Friday, August 14, 2009

Blame it on your nervous system!

Why does emotional distress leave me in such physical pain? Well, blame it on your nervous system.

The nervous system in the human body is comprised of two main branches, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Together, they control all movements, thoughts, activities, senses and emotions in our bodies. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord and is the central communicator throughout the body.

The peripheral nervous system is sub-divided into the somatic (voluntary movement) and autonomic (involuntary movement) systems and the autonomic system is then sub-divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems, which ideally, are intended to work in harmony to create equilibrium in the body.

However, as we well know, the ideal rarely happens in the mind and body of the average human who remains perpetually perched in that highly agitated state of feeling over stressed, over scheduled, over worked, over stimulated, over tired and of course, under appreciated.

When confronted with danger, our minds have to instantly evaluate whether we should flee or confront the threat before us. In order to prepare for action, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system prompting the release of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, also known as the stress hormones. These hormones serves us well in short bursts as they trigger essential survival systems while suppressing non-essential functions. Just like a race car driver at the start line, we are revved for action; our pupils dilate allowing us to see better, excess sugar is released into the blood stream for increased energy, our hearts speed up increasing circulation and the flow of oxygen to the brain, lungs and larger muscles. We need to be smarter and move faster than whoever or whatever is threatening our survival.

Meanwhile, our bodies are smart enough to know that while we are instinctively fighting for survival, we won't be interested in non-essential functions such as eating, digesting and eliminating.

Ideally, once the threat is no longer present, the body will automatically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, frequently referred to as the "relax and renew" system. Basically, this system helps restore the body to a state of homeostasis as soon as the threat is over.

However, the problem we create for ourselves is that our minds don't differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. These perceived threats are manufactured in the deep caverns of our overly creative imaginations and are limitless in scope and intensity. This creates really big problems for us because unlike genuine threats that are acute and short lived, mind induced threats are frequently exaggerated and can last indefinitely allowing our bodies and minds to become a sewer of physical and psychological toxins.

As long as the mind believes the body is in a state of threat, the sympathetic nervous system will remain in active mode and while we remain in this heightened state of arousal, symptoms of stress and anxiety will continue to plague us. Common symptoms include; feeling a tightening or pounding in the chest, difficulty breathing, tight, achy muscles, clammy skin, difficulty swallowing, poor digestion, irritability. Left unchecked for months and years, more serious conditions can occur such as high blood pressure, migraines, chronic anxiety, irritable bowel, insomnia, panic attacks and more.

If our bodies can't return to a state of equilibrium on their own, we can help nudge them along by initiating mindful practices, such as slow, deep breathing, that will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindful awareness when we practice yoga, meditation or breathing can help us override the lockdown mode our bodies get stuck in providing the relief we crave and the restoration we need for recovery.

We do not voluntary invite stress into our lives, but we do not need to resign ourselves to being its victim, either. We can go on the offensive and opt to make healthy choices that can help us combat these unwelcome and debilitating physical and emotional sensations. When we are in the grip of our fears and anxieties, it can feel hopeless. That is why committing to a routine practice of meditation, yoga, and mindful breathing is so essential. We must first learn to become comfortable with our practices when we are in a place of relative calm and equilibrium if we hope to use these skills when in physical or emotional crisis.

Watch a visual representation of what happens to the body when in stress.

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