Stuck in fight or flight? Here’s how it’s affecting your health and what to do about it.
Introducing the Nervous System
Our nervous system plays a crucial role in regulating our responses to the constant flow of stressors. Its function is to help us differentiate between a situation where we may be in danger and when it’s likely harmless. In order to do this, the central nervous system is composed of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Together, these two parts work in tandem in an effort to maintain equilibrium in our bodies while keeping us safe.
However, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, the body’s ancient survival mechanism, known as the “fight or flight” response, often finds itself triggered far more frequently than it was ever designed to be. This physiological reaction, once essential for evading predators, now tends to be activated by everyday stressors, potentially wreaking havoc on our health.
In this post, we look at what the nervous system is responsible for, how it impacts your health, and actionable diet and lifestyle modifications to support your nervous system and health.
Sympathetic v Parasympathetic. What’s the Difference?
The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response, preparing the body for action in response to a perceived threat. It increases heart rate, sharpens senses, and redirects blood flow to vital organs and muscles. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes the “rest and digest” state, allowing the body to recuperate, relax, and restore energy.
While the Sympathetic State is a protective mechanism and undoubtedly helpful at times, it’s meant to be short-lived, having to enter this state temporarily and then returning to the parasympathetic state.
When the ‘fight or flight’ State Takes Over
Unfortunately, many of us are living in a constant sympathetic state – meaning our bodies are in a chronic condition of “fight or flight” where our body is responding inappropriately to environments that shouldn’t trigger such a response and is unable to shift back into a place of balance and calm.
As a result, being in this state for a prolonged period can impact our health and well-being and may result in the following:
- Feelings of Chronic Stress and Anxiety – Chronic stress triggers a surge in stress hormones, including norepinephrine and epinephrine, which heighten your body’s alertness. This heightened state can lead to persistent feelings of anxiety and unease. The prolonged presence of these hormones can make you feel constantly on edge, impacting your overall sense of well-being.
- Trouble Sleeping – The increased levels of stress hormones can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns. Falling asleep becomes a challenge as your body remains in a state of heightened alertness. Even if you manage to fall asleep, staying asleep can prove difficult, as your body is hesitant to enter the restorative stages of the sleep cycle. This disrupted sleep pattern further exacerbates feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
- Hormonal Imbalances – The surge in cortisol levels, a hallmark of chronic stress, can disrupt the delicate balance of other hormones in your body. This includes hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which play crucial roles in regulating various bodily functions. The resulting hormonal imbalances can have widespread effects, influencing everything from mood to reproductive health.
- Poor Gut Health – During periods of heightened stress, blood flow is redirected away from non-essential functions like digestion and towards vital organs like the heart. This slowdown in digestive processes can lead to a range of gastrointestinal issues, from mild discomfort to more severe digestive disorders. Additionally, stress and inflammation often go hand in hand, leading to increased inflammation in the gut. This can disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiome and compromise the integrity of the gut lining.
- Weight Changes – The elevated levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress can lead to an increase in abdominal weight gain. This is a result of the body’s natural response to stress, which includes a preference for storing fat in the abdominal area. Over time, this can lead to changes in body composition and weight.
- Exhaustion and Burnout – While the initial surge of energy from the sympathetic nervous system may provide a temporary boost, over time, the body’s resources become depleted. The adrenal glands, responsible for producing stress hormones, may become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a state of chronic exhaustion, where even simple tasks can feel overwhelmingly challenging. This state of prolonged fatigue is often a precursor to burnout, a condition characterized by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, don’t panic! You aren’t alone in this and your body doesn’t have to feel like this forever. Keep reading to find out how you can shift from a place of “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.”
How to Shift Your Body from Sympathetic to Parasympathetic
The good news is that you have the power to shift your body from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.
- Nourish your body – Making sure to eat enough here is key. This isn’t the time to skip meals or cut out food groups as it is an added stressor to your body; instead, you want to focus on balanced meals (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and snacks throughout the day.
- Mindfulness and Meditation – Engaging in mindfulness practices and meditation allows us to redirect our attention from external stressors to the present moment. This shift in focus activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and tranquility. Regular practice can help train the mind to more readily transition into this restorative state.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – This technique involves systematically tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. By releasing tension, we send signals to the brain that it’s safe to transition into a state of rest. Progressive muscle relaxation is an effective way to induce a parasympathetic response and promote overall relaxation.
- Nurturing Sleep Hygiene – Quality sleep is essential for allowing the body to naturally shift into the parasympathetic mode. Creating a soothing bedtime routine and ensuring that the sleeping environment is conducive to relaxation are crucial steps in promoting restful sleep.
- Regular Exercise and Movement – Engaging in regular, moderate exercise is a powerful way to balance the activity of both nervous systems. Exercise allows the sympathetic nervous system to activate appropriately during activity, while the parasympathetic system can take over during periods of rest and recovery. Striking this balance is essential for overall well-being.
- Slow down – This isn’t the time to keep adding things to your calendar. Instead, be thoughtful and take a look at what events/activities aren’t serving you.
- Digital Detox – Our electronics are a constant influx of stimulus that our body has to interpret and decipher. Our digital devices can often become too much when our body is on overdrive. Consider taking some time off social media or setting limits on screen time.
- Setting boundaries in your work, personal life, and with yourself – This one can go a long way! Sitting down and evaluating what/who is bringing you joy and what/who is draining you and then setting boundaries to ensure more joy and less negativity can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
- Making time for meaningful connections – This can be so important to our healing journey. Spending time with friends and family has been shown to improve mental health, boost self-confidence, improve resilience (or stress response), and enhance overall health.
Please be aware that while implementing these techniques can support the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, if you’re currently dealing with a handful of the symptoms I mentioned earlier, such as hormonal imbalances (manifesting as heightened emotions, fatigue, weight fluctuations, etc.) and digestive issues (persistent bloating, irregular bowel movements, etc.), relying solely on these practices may have limitations in addressing your concerns comprehensively.
In these cases, your body likely needs some serious support from an experienced health practitioner who understands how to address the root cause to heal hormonal and gut imbalances to shift you into a parasympathetic state successfully.
Recognizing when the fight or flight response is dominating and employing techniques to shift into a restorative state empowers us to take control of our physical and mental health. By incorporating these practices into our daily lives, we can thrive in the face of life’s challenges and cultivate a sense of vitality and resilience. Remember, it’s not about eliminating stress entirely, but about finding a balance that allows us to lead fulfilling and empowered lives.
Want to find out more or need help? Drop me an email at [email protected] or book a free call with me