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Flip the Switch on Stress: Simple Ways to Nurture your Body

Have you ever done something really stressful?

Think about the first thing you did after that stressful event was over. You probably let out a big sigh of relief because your body instinctively knew that you needed to begin shifting out of fight or flight mode. That big sigh, or exhale, was activating your parasympathetic nervous system using your breath and the vagus nerve. The amazing thing is that you don’t have to wait for a reflex to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. You can choose to change the rate and the depth of your breath to begin activating the relaxation responses that turn off fight or flight mode.

What are fight or flight responses?

You have two halves of your central nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for fight or flight responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digest responses. Fight or flight responses increase heart rate and blood pressure, dilate the eyes, decrease blood flow to the stomach and intestines, and increase blood sugar. All of these changes occur to help you flee from danger and are beneficial if you need to escape, like if your being chased by a wild animal; however, all of these same stress responses are activated when we’re under a perceived stress or emotional stress. It is not beneficial to have fight or flight responses activated during a conflict with a friend or when worrying about an exam at school.  Imagine the wear and tear on your body over time if it constantly remains in fight or flight mode and you are subjected to high blood pressure, pounding heart and elevated blood sugar on a regular basis.  

Why is managing stress important?

Stress is the number one contributor to chronic disease because it prevents the body from repairing itself since it is diverting all available energy and resources to fleeing danger. There is no time or resources to digest food and build new healthy tissues in a stressed state.  Something else happens when you are in fight or flight mode: you lose access to your prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for higher reasoning and thinking skills. This is why when you are stressed, it is difficult to focus and plan for day-to-day activities. The emotions of fear and anger trigger our limbic system, the lower part of the brain that activates fight or flight responses. It is possible to get stuck in fight or flight mode through constant activation of the limbic system with emotional stressors like work, finance, family dynamics, and more.

How do you begin to turn off your stress responses? 

You can think of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems like muscles. We need to train our muscles to be strong and to have good tone, and we need to train all the muscle groups equally so we are balanced. Most of us live constantly in a stressful state of fight or flight causing us to have high tone in the sympathetic nervous system. In order to quiet our stress responses, we must exercise our parasympathetic nervous system to increase its tone so that we live in a more balanced state. 

How do I exercise my parasympathetic nervous system?

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and contains 75 percent of all the nerve fibers of the parasympathetic nervous system. This nerve connects to the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. Signals can be sent both from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. For this reason, we can activate and exercise our parasympathetic nervous system using simple practices like breath work (deep breathing, singing), exercise, yoga, massage, and laughter. Click here to download our free Breathing 101 guide to learn how to use your breath to activate the vagus nerve and turn on your rest and digest response.

Written by Dr. Veronica Riera-Gilley, PharmD, BCGP

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