Learning to manage your nervous system can be crucial to good health. The sympathetic nervous system controls your fight, flight, or freeze reaction, which is activated by your response to stress. Instinct and human conditioning support this natural response as far back as caveman days, and it used to serve a daily essential purpose. (As the saying goes in the animal world: you can either have lunch or be lunch.) Fortunately for us today, most stressful situations don’t put us in mortal danger. But it’s up to us to let our bodies know that everything is going to be OK.
By simply controlling your physical response to stress, you can put the brakes on many of the negative bodily effects. The first step to putting the brakes on stress is understanding what is happening in your body. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. Two parts of this system are of concern: the sympathetic, (think gas pedal) and parasympathetic, (think brake pedal).
When you perceive yourself to be in a stressful situation, your body hits the gas pedal, increasing your heart rate and pumping stress hormones. This can affect your blood pressure, cholesterol, and even your glucose levels. In this state, you are reacting from the limbic system, which supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. When you find yourself in this compromised state, your judgment can suffer. Spend enough time with your nervous system hitting the gas and your immune system won’t stay strong enough to keep you healthy.
So how do you hit the brakes? The parasympathetic nervous system needs to dominate the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system allows your heart rate to decrease and your blood pressure to stabilize. You return to your normal state of mind, thinking more clearly and behaving more rationally, since your body isn’t fixated on preparing for danger. This neutral state also supports your immune system so that it can keep you healthy.
The next time you start to feel stressed, think about the two parts of your nervous system. Simple breathing exercises work especially well for controlling your physical response to stress and letting your body know you aren’t in mortal danger. With regular practice, you can learn how to apply the brakes.