Written by Esther Malone – Senior Myotherapist
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the functions of our internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and it also controls some of the muscles within the body. One of its roles is to relay information from the eyes, ears, skin and muscle to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It also obeys commands from the central nervous system and makes muscles contract or relax, allowing us to move.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is part of the autonomic nervous system, which also includes the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic system is activated by the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. This system is often called the “fight or flight” system.
The parasympathetic system (PNS) is activated by the inhibitory neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain. This system relaxes our body and calms us down and is often called the “rest and digest” system.
If we look at these two systems like the accelerator and brakes on a car. The SNS is the accelerator, always ready to rev up and take us out of danger. The PNS is the brakes, slowing us down when danger isn’t present. The body should naturally remain in PNS most of the time, and only activate SNS in life-threatening situations; however, in the modern age, the body’s SNS response is often triggered by everyday stressors, including adrenaline rushes from stress, anxiety, caffeine, intense exercise and conflict with others.
For our ancestors, stress was a helpful motivator for survival, allowing them to avoid real physical threats. That’s because it makes your body think it’s in danger, and triggers that “fight-or-flight” survival mode. Fight-or-flight mode refers to all the chemical changes that go on in your body to get it ready for physical action. In some cases, these changes can also make you freeze.
While this stress response can still help us survive dangerous situations, it’s not always an accurate response and it’s usually caused by something that’s not actually life-threatening. That’s because our brains can’t differentiate between something that’s a real threat and something that’s a perceived threat, for example ‘a deadline for your presentation or a conflict with your boss’.
Spending too much time in SNS can lead to a general weakening of the immune system as well as other serious health issues such as:
- Cardiovascular issues: High blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and heart attack
- Gastrointestinal issues: IBS, chronic constipation or diarrhea
- Endocrine System issues: Type 2 diabetes, sexual impotence, and decreased energy and longevity
- Decreased exercise recovery: Muscle and training fatigue
Most of us live in a chronic state of SNS over-activation. Conscious attention to the PNS brings the pendulum back to centre and this is where mindfulness comes in. Dr Craig Hassed has created a simple and easy to implement daily mindfulness practice that can be done anywhere. You only need 2-5 minutes and you can increase the duration as time allows.
Imagine you are reading a novel, however in this particular novel the editor forgot to put in commas and full stops. The pages have words that keep going on and on without a break, without allowing you to take a breath.
Now imagine the book is your life typed out onto the pages. A book with no breaks, word after word, day after day, year after year- without stopping, without breathing and checking in. Stuck on a constant wheel that we feel is impossible to get off. Does this sound familiar?
These pages without a break create havoc in our bodies, being in a constant panic/grind and this is where we start to live predominantly in the SNS. It is time to give yourself permission to slow down- to stop and see the world right in-front of you, to immerse yourself in your present moment.
Imagine the “commas” are 2-5 minute small breaks in your day.
These little intervals are small moments of mindfulness- of complete immersion in what you are doing. These can include:
- Gentle deep breaths: eyes open or closed- 4-5 deep breathes regularly throughout your day
- Thinking about 4 things or people you are grateful for
- Putting the washing on the line- feeling each peg in your hands, looking at the sky, feeling the breeze on your skin
- Washing the dishes, feeling the warm water on your hands
- Pulling up in the driveway- before getting out of the car perform 4-5 deep and slow breaths
The “full stops” are 10-20 minute breaks in your day. These can include:
- Reading a book
- Getting up 10 minutes earlier to do a seated guided meditation
- Going for a walk outside
- Doing some stretches
- Sitting and watching the kids or your dog play in the park
- Doing a guided meditation before bed
- Enjoying your hobbies – bike riding, dance classes, surfing, golf, pilates, going to the gym, swimming, creating art, gardening- doing activities that require your whole attention
There are many other techniques that a person can use to strengthen and activate their PNS, causing a relaxation response in their body, for example:
- Aerobic Exercise: Studies have shown that light to moderate aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming for at least 30 minutes per day at least five days per week can improve the PNS response.
- Spend time in nature: get your shoes off and place your feet on the grass, walk outside, along the beach, in a forest
- Having a massage
- Practice visualisation – in a place that you love like the ocean or a forest
- Focus on a word that is soothing such as “calm” or “peace”
- Play with animals or children
- Practice yoga, chi kung, or tai chi
These are some of the ways we can bring our bodies from the “flight/fight mode” into “rest and digest mode”. If we can do this multiple times throughout our day it will allow our bodies to heal on many levels.
Included below are some resources to help you on this journey:
- Guided meditation Apps: Insight Timer (Free), Smiling Mind, Calm, Headspace
- Dr Jo dispenza: https://drjoedispenza.com/ he also has youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MggxikOZN80
- Inspiring and informative podcasts: Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, Deliciously Ella, The Jo Rogan Experience, Highest Self Podcast, Inside the mind
- Practicing mindfulness meditation : Associated Professor Dr Craig Hassed