One of the most frequent conversations I’ve had over the years with my patients is about how so many people are living most of their lives in the “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system. This couldn’t be more true than during these stressful times with COVID-19.
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to help us in an emergency, like when we are running from a bear. When we become stressed, the amygdala in the brain, the center of emotional processing senses danger. As it processes this information, it sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the adrenal glands that there is a danger. The adrenals then release epinephrine (adrenaline), which circulates through the body and causes physiological changes. These changes are meant to give us increased alertness, increased energy, and increased muscle strength to maximize our chance of survival in an emergency situation.
The sympathetic physiological changes include:
Decreased saliva output
Decreased gastric secretions (bile and hydrochloric acid)
Decreased peristalsis (movement of the large intestine which produces a bowel movement)
Increased heart rate and irregular heart rhythms
Constriction of the arteries
Dilation of the lung bronchi
Increased oxygen to the vital organs and away from the non-vital areas of the body
Using glycogen to make more glucose
Inhibited bladder contraction causing decreased urine output
Increased pupil size and increases peripheral vision
This system is designed to be alerted every once and awhile and is not meant to work full-time. As the world becomes more stressed, many are alerting this system numerous times in one day or are basically “running from a bear” all the time. When these normal and helpful physiological changes become part of our daily lives, the repeated activation takes its toll on the body and many symptoms can arise.
These symptoms include:
Irregular and rapid heart rate and palpitations
Elevated blood pressure
Increased blood sugar, which leads to insulin resistance and type II diabetes
Cold hands and feet
Numbness and tingling in the extremities
Startling easily, nervousness, and fear, leading to anxiety and panic
Blurry vision, reading issues
Constipation, abdominal bloating, abdominal pain
Urinary issues, frequent infections
What’s likely making all of this worse in these times is the way many people respond to stress by overeating carbs, drinking alcohol, binging on sugar, etc. When we’re in fight-or-flight, cravings increase. We need more sugary substances to maintain the elevated blood sugar and cortisol levels. We self-soothe temporarily and then we usually feel even worse. Sound familiar?
The first thing I recommend if you feel like you are in a constant state of sympathetic stress is awareness. Start to notice when these physiological changes are happening in your body. What are the triggers for you? You have to be aware of what is happening before you can change. Maybe it’s a phone call from a certain person, watching the news, scrolling through social media, or homeschooling your kids? It could be just about anything. If current circumstances are causing you to live in a constant state of stress, notice this. Notice without judgement, because our own judgement of ourselves can even put us in fight or flight.
When we are relaxed and calm, we are in the parasympathetic nervous system mode, often called, “rest and digest”. This is where we should be all the time, unless we are in a true emergency, like running from a bear.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, we experience these physiological processes:
Arteries dilated = decreased heart rate and blood pressure
Bladder contracts = urine flows normally
Increased peristalsis = bowels move at least once daily
Increased saliva and increased gastric secretions = no bloating or pain
Bronchi in the lungs are constricted leading to increased oxygen to all parts of the body = warm hands and feet and no neuropathy (numbness/tingling)
Decreased stress hormones = calm mood, restful sleep
Proper utilization of glucose = lower blood sugar, reduced insulin levels, less cravings
Once we have non-judgmental awareness of how we are reacting to stress, we can begin to do something about it. Are you living in the now or worrying about the future? Are you breathing throughout your day? Are you moving your body every day? Are you spending some time in nature every day? What about fresh air? Do you have a support system in place to decrease your stress? How much balance do you have in your life right now? Are you celebrating the good things in your life every day? Are you listening to your true inner guidance or are you trying to be what you think society or your family wants you to be?
Here are some suggestions to add to your daily life to stay in “rest and digest” mode:
Take a bath
Meditate (even 5 minutes of quiet time can be beneficial!)
Spend time being grateful for what you have now
Move your body
Breathe. Use 4-7-8 breathing throughout the day (breath in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, breath out for 8 counts—repeat 4 times through)
If cravings have become more difficult for you during these times, please join my colleague Mikki Proffitt and me for a free class this coming Thursday, April 30 at 12pm called “Freedom From Cravings”. We’ll discuss the physiology behind cravings, offer you some tools you can use when you feel cravings coming on, and help you understand where the cravings are coming from in the first place, so you can live with more freedom and ease. Use this link to register for the free event. Be sure to bring the actual thing you crave with you to the class, so bring that glass of wine, pretzels, ice cream,….whatever it is.
And, if you’d like to take a closer look at how stress is affecting your body, please schedule an appointment with me. Visits are via telemedicine this next week and it looks like I should be able to re-open with precautions after May 1. We can take a look at your blood sugar and insulin levels, cortisol levels, improve digestion, and address your stress head-on. There are many ways to encourage “rest and digest” in your body. My toolbox is full of help for you.
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