We have all experienced the “Fight or Flight” (sympathetic nervous system) response, which is naturally integrated into our humanity. Generally, it’s a perfectly natural, involuntary, biochemical reaction to a perceived threat that prepares our bodies to react in survival mode to either fight or flee a situation. Consequently, the adrenal system releases a hormonal cascade, especially adrenaline and noradrenaline leading to symptoms that many of us are familiar with such as: elevated heart rate, decreased salivation, pupil dilation, decreased peristalsis/digestion, decreased urinary output, glycogen to glucose conversion. This response is perfectly normal if it’s a transitory phenomenon in response to a stressful event. However, today with technological advancements (ie social media), increasing work demands, high physical/emotional stressors, etc., our system is increasingly and chronically stimulated and remain in this heightened state. The modern human being in this chronic “elevated” state often does not remedy this reactive state through fighting or fleeing so the body then reabsorbs these stressors leading to systemic conditions such as: cardiovascular disease, sleep disorders, mental health (anxiety, PTSD, depression), gastrointestinal issues, weakened immune system, sexual impotence, etc.
The good news is, our bodies come equipped with the “Rest and Digest” (parasympathetic nervous system) response to help recuperate and restore equilibrium to our system. Throughout the day, we certainly alternate back and forth between these two systems but as mentioned, due to our modern lifestyles and increased stressors on our systems, we need to invest more time in the parasympathetic state. There are several great methods in tapping into our “Rest and Digest” system
-Diaphragmatic Breathing: Take a few moments during your day to spend time in a quiet place working on this therapeutic tool. Inhale through your nose slowly hold for a few seconds and exhale through your mouth. Repeat a few times until you feel the tension in your body letting go. Make sure that you are indeed breathing from the diaphragm rather than inhaling just through your chest. For many of us who have chronically been in a “fight or flight” state as mentioned above may find this challenging, so working with your Physical Therapist to help work on the mechanical restrictions and neuromuscular system to help manage this will be vital.
-Meditation – The main focus of meditation is really to help be in the present moment focusing on breathing, letting go of the ongoing thoughts that clutter our headspace. There is increasing evidence that shows the health benefits of meditation such as lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, improving focus, etc. When we think of meditation, we often think of sitting meditation focusing on the breath; however, meditation can take several forms such as mindful/meditative walking where we focus more on the physical motion of walking.
-Sensory Awareness: A lot of times we take for granted the sensations throughout our bodies that are present every day. Take a moment and focus on the sensations throughout the body: you can start from head to toe such as the tension in your face/head, neck, the clothes on your back, hands, back, feet, air in the room, etc.
I’ve only listed three tools that we can utilize to tap into our parasympathetic system to help us “chill out” a bit in our fast-paced, modern society but there are many more ways out there: Tai-Chi, Yoga, Qi Gong, Singing etc. The important thing is that we must start today! We all need a moment to breathe (literally) and let go of the stressors that plague our lives.
-David Park, PT, DPT