We all encounter stress in our lives and it’s actually good for us to have elements of stress, it’s our driver for getting up in the morning for example. But instead of short bursts of stress, many of us are experiencing prolonged or exacerbated periods of stress and it’s causing a lot of ill health. It’s mainly compounded by the demands of work, home, relationships, money issues, hectic schedules, and everything else going on.
In our autumn edition magazine we spoke with Sarah Hallaran, owner at Beauty Oasis Spa in the South West, around treatments that can help to boost your wellbeing in Autumn. During our conversation, Sarah explained that in our chaotic modern world, our sympathetic nervous system- which deals with that fight, flight or freeze reaction is being worked into overdrive and causing a whole wealth of problems. However, this system works in conjunction with the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digest, and there are ways to kick this one into action to still the sympathetic nervous system and its reactions caused by stress activation. We speak to Sarah further on this matter, looking at the function of both nervous systems with some tools and techniques you can implement to help kick the stress systems butt!
Your nervous systems
There are actually two main parts to your nervous system: the sensory and peripheral nervous systems. The central, or sensory, nervous system is the nerve centre and is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system consists of a network of nerves that connect the rest of the body to the central nervous system.
The two systems work together collecting information and sending messages out to the body. The peripheral nervous system is also split into two parts: the somatic system, which is responsible for voluntary movement and sensory information processing, and the autonomic nerves system which controls everything else which is involuntary; like breathing and digestion.
The autonomic nervous system also comprises of two parts, they are mirror images of each other with differing functions and work together to create balance in our bodies. These are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system
Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action when a message from the brain tells you you’re in a life-threatening position and will get the body working overtime to deal with that threat. This is a caveman response which was necessary when you needed to run from a sabre-tooth tiger, for example. But of course, this evolutionary, life-saving process isn’t as helpful in a world where the biggest threat are missed deadlines, fear of letting someone down if you don’t do what you said, or have to find money for car repairs. But the response is still the same. You’re going to get a rise in adrenaline and cortisol- the stress hormones, your blood is going to move away from the digestive system to the large limbs as though you need to run, your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature are all going to rise and you’re going to be taking shorter breaths, preparing you to deal with that threat.
The biggest difference between the millennia’s is the threat then was generally short lived, whereas here in our modern world, it isn’t. The stress periods are more prolonged and the cycle of stress you’re in keeps going.
Stress effects on the body
The more exposed we are to this stress, the worse our overall health is going to be. You may experience digestion or stomach issues, such as IBS, acid reflux or constant bloating or cramping; not unsurprising when your hormones and the blood needed to help with digestion seize when you’re stressed, your blood pressure may be consistently elevated- putting you at risk of heart disease, you may have a weaker immune system as the body is never able to recover and rest and you may find you’re more prone to colds, flu and stomach viruses. Additionally, your sex drive may be affected with a low libido, you’re irritable and short with loved ones, you’re more likely to put on weight, and prolonged stress can even encourage memory loss.
Signs you’re suffering from sympathetic overdrive:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Reliance on stimulants, such as coffee and sugar to keep you going
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Always feeling tired
- Have trouble winding down or switching off
- Suffer from headaches
- Bad memory
- Takes you ages to recover from activities and illness
- You suffer with IBS or other gastric problems
- Muscles feel tense.
The parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system works in the complete opposite to the sympathetic system; it promotes rest and digest, feed or breed.
When this system is activated, your heart rate and respiration decrease and normalises, your blood and nutrients are sent to the stomach, liver, and kidneys to aid in digestion and proper function, your pupils constrict and normal vision resumes and the stress hormones are abated.
When in this state, your body can heal itself and prepare you for any real threat and illness. Our bodies should be using the parasympathetic nervous system most of the time, but increasingly we’re spending more time in the sympathetic nervous system.
How to kick in your parasympathetic nervous system
In our modern world its more imperative than ever to implement stress busting activities; both at the end of the day and during periods of noticeable stress. This can help to reduce and alleviate the symptoms associated with stress, ultimately ensuring your body should function as it should to keep you healthy. The following techniques can help to kick in your parasympathetic nervous system so it switches from sympathetic danger mode, into rest and digest mode.
A regular massage can help to alleviate muscle tension, rid your body of toxins, and restore balance in the nervous systems. It aids in relaxation and improving sleep quality.
We’re encouraged to do 150 minutes of exercise per week for good reason- exercise is proven to expel the stress hormones. It will also give you a boost of endorphins which will help with low mood and a low libido.
Helps to still the mind after a busy day. When we have a million and one things going on, your head can be trying to juggle everything going on, everything up coming and everything that has come before.
Sounds simple but our breathing changes subconsciously to deal with the situation we’re faced with. If we don’t get enough oxygen or expel enough cardon dioxide, it can exacerbate symptoms. Try the following techniques to use your breathing to control the effects of stress.
- Deep abdominal breathing: Engage your stomach muscles and breathe deeply into your diaphragm. These bigger breaths can bring your heart rate down.
- Take longer breaths out than in: This will send a message to your brain to kick in the parasympathetic nervous system. You’ll still want deeper breaths, but just make sure the out breath is longer than the in (e.g., 4 seconds in and 8 seconds out).
Spending time in nature
Whether going for a walk or sitting in a park, it can have a hugely positive impact. It opens you up to fresh air, calming sights and sounds and the movement will help to shift those pockets of tension.
Build a diet based on balance
Be sure to consume plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds to ensure your diet is nutrient rich and can help support immune function, it’ll help to keep your system fighting fit.
If you’re someone who tends to bottle everything up, talking therapies can hep you to get it all out in the open in a safe space and alleviate your body of the stress.
Good sleep hygiene
If you have poor sleep quality, try changing your bedding, checking the temperature of the room, a warm shower or bath before bed, turning off all devises an hour before sleep, and even keeping a note pad and pen by your bed to note down worries, anxieties, and stresses to be dealt with the next day.
Playing and being creative
Being hands on, letting your creativity out and even going to the park to play your little ones, or trying an art class or new hobby will help you to feel happier, calmer, and more at peace.
We hope this provides some insight into stress activation with helpful tips to combat it. Looking for more tips when it comes to stress busting? Check out the following reads.