relationship, where one system will dominate at different times. Since stress is linked to 80% of all illness and disease conditions, learning to understand and manage stress is an important for your health.
What happens when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge?
- Our heart rate speeds up
- Blood pressure goes up
- Blood supply increases to your muscles and lungs (and away from your organs and GI tract)
- Feelings of excitement or anxiety increase
- Adrenaline hormone is released
- Attention to detail can increase
- Cortisol hormone levels go up
- We are ready for action!
What happens when our parasympathetic nervous system is in charge?
- The opposite of all of the above!
- Relaxation also promotes good digestion and absorption of nutrients, as well as recovery and repair of tissues from stress and exercise.
Awesome habits to increase parasympathetic action:
- Stretching, yoga
- Having fun/playing
- Listening to music that you like
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Massage therapy
- Eating natural foods and lots of fruits and veggies
Things that increase sympathetic action:
- Working too much
- Drinking too much coffee and/or energy drinks
- Taking on too many responsibilities
- Feeling rushed
- Sitting in traffic/road rage (not even kidding)
- Financial stress/worry
- Incivility or rude behaviour of others
- Big life events or changes like moving, getting married, having a baby, etc.
At the end of the day, it is all about finding a balance. If you are feeling a lot of stress in your life, don’t despair, there are ways to take control and let go. The first step to making changes is increasing awareness of where you are in your life right now and where you would like to be. When you are ready, make a commitment to one thing and stick with it until it becomes your new way of being in the world. Your body, mind, and spirit will thank you.