Stress is not ipso facto a bad thing. A certain amount of stress is natural. None of us live stress free lives. However, while a certain amount of stress is normal, chronic negative stress is harmful to our health.
When an individual is faced with stress, his body mobilizes for action in what is called a fight or flight reaction. During a fight or flight reaction, the heart rate increases, breathing is accelerated, and the muscles tense up.
When an individual identifies a threat, or experiences strong negative emotions such as anger and/or rage, activity in the sympathetic nervous system rises and the adrenal glands release the hormones epinephrine (or adrenaline) and norepinephrine into the blood stream. At the same time, corticosteriod hormones which release fatty acids for energy, are released by the adrenal glands. This nervous system and hormonal activity causes digestion to stop, blood sugar levels to increase, and the heart to pump more blood to the muscles.
The fight or flight response, or sympathetic nervous system reaction, was an evolutionary adaptation that was immensely useful for fighting off tigers and/or marauding enemies. It was designed to turn on quickly and then shut back off within moments of dealing with the immediate crisis at hand.
However, in contemporary society, the sympathetic nervous system is under constant bombardment and, thus, stimulation. Living in the fast lane, 24/7 communications, environmental insults and societal background noise all contribute to over-activity of the fight or flight response. This is not what the sympathetic nervous system was ever designed to do.
Since, in today's world, the stress persists after the initial fight or flight reaction, the body's reaction enters a second stage. During this stage, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system declines and epinephrine secretion is lessened, but corticosteriod secretion continues at above normal levels. Finally, as stress continues and the body is unable to cope, there is likely to be breakdown of bodily resources. During this stage there may be a reduction of the levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in the brain, a state related to depression and illness.
Chronic stress has been associated with increased reports of illness. And, of course, the longer the stress is endured, the more likely a person is to become seriously ill.
The body, though, has an incredible system of checks and balances. And, if we allow it, the body will seek equilibrium. In this case, the balancing function comes via the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the rest-and-digest activities that occur when the body is at rest. Additionally, the parasympathetic nervous system increases resistance to infection, promotes ease of body fluid circulation, and produces the endorphins known as the "feel good" hormones.
The parasympathetic system is concerned with nourishing, healing and regeneration of the body. The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated by rest, relaxation and happy thoughts, is essential for balanced living and for all healing.
One of the keys for promoting balance and healing is to keep the sympathetic system turned off as much as possible. This allows the maximum healing, via the parasympathetic system, to occur.
Here are some suggestions for fettering an overly-active sympathetic nervous system and allowing the parasympathetic to operate:
- Breath-work: try mindfully slowing the breath. Breathe fully, all the way down into the tummy area. Allow the tummy area to rise and fall with the breath. Notice how different this is than when you only breath shallowly into the upper chest.
- Meditation: get involved in a meditation practice. There are many types of meditation practices. Find one that suits your personality and belief system and practice the techniques regularly.
- Yoga: get involved in a hatha yoga practice. There are many yogic systems. Find one that suits your body type and practice the asanas regularly.
- Affirmations and Visualization: use positive affirmations and visualizations to over-right old, habituated negative thoughts. Affirm and visualize loving, serene and pleasant thoughts and images. Notice how your body relaxes when you do this.
- Music: play soft, soothing music throughout your day. Ambient music supports an open, positive outlook and encourages well-being.
- Avoid Stimulants: eliminate caffeine and sugary sweets from your diet. Also, side-step emotional stimulants such as "drama", excessive exercise and exhaustion.
- Massage: any gentle style of massage is especially good for reprogramming the parasympathetic nervous system. This is a situation where "less is best" -- less pressure and intensity.
- Lip Work: gently making little circular motions with the fingertips on your upper lip is beneficial for relaxing the central nervous system. People hold a lot of tension in the jaw and upper lip and gently manipulating these areas can help break the holding pattern.
- Posture: get some work with a structural reintegration practitioner. You will be surprised at how much difference it makes when you learn to achieve a poised, relaxed standing and sitting posture. We hold many "defenses" in postural anomalies and releasing these patterns can be quite liberating.
- Slow Down: consciously slow everything that you do down. This, of course, is opposed to current societal expectations where everyone, and everything, is moving at the speed of light. Never mind -- just slow down!
As you begin to pay attention to enhancing parasympathetic function, you will notice a number of improvements in your physical, emotional and psychological well-being. You should experience more coherent energy and focus; a greater sense of mental clarity and a generally more optimistic outlook.
About the author:
Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D., is a socially engaged philosopher and cultural sustainability advocate. Her new book, The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle explores critical issues from this perspective. At the end of each chapter is a list of things that you can do to create a more sustainable, healthier lifestyle. For more information: http://www.sherryackerman.com