Stress Response Paradox: The Sympathetic Nervous System (aka “fight or flight”) helped our ancestors survive danger, but it is killing modern people through stress related diseases
You have two nervous systems.
The somatic, or, voluntary nervous system responds to your intention so you can walk, talk, prepare dinner, work at your computer, pick up the kids and do all your daily activities.
The autonomic nervous systems (ANS), or involuntary nervous system, controls basic internal bodily processes automatically, such as digesting food, pumping blood, maintaining blood pressure, breathing, immunity and much more, including surviving danger.
The Parasympathetic branch of the ANS governs the long-term maintenance functions that allow you to live and be healthy, such as, digestion, hormone production, and strong immunity. The Sympathetic branch of the ANS is solely devoted to an instantaneous internal preparation to run or fight (fight or flight) in order to survive danger. such as running from a tiger or fighting to protect your family from a violent attacker.
You can see the functions of each branch in the diagram above.
When the SNS is activated through fear: including “soft”, or common forms of fear, such as worry and anxiety, the PNS automatically reduces. The body wisdom will devote all of its resources to survival. Metaphorically, you do not paint the garage when a tornado is coming down the street. And, in the long run, survival is more important than happiness.
The “fight or flight” stress system has helped humans survive on earth for tens of thousands of years. By activating this powerful mindbody system we have run from danger, or, fought to protect ourselves, since the beginning of human life on earth. But in modern life, this same stress system is killing us through stress related diseases such as heart attack, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. How do you explain this paradox?
For 95% of life on earth our dangers have been real and physical. The stress physiology prepared our ancestors to run from wild animals or attack them in the hunt. It helped them defend against invaders who wanted to steal the village food supply. Our stress system is well designed to protect us against dangers by running or fighting.
In modern times, however, the dangers are no longer physical. We no longer run from our fears because they arise in our minds daily in the form of worry and anxiety. We no longer fight our enemies, because the enemy has moved inside us in the form or anger, frustration, resentment and depression. “Fight or flight” has become “fear or anger” and this powerful system is responding to imaginary dangers for which there is no appropriate action.
Acute Stress – Adrenaline
Consider for a moment what the acute stress hormone adrenaline does to your body:
- Increase blood pressure and heart rate
- Increase breathing
- Constrict blood flow in your arms and legs
- Slow down your digestion
- Tense muscles throughout your body
- Releases sugar from the liver into the blood stream
- Increases blood clotting factors
- Activates the immune system (only 20 to 30 minutes)
- Inhibits sexual function
- And more…
Does this orchestra of mindbody preparation help you deal with your home, financial or work-related fears and worries? Probably not; instead, you go home feeling tense, anxious, perhaps with a headache or upset stomach.
Chronic Stress – Cortisol
Actually, cortisol, the hormone of chronic stress, is more likely to be activated by your “everyday dangers”, and it is more involved in making you sick than adrenaline. Consider the well documented effects of chronic cortisol elevations on your mind and body:
- Increased appetite and food cravings
- Cortisol stimulates fat storage mainly around the abdomen
- Increased body fat – obesity
- Decreased muscle mass
- Insulin resistance and eventually diabetes
- Heart disease
- Increased blood pressure – high blood pressure
- Decreased bone density – osteoporosis
- Reduced synthesis of neurotransmitters
- Increased anxiety
- Increased depression
- Reduced concentration
- Mood swings (anger and irritability)
- Reduced levels of estrogen and testosterone – decreased sex drive
- Impaired immune response – frequent colds, flus, infections and cancer
- Memory and learning impairment
- Physical atrophy of brain cells – Alzheimer’s disease
- Increased symptoms of PMS
- Increased menopausal side effects
In his acclaimed book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky writes that when the body “thinks” it is in danger, it shuts down long term projects, such as digestion, hormone production and immunity in favor of immediate survival. In other words, if a hurricane is heading toward your house, you do not go out and paint the garage.
We turn the stress system on automatically with our repetitive thoughts, worries, fears, and frustrations. In this way, the life saving stress system has become a liability. We must learn how to turn it off as well and this modern skill is a key feature of mindbody healing.
In chapter two of my book Edgework, I explain how you can move the “fight or flight” stress system from liability to asset once again. Instead of just troublesome symptoms, the physical signs of stress in your body can be signals for you to look within and understand how you create stress in your life. In this approach you consider the physical and psychological signs of stress as markers for personal exploration using the tools of mindbody healing.
Measuring Stress in Your Body
In order to reduce your stress, improve your health and understand your self better, you need to measure the stress in your body. In my practice, I have used cortisol testing in the tissues as well as Heart Rate Variability Testing
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Testing
When you have worry, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, resentment, or guilt, the sympathetic branch (SNS) of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) prepares your body for “fight or flight”, i.e. physical action for survival, even though there is usually no “action” to take. With prolonged SNS dominance you develop dis-ease in the body, at work, or socially. The parasympathetic branch (PNS) of the ANS balances SNS activity and maintains immunity, digestion, hormone balance and long term healing allowing for better physical, mental and social health.
HRV is the only objective measure of stress in your body.
It determines the balance between SNS and PNS. All chronic diseases, behavioral disorders, and aging are associated with disturbed HRV.
HRV testing is a valuable tool for healing and is especially important in the stressful times of modern living.