by Linda Gabriel
Are You Sympathetic or Parasympathetic?
Your body has evolved a special system to protect you. In “caveman” days, if you were threatened by an enemy or predator, your body would shift into “fight or flight” mode, instantly secreting stress hormones like adrenaline.
This system, called the sympathetic nervous system, is designed to protect you in any life-threatening emergency but the chemicals it uses are very taxing to your body. While they are essential to speed up your reflexes so you can survive in an emergency, over time they can be quite harmful to your health.
Once the threat is over, another part of your nervous system compensates by secreting a different set of chemicals that calm you, allowing your body to rest and repair itself after the stress of having to fight or flee. This calming system is called the parasympathetic nervous system. Together these two systems form the autonomic nervous system which works in the background below the level of your conscious awareness. Ideally the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in balance.
Surviving Modern Life
Today we no longer fear attack from wild animals, but we face other “survival” fears from every area of modern life. The problem is your subconscious mind isn’t very skilled at distinguishing between a real and imagined event. It tends to interpret many experiences as life threatening even though you may not be in actual physical danger.
Being stuck in a traffic jam, the fear of losing your job, a failing grade on a report card, ending a relationship – while none of these are actually life-threatening your subconscious mind may feel like your very survival is at stake. Your subconscious mind will even interpret stories you hear on the news as reasons to feel anxious even though they don’t affect you directly. Eventually your sympathetic nervous system starts to work overtime. And if you don’t have a chance to relax, your parasympathetic nervous system can’t come to the rescue.
The Dangers of Cortisol
When you experience constant stress, your body begins to secrete a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is linked to a number of health problems. Recent studies have also linked cortisol to weight gain, especially around the abdomen. It’s that dangerous “belly fat” you may have heard about on the news – a story that, while informative, can also activate your sympathetic nervous system and add to your level of stress. It’s a vicious cycle!
How to Create a Strategy for Stress Reduction:
The best weapon against stress is to have a strategy to relax on a regular basis. It’s important for you to enter a parasympathetic state every day to allow your body to balance all those stress hormones you create when you’re in a sympathetic or stressful state. Here’s a list of activities that have been shown to create a parasympathetic response.
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Deep Breathing
- Spending time in Nature
- Guided Visualization
One of the simplest and easiest ways to relax and renew is meditation. It requires no equipment – just you! It’s amazing how even 5 or 10 minutes of quieting your mind can offset a whole day of stress. I invite you to take a moment right now to close your eyes and take 3 or 4 slow, deep, relaxing breaths. Make sure to breathe all the way into your belly so that with each inhalation you can feel the belly gently expand and then with a slow, complete exhalation you can feel the belly gently relax. Don’t try to force the breath, just let it become slightly slower and deeper with each breath.
Go ahead now and try it. I’ll wait…
No really. Stop reading and take a few deep breaths. If you’re like most people, it will only take 3 deep breaths to begin calming down your nervous system. It’s one of the reasons people sigh when they’re upset; that’s your body’s attempt to balance itself. It’s also an unconscious reason why many people smoke. They believe it’s the cigarette that calms them down but it’s really the deep breathing!
Relax, Renew, and Reduce
Are you willing to take a few minutes each day to relax and renew? If you do, you’ll allow your body chemistry to balance itself, paving the way to better health, a greater sense of well-being, and a more efficient metabolism.