The Nervous System
The Nervous System consists of two main parts: the Central Nervous System, our brain and spinal cord, and our Peripheral Nervous System, the parts of our body that come from the spinal cord that allow us to send messages from our brain down to our fingers and toes.
As we saw in last week’s post, in times of stress or anxiety, the hypothalamus in the brain takes in data from the outside world, and sends it to other parts of the brain for processing. The way it then communicates with the rest of the body is through a sub-section of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous system controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat etc; the functions of the body that we do not have to think about, in order to control.
Our bodies are complex, and just like the Central Nervous System, the autonomic nervous system also has two parts to it:
the sympathetic nervous system; and
the parasympathetic nervous system.
It is the sympathetic nervous system that functions like the gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to the perceived dangers.
The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
In a healthy pattern of activation, the body alternates between the two mechanisms to provide balance.
Techniques to counter chronic stress
In today’s hectic society, a lot of people can struggle to find a way to slow down stress reactions. Chronic low-level stress keeps the part of the brain associated with stress activated, and so it continues to tick over, much like an engine that is left on idle. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress: high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, irritability etc.
When I talk with my clients, I use the analogy of a shaken up bottle of soda. If we shake a can or bottle for too long, it will fizz and bubble over when we take the lid off. Alternatively, with awareness, we can avoid that reaction and allow the fizz to release slowly.
Fortunately, as with our can or bottle, people can learn simple techniques to counter the stress response and reduce stress and anxiety slowly. We call this “checking in to life’s hospital”, it’s our inbuilt balancing system.
Look at the image below. A strong healthy tree has strong healthy roots and these roots look very similar to our nervous systems. The roots of this tree can sustain a lot of stress from the environment, but they also take a lot of nourishment from the environment too in order to remain healthy.
If we consider that most stressors tend to come from the outside environment before they are processed by the brain, just like the tree, we can use the external environment to also calm the brain and provide what we need.
Next time you feel stressed, take a walk in a pleasant area and be mindful of your surroundings; really take time to notice what is going on in the outside world.
Try This Exercise when you are out walking, running or riding:
What can you see: keep noticing it. Does it move, what colours are there, look at shape, look at texture, materials.
What can you hear: keep noticing it. Is it calm, is it noisy, peaceful, what feeling does it invite in you, be mindful and notice what is going on.
What can you touch: Are you somewhere that you can reach out and touch some part of your environment, a tree, a leaf, a stone. What do they feel like.
What can you smell: smell is evocative. Really notice what is around you.
Breathe….notice your breath, take the time for yourself. Notice how you are feeling.
If you’ve been able to take a walk and do that, congratulations; you just activated your parasympathetic nervous system and are naturally providing your body with much needed stress relief and balance.