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How to Address the Stress

To understand how to help our bodies during stressful times, we need to understand how the nervous system works, and this blog post is dedicated to explaining just that. So let’s dig in to The Autonomic Nervous System 101…

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is part of the peripheral nervous system and regulates functions of the internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The functions of the ANS are involuntary and reflexive – the beating of the heart, expansion or contraction of blood vessels or pupils, etc. — which is why we are seldom conscious of it. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems make up the ANS.

What is the difference between the two?

The sympathetic nervous system controls the body’s “fight or flight” responses, or how the body reacts to perceived danger. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system inhibits the body from overworking and restores the body to a calm and composed state. While we actually have very little to no control over the sympathetic nervous system responses, we can work to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to return to a state of homeostasis (balance).

Sympathetic Vs Parasympathetic Responses

With sympathetic nervous responses, the body speeds up, tenses up and becomes more alert. Functions that are not essential for survival are shut down. Following are the specific reactions of the sympathetic nervous system:

  • increase in the rate and constriction of the heart

  • dilation of bronchial tubes in the lungs and pupils in the eyes

  • contraction of muscles

  • release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland

  • conversion of glycogen to glucose to provide energy for the muscles.

  • shut down of processes not critical for survival

  • decrease in saliva production: the stomach does not move for digestion, nor does it release digestive secretions.

  • decrease in urinary output

  • sphincter contraction

The parasympathetic nervous system counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system. It restores the body to a state of calm. The specific responses are:

  • decrease in heart rate

  • constriction of bronchial tubes in the lungs and pupils in the eyes

  • relaxation of muscles

  • saliva production: the stomach moves and increases secretions for digestion.

  • increase in urinary output

  • sphincter relaxation

The Bottom Line

Research has shown that the long-term effects of chronic stress affect a person’s psychological and physical health. According to an article in Harvard Health Publishing, “The repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.”

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Decrease Anxiety

There are many techniques that a person can use to strengthen and activate their parasympathetic nervous system, causing a relaxation response in their body. For example:

  • Spend time in nature

  • Get a massage

  • Practice meditation

  • Deep abdominal breathing from the diaphragm

  • Repetitive prayer

  • Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or peace

  • Play with animals or children

  • Practice yoga

  • Exercise

  • Do something you enjoy, such as a favorite hobby

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