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Navigating Balance: Fight or Flight versus Rest and Digest.

by | Aug 29, 2023 | Body Positive, Women's Health

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Fight or Flight is a common phrase; everyone understands this is the body’s response to danger. The more technical term is that the body has moved into the parasympathetic nervous system. But do you know about the flip side of this coin? Where the stress hormone gets the spotlight, today, I want to write about the opposite – the sympathetic nervous system, or the rest and digest mode.

Fight of Flight is the body’s go-to script when danger is imminent. The curtain rises on a cascade of reactions, with cortisol taking centre stage – our body’s red alert system. It’s like a built-in fire alarm designed to save the day. Cortisol often gets a bad rap. However, it is a hormone that we need. Cortisol gets us up in the morning, helps create muscle mass, and may even save our lives as it fires up when danger is thrust upon us. The downside of cortisol is that if we live with heightened cortisol because we are dealing with stress that is so ever-present that it feels like our “normal”.

When Stress Sneaks in Uninvited

Unfortunately, this turbo mode of the Sympathetic nervous system isn’t exclusive to life-threatening situations. Your body can’t distinguish between a sabre-toothed tiger and a jam-packed email inbox. Ding – a new message! Cortisol is like, “Time to save the day!” This chronic stress response messes with your mental state and can lead to poor sleep and unwanted weight gain. Yes, the same cortisol that helps build muscle can be a silent culprit when triggered by everyday stressors.

But here’s the twist: the spotlight on cortisol often dims our awareness of its counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system. It’s like only knowing half the story.

Stepping into Serenity: The Rest and Digest Oasis

Now, let’s switch lanes and explore the parasympathetic nervous system, our body’s gentle breeze. Imagine lounging by a calm lake, the sun’s warmth on your skin, and a sense of tranquillity enveloping you. That’s the magic of the rest-and-digest mode.

In this mode, your body taps into its inner healer. Heart rate drops and your system shifts focus to vital functions like digestion and repair. It’s like your body’s spa day, where rejuvenation takes the spotlight.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are two distinct branches of the autonomic nervous system, responsible for controlling various involuntary bodily functions.

Let’s clarify the differences between them:

Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
  • It becomes active during times of stress or danger or when you must react quickly to a situation.
  • It prepares your body for action by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, redirecting blood flow to the muscles, and releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
  • The sympathetic nervous system gears you up for physical exertion and is crucial for survival.

Parasympathetic Nervous System:

  • The parasympathetic nervous system is called the “rest and digest” response.
  • It becomes active when your body is relaxed, not facing any immediate threats.
  • It promotes bodily functions during rest, such as digestion, healing, and energy storage.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system helps lower heart rate, constrict pupils, stimulate digestion, and conserve energy.

In essence, the sympathetic nervous system prepares you for action. It mobilises your body’s resources to respond to stressors. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes rest, recovery, and the efficient functioning of various bodily systems. These two systems balance to help your body adapt to different situations and maintain overall well-being.

Cracking the Code: Strategies for Everyday Calm

But are we powerless to control these different systems? Certainly not. We can recognise when we are in Fight and Flight and assess if the danger is really warranting all the reactions that tapping into the Sympathetic nervous system is giving. And we can actively practice Rest and Digest simply by slowing our breathing and heart rate.

One of the best books I have ever read about these strategies (and understanding them better) is James Nestor’s book – Breathe. And yes, we all breathe – but understand that over-breathing (the short breaths you take when you are stressed – either from exertion or anxiety) might be your usual breathing pattern. Learning how to slow your breathing and, therefore, slow your heart rate is how we can promote your body to heal and digest food efficiently and actively.

And the research is unequivocal that even a few minutes of practising breathing techniques can change our brain and body responses.

So, how can you shift from stress to serenity?

Here are some no-nonsense strategies:

  1. Mindful Moments: Nestor’s wisdom comes into play here: “Practice mindfulness by paying attention to your breath.” Let the present moment be your anchor, whether you’re sipping tea or walking the dog. It is also great to check in to see if you are, in fact, in the Fight and Flight mode.
  2. Breathing Breaks: James Nestor’s “Breathe” reminds us: “Breathing properly is the foundation for good health.” Take breathing breaks – inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. Repeat. It’s a mini reset for your body. Try to find snippets in your day when you are waiting for something, or travelling or even before you go to sleep to practice this box breathing. As little as 2 minutes per day can positively impact your ability to resent your brain.
  3. Tech Timeout: Phones are handy but not the boss. Unplug for a bit – work emails and social media can wait. Try not to start your day with these things.
  4. Mindful Movement: No need to do yoga like a pretzel. Even a simple stretch can do wonders. As you exhale, let go of stress with each movement. You can follow an app or a class or just move like no one is watching.
  5. Nature’s Embrace: Nature uniquely can put us in the present moment. Take a stroll, feel the sun, and let nature’s calming touch work magic.

Finding Your Balance in the Chaos

Life isn’t just a battle or a break – it’s a mix of both. It’s okay to kick into high gear when needed. But remember, chronic stress isn’t your ally.

As you navigate life’s twists and turns, permit yourself to rest. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom. Listen to your body’s cues and find your rhythm.

Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353. PMID: 30245619; PMCID: PMC6137615.

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