How have we trained ourselves to numb out? How can we re-learn to tune back in?
Let’s talk about stress. Stress is something that wreaks havoc on our entire system and resets all of the “good” things our body wants to prioritize. Like - cell detoxification, organ repair, food digestion. When our body is flooded with stress, its number one priority becomes prepping the body for “fight or flight” which unfortunately doesn’t include things like cell detox or digestion.
Fight-or-flight is the common phrase used to describe the stress response which is elicited by the part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. The nervous system, which is designed to protect us from danger by interpreting outside stimuli, is broken into two main sections. The central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. When looking at the stress response the area of interest is the autonomic nervous system. This is the system that is in control of all of the involuntary organs in the body. For example- the heart, intestines, pupils, liver. We are not able to voluntarily control these organs of the body, but amazingly enough the body does it on its own.
When the fight-or-flight response is initiated, the body is preparing to fight or flee from the preverbal tiger, right? So here is what happens…
Your heart rate increases
The bronchial tubes in your lungs dilate
Your pupils dilate
Your muscles contract
Your saliva production is reduced
Your stomach stops many of the functions of digestion
More glycogen is converted to glucose
Doesn’t sound like the greatest time to consume a meal. Especially after you spent all that money on quality ingredients and all that time preparing it. Coming back to a term I mentioned above - the Autonomic Nervous System. In addition to the sympathetic system, this includes the parasympathetic system. At this point we know the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is what we refer to as fight-or-flight. So what is the parasympathetic nervous system? It is the exact opposite of the sympathetic. We refer to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system as Rest-and-Digest. Ah, yes. Now that sounds like a good place to be when eating that meal you worked so hard to make! Here is what happens during parasympathetic activation:
Your saliva is increased
Digestive enzymes are released
Your heart rate drops
The bronchial tubes in your lungs constrict
Your muscles relax
The pupils in your eyes constrict
Your urinary output increases
While we don’t have direct control over these systems, we do have an effect. So let’s say you are about to walk in front of a big crowd and give a speech. You are feeling kind of nervous but you definitely want to perform well. What do you instinctively do? You take a deep breath!
When we b r e a t h e d e e p l y we are stimulating the vagus nerve which has a cascade effect on the nervous system and helps to bring us out of the nervous fight-or-flight response and into rest-and-digest.
While there are many ways to balance your autonomic nervous system and reduce overall stress, here is a simple way to apply this knowledge to your day -- Find 3 moments in your day where you can pause for 10 deep breaths. Ideally, these will be consistent each day so these moments become a habit.