Fight or Flight vs Rest & Digest - where do you spend your time?

Our nervous system is a complex system that includes nerves and specialised cells called neurons that send signals and messages around our body. We can say that our nervous system is the body’s electrical wiring. So imagine if we constantly overworked our nervous system and were constantly stressed, if you had all your appliances on all of the time. Your body would feel the effects. This is caused by our autonomic nervous system, which helps regulate involuntary movements and internal organs. We have two branches that make up the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.

Parasympathetic Nervous System: controls our relaxation response [rest & digest]

Sympathetic Nervous System: controls our flight or fight response

We can imagine that these nervous systems are like the accelerator and brake of a car. We require both tools when we are driving so that we can maintain a balanced and safe drive to our destination. We can use this concept to describe how the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system works to help our body.

These two branches help to maintain equilibrium within our body, or what we call homeostasis. When stressful situations arise our body tends to go into a negative feedback loop to turn on our parasympathetic system to allow us to go back into homeostasis, giving ourselves the opportunity for a reset. Imagine if we are constantly under pressure or stress our sympathetic nervous system will always be on and our body will never get the chance to relax. Our sympathetic system overrides the parasympathetic (as it was originally designed to save us in dangerous situations).

The danger of being in the sympathetic system too often, or for too long is twofold;

  1. Initially, we are living in the flight or fight state, our bodies won’t be able to digest the food we eat to harvest the nutrition as the circulatory system directs our blood and other essential fluids away from our digestive system to provide the energy we need to defend or fight for our lives.

  2. We can go into adrenal fatigue. Although adrenal fatigue isn’t a medically recognised diagnosis, our bodies can get overworked and produce less cortisone or other hormones than is optimal for normal functioning. If our body is in perpetual fight or flight, the adrenal glands may not be able to keep up. (Note: the same symptoms of adrenal insufficiency may also be the result of other medically diagnosed conditions. It is always best to consult a health professional if you have ongoing symptoms of any kind)

Ways you can help turn on your parasympathetic nervous system:

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing - The action of breathing gives our body an increase of oxygen to our brain and muscles causing a relaxation state, but although you have been doing it all your life, you may need to check in to see if you are doing it properly. If you are shallow or chest breathing you may actually be keeping yourself in your sympathetic nervous system. Check out our youtube video or insta feed for instructions on the correct form for breathing. Even 1 minute of diaphragmatic breathing can

  2. Non-stressful exercise - If you are in a heightened sympathetic nervous system state going for a run or doing vigorous exercise can heighten this state further. To bring your system into the parasympathetic state, going for a walk, especially in nature can help increase your breathing and physically shake off any nervous energy.

  3. Meditate - Giving your system time to reboot through a guided meditation will help with your breathing and slowing down your system, helping you get back into the parasympathetic system.

  4. Get a massage - Just like meditation, massage can help you slow down your nervous system and is ideal if you have a highly stressful lifestyle or work environment. Being able to take yourself from the yang of everyday life to the yin of a massage treatment can do your body the world of good

How does massage help our nervous system?

Massage allows our bodies to return to homeostasis and our parasympathetic nervous system as it can have calming effects on our bodies. When we receive a massage the receptors on our skin send signals to our brain via the spinal cord to turn on our parasympathetic system. Once the parasympathetic nervous system is on, our heart rate decreases, breathing slows down, and our muscles relax. This will also promote our happy hormones to be released giving us more of a sense of calmness, contentedness, and happiness.

Making time for yourself, no matter which of these tips you use is important in our busy, rushed, and continually ‘on’ lifestyles.

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