Stress is a modern epidemic.
74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
While you may be able to eliminate the external causes of stress in your life, there’s a lot you can do to reduce the adverse effects of stress on your physical and mental health. Understanding the fundamentals of your nervous system biology and how it responds to stress is a great starting point to creating the space to reclaim your power over your stress responses.
Your Autonomic Nervous System
Your Autonomic Nervous System is the part of your nervous system that controls and coordinates your body’s ‘automatic’ processes (like breathing, digestion, blood flow). There are two parts of the system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When they are working well together they ensure that the body remains in balance in response to ever-changing circumstances.
The sympathetic nervous system is action-focused: it stimulates the heart, lungs and major muscle groups and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response in response to threats.
The parasympathetic nervous system essentially calms and restores the body to a resting state and–when activated properly–helps us to renew when we are at rest.
When you experience stress (physical or emotional) your nervous system has to work harder to maintain equilibrium. It is the sympathetic branch that tends to dominate during times of stress and it is important to note that this is not harmful in the short term, and may even be beneficial.
However, if stress levels remain high for too long then physical and mental changes can begin to show. Because the nervous system controls and supports so many of our bodily structures and functions, stress-related symptoms can show themselves almost anywhere.
|Physical Stress Symptoms|
– Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
– Muscular aches and pains
– Poor digestion
– Breathlessness / chest pain
– Elevated blood pressure
– Skin breakouts
– Frequent infections / poor immunity
|Emotional Stress Symptoms|
– Difficulty concentrating
– Irrational worries and panic attacks
– Feelings of isolation and hopelessness
– Addictive behaviours e.g. over-eating, over-drinking
Stress isn’t necessarily a problem in itself (nor entirely avoidable); it’s how we respond to stress and how well or poorly we recover that can cause problems.
In a healthy stress response, we have a consistent wave-like line that goes from baseline (rest and digest) to peak arousal (fight or flight) and recovers fairly quickly .
Problems occur when we function outside of that nice up and down line, i.e. if we stay around peak arousal for too long. If this happens the body will initiate a freeze response as it is unable to sustain that high arousal charge. However there is still a sympathetic charge under the freeze so it’s a bit like hitting the accelerator and the brake at the same time.
Chronic stress response
If our stressors go beyond a certain intensity or duration, the sympathetic response becomes more intense. When we are unable to “complete” the stress response and come down from peak arousal, the ‘rest and digest’ portion of our parasympathetic system is unable to kick in.
Without the ability to “digest” properly, you can see how chronic cases of gut problems can start and become exacerbated over time. Furthermore, if we are unable to “rest” properly, our sleeping is disturbed, and this can lead to further health issues down the line.
Many people may actually be walking around in a ‘functional freeze’ whereby you are able to get through your day only by being constantly busy. Often, this state will ‘mute’ our capacity to feel joy and happiness because we our body’s resources are fundamentally being marshalled for a fight or flight response which is then papered over by a freeze response.
How can you restore a healthy stress response?
Through appropriate intervention you can return your nervous system to a more healthy and functional state; without such action the hyper-reactive state could last indefinitely, but not without wider health implications.
In order to restore a healthy stress response to ourselves, we have to become aware of when we get triggered into an automatic response (that creates a negative feedback loop), and start to unwind this response.
In the process of doing this, we can further work on increasing our nervous system capacity, as well as building exit pathways to allow a smoother flow of stressors in and out through our system.
There are many ways we can do this kind of work on ourselves–here are a few:
1) Meditation and mindfulness
At the top of the list, but quite often these are perceived as difficult techniques for people to access easily as beginners.
There are lots of groups, classes, and apps that can help you to develop these skills or you might like to have a few one to one sessions with a practitioner who specialises in these techniques.
As well as being a very relaxing therapy which benefits our parasympathetic nervous system, reiki has been shown to positively influence our locus of control which, in turn, can reduce the perceived danger of external threats.
Our sense of smell is closely connected with the parasympathetic nervous system. When scent molecules connect with the cilia (tiny hairs in our nose) the olfactory cells produce a nerve impulse which reaches the Limbic System.
The Limbic system is one of the most primitive parts of the brain concerned with survival instincts and emotions. Scientists believe that the activity of the nerve signals passing through this region cause mood change by altering brain chemistry.
Proper utilisation of essential oils can positively impact our bodies and our nervous systems, thereby helping our bodies and minds return to a state of balance.
4) Somatic Body Practices and Visualisation
Somatic bodywork can help enhance our internal perceptions of our bodies and then helps us integrate these perceptions with our sense of ourselves in our external world. Utilised in conjunction with visualisations, this can become a powerful way to ground into our bodies and help start the unwinding process in the case of a messy and/or incomplete stress response.
Combined with reiki and aromatherapy, this can be a self-nourishing and pleasant way to help us juggle the stressors in our lives and maintain balance.
If you are interested in finding out more, please don’t hesitate to contact the clinic, or stay tuned for future posts diving into these areas in further detail.
Joli Knott, Reiki master