Living in a healthy state should be a life priority for people of any age or gender. There is a distinct relationship between your health and well-being and your nervous system. Keeping a healthy balance can be done with proper nutrition and relevant techniques involving balance of the mind, body and breath. A deeper understanding of what a balanced nervous system looks like is also a factor in having a healthy balance, and it will be addressed in the following post.
The two major nervous systems in the human body are the central (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral (mostly made up of nerves that carry signals through your body) systems. The autonomic nervous system, which is within the peripheral system, contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Operating in both the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems is normal so long as they are held in a balanced state. Achieving and maintaining balance between these two systems requires the cultivation of self awareness and a commitment to certain regular practices.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) provides us with the tools we need to respond to stress adequately by stimulating the fight, flight, or freeze response in a stressful or frightening situation. The fight and flight responses activate if you feel that there is some hope to fight or to outrun potential danger. The freeze response is activated by your sympathetic nervous system when you believe there is no hope. This response makes you immobile and incapable of immediate action.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes activated when the body is in a natural, relaxed state. It’s activation helps restore us to our normal state of peace and tranquility by stimulating responses which cause you to rest, digest, repair, and reproduce. It’s arousal reduces the activity of the brain, the muscles, and the adrenal and thyroid glands. Activities like tai chi, yoga, and meditation are among techniques that keep the parasympathetic system activated.
When the two systems fail to work together in harmony, imbalance occurs (dysautonomia, or autonomic nervous system dysfunction). The more common imbalance of the autonomic nervous system is sympathetic nervous system dominance where the sympathetic nervous system remains dominant most of the time and the parasympathetic rarely turns on. When this occurs, then the body remains in a state of fight or flight most of the time or at all times. The stress response system never or rarely turns off. When the body remains in a state of fight or flight all the time, degenerative processes begin and if left unaddressed, can result in a variety of chronic health conditions and overall poor health.
This is because the stress response system was designed to deal with brief emergencies that threaten survival. It isn’t supposed to last very long because the body cannot sustain itself for very long in this excited state. However, it is willing to forgo its preferred parasympathetic state to deal with acute emergencies and will remain in that state if the emergency continues or is thought to be continued. Since the instigating factor responsible for putting the body into a (constant) state of fight or flight is chronic stress or overstimulation of the stress response system, in order to return to a state of balance and regeneration, the parasympathetic system must be activated again.
This can be achieved in a number of ways including taking walks in nature, disconnecting from technology, spending a few minutes alone each day, practicing guided relaxation and mindfulness meditation techniques, restorative or slow paced yoga, doing deep breathing exercises, getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, slowing down and recognizing your thoughts.
While not as common, it’s important to recognize symptoms of parasympathetic nervous system dominance as this too could contribute to an unhealthy state. To help put this into context you may be able to relate to, when you feel absolutely stuffed and lethargic after a big Thanksgiving dinner, it is your PNS that is most active! Symptoms often include feeling depressed, lethargic, disorganized and a sense of decreased clarity of thought such as “spaciness” or poor concentration. A more common parasympathetic dominant person is one whose sympathetic nervous system is in such poor shape that the person has either learned or must, for physiological reasons, remain in a parasympathetic state most of the time. These people may be relaxed and fall asleep easily, but it is not due to excellent health, rather to a damaged body that just needs a lot of rest and cannot be aroused as much as some others.
Some of the same tools as stated above can be used somewhat differently to move toward a healthy state in these individuals. For example, practicing energized breathing exercises, adding in energizing yoga postures, thinking positive thoughts, following a diet rich in proteins that provide energy, walking or guided meditation, and outdoor activities are all excellent options.
When the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in balance, the tendency is to rest often and easily allowing for renewal and healing to the body. Balance between the two systems is a key step toward greater health and wellness! Consider some of the tips below to help keep your autonomic nervous system in check.
- Rest often
- Eat well
- Practice deep breathing
- Cultivate contentment
- Recognize who and what provides you with energy vs who and what uses up your energy
- Train your mind to stay out of negative emotions such as worry, fear, anger, guilt
- Practice forgiveness
- Keep thoughts and emotions as uplifted as possible
If you’re interested in experiencing practical techniques to help keep your nervous system operating at its best, join me Saturday Feb 17 from 1-3 pm for a workshop on this topic that will explore specific yoga postures, guided meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques to add to your self-care practices.
– Meg Satinksky MPT, PYT