“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative, on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” – Frank Herbert
The human body is a miraculous machine designed to allow us to thrive and survive. We have abilities above and beyond other animals on the planet that allow us to not only be prepared for the next challenge, but to anticipate multiple challenges, threats, and potentialities that could cause us harm. We thrive in environments where we can meet threats to our immediate survival and those of our loved ones. Our bodies have the capacity to generate incredible strength, speed, and physical prowess in order to protect us from danger. Our nervous system is designed to harness these attributes in a matter of moments. Our autonomic nervous system controls our body’s breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes in order to allow us to function at an optimal level for survival. There has never been machine more efficient, adaptable, or intelligent than the human body.
In the modern era, our nervous systems may be too good for our own benefit. The autonomic nervous system consists of two synchronistic parts, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” part of our being, reacts to danger and threats, often rather quickly bringing up our heart rate, lung capacity, physical strength, and aggression. Our bodies were designed to respond almost instantly in the face of danger, something that served man well during much of human history. This evolutionary holdover is the reason that modern man suffers from anger outbursts, road rage, and other seemingly inexplicable acts of sudden violence. In the 21st century, a hair trigger sympathetic nervous system can get one killed, arrested, or jailed for a long time.
In the absence of threats to our safety, the human mind will seek out perceived, possible, and potential threats and enter into an adrenalized state of readiness. Our sympathetic nervous system will do this without our directing it consciously. When there are no actual threats to be found, many people will seek out perceived threats by looking at what horrible, horrific, and life-threatening things are happening to other people and we inadvertently start preparing in a “what if” manner in the event that they would ever happen to us personally. People find themselves taking on a lot of anxiety and stress that’s not ours by surfing the Internet, watching television, and reading about life-threatening events happening to other people. Unfortunately, the media thrives on this and sells products through commercials attached to the stories that humans can’t get enough of, can’t take our eyes off of, and sometimes can’t stop thinking about. Our nervous systems literally become “sympathetic” to the life-threatening dangers that are happening to other people, not ourselves or our loved ones, but people who are thousands of miles away and sometimes even fictional characters.
The emotional and physical consequences of a sympathetic nervous system that has no direction to place the stress is potentially life-threatening. Stress related illnesses make up over 70% of the reasons that an adult in the United States will visit their primary care physician. Modern life does not afford us the opportunity to channel this stress into meaningful activity and this undiverted stress can lead to problems such as weight gain, hypertension, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, poor sleep, depression, anxiety, and almost any other malady that you can imagine. In addition to physical and emotional issues, it can cause problems in interpersonal relationships as well. Here’s a little experiment that will prove the point. 2016 is a presidential election year in the United States. Bring up presidential politics at the next social gathering that you go to and watch what happens. See what I mean?
A threat to a human leads to an increase in adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. These hormones have an adaptive and evolutionary purpose, designed to give us strength in physical capabilities above and beyond what we normally have. These levels can take quite some time after the threat is over to return to the baseline levels. Many hormones, such as cortisol, receive a bad rap from people who try to eliminate them entirely. Cortisol has an inverse relationship with melatonin, the sleep hormone needed for a sound night’s sleep. When cortisol is up, melatonin is down and vice versa. This not only impacts our ability to sleep, but also impacts our ability to relax, wind down, and make rational decisions. Too much cortisol and we spin out of control, too much melatonin and we are lethargic and sluggish. The human body is designed to work in a state of balance and performs at its best when there are opposite forces working in harmony.
The parasympathetic nervous system is our body’s counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. This part of us is designed to bring us quickly and safely down from the adrenalized high that the sympathetic nervous system can create. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest, breed and feed” part of our biological makeup. It recognizes that dangers are nonexistent, not directed at us, or have been efficiently dealt with. The faster the parasympathetic nervous system can do its thing, the less damage a person suffers to their physical, mental, and social being. The parasympathetic nervous system, if not functioning well in a person, needs to be consciously developed and trained. Unfortunately, we don’t have to do anything to excite the sympathetic nervous system, life does that automatically for us. Modern life and technology make developing a sound parasympathetic nervous system without work practically impossible.
A fine tuned parasympathetic nervous system can be developed through the following activities:
– Physical exercise
– Proper breathing
– Spending time in nature
– Sitting in silence
– Unplugging from technology
– Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
– Sound nutrition
– Meaningful interpersonal relationships
– Having a pet
Some people are born with a relaxed and carefree attitude. The rest of us need to consciously work on developing and maintaining one. The good news is that developing one not only helps us physically and emotionally, but can make our lives more meaningful.
For more ideas on how to manage your stress and develop a nervous system that works for you, rather than against you, take a look at my book, “Stress Management Made Simple: Essays To Help Manage Your Life,” available on Amazon.com here:
“Brothers and sisters, come on now! That means everybody just cool out! We can cool out, everybody! Everybody be cool, now. Come on.” – Mick Jagger
P. S. If you found this article helpful, you may benefit from some personalized mindbody coaching. Contact me at http://mindbodycoach.org/contact-us/ if interested in online mindbody coaching. Please check out my Products page through the link at the top of this post.. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. Email me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org