In our last blog, we discussed the FIGHT or FLIGHT response and how it has evolved from the stone ages from ‘automatic survival’ to ‘constant survival’. But how does our FIGHT or FLIGHT response contribute to an unstable nervous system?
Our nervous system is an intricate network of pathways that lead all the way from the brain out to every part of our body. Extending from the top, stretching out to the very tips of our fingers and toes, the nervous system separates into two sections of its own - voluntary (The Somatic System) and involuntary (The Autonomic System or ANS) which is what we’re diving into today.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The ANS works on a subconscious level and regulates the body’s digestion, respiration and circulation systems without us having to think about it. It's involuntary - think about it, we don't have to remind ourselves to breathe in and out or tell our brain to pump blood throughout the body to keep us alive.
This is the beauty of the ANS - it's like an automated system working 24/7 in the background and makes sure we are functioning and running smoothly. The ANS is the autopilot of our nervous system and allows us, as the ‘pilots’ of our bodies, to relax and know that the plane is flying smoothly.
The ANS breaks down into two systems of its own - the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Both play important roles in survival and are in charge of our ability to stress and relax when necessary.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
This is what we talk about when discussing our FIGHT or FLIGHT response. Whilst it sounds scary and is activated in stressful situations - FIGHT or FLIGHT has helped us to survive this long and is actually very beneficial to our ability to stay alive. However - FIGHT or FLIGHT has changed from the short term survival response to a threat and evolved into a chronic and ongoing state of survival. When the SNS is activated, your body suffers changes of:
Increased heart rate
Restricted or rapid breathing
Tension in your muscles
Whilst your nervous system finds these responses necessary for survival (and if you’re being chased by a bear or axe murderer they certainly are) - your SNS will activate these responses for threats whether real or perceived. This causes us to be stuck in a sustained mode of survival and consequently alters the involuntary systems that the ANS is in charge of leaving them running not so smoothly.
When the SNS is overwhelmed, our body prioritises feelings of anxiousness and stress over growth and repair.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS)
Ahh now it's time to REST and DIGEST. This is when our PSNS system comes into play - this is the ‘slow down’ response, our state of relaxation. Your body responds to this system by:
Slowing the heart rate and breathing
Digestion and metabolising food: allowing your body to soak in the essential nutrients
Process of elimination: removes waste and toxins from the body
Stimulating salivation - helping with the breakdown and digestion of food
Producing tears: lacrimation of the eyes producing lubrication and protection to preserve eye tissues
The PSNS counteracts with the SNS to recalibrate the body back to a state of relaxation to promote growth and restoration.
A Harmonious Nervous System
Both the SNS and PSNS are vital to our survival should they be working in harmony. However, imbalances within the autonomic nervous system can manifest into long-term physical, emotional, psychological and mental problems. This can look like:
High blood pressure
Low back pain
Digestive issues such as IBS
Respiratory issues such as asthma
Depression and anxiety
Or for children: ADHD and behavioural disorders such as ODD
Don’t fret - an imbalanced nervous system is curable. If you feel as though your SNS is taking hold of your life and you’re unable to get into a state of relaxation try taking a few deep conscious breaths as a quick fix. By focusing on your breath - you are taking control of an automatic subconscious function and bringing it into your consciousness offering a direct line to the PSNS. Your PSNS is also heavily influenced by the vagus nerve and by learning to activate it, you can learn to bring yourself back to balance (stay tuned for the next blog for more on this).
Breath is one way to quickly navigate back into REST and DIGEST mode, however it does not resolve the issues of why you may be stuck in FIGHT or FLIGHT. If you want to really calm your nervous system - get in contact with Aaron to get to the bottom of why your SNS is stuck in overdrive and begin to UNLEASH YOUR GREATEST POTENTIAL.