Your body doesn’t feel good when the biochemistry of stress kicks in. You might feel like there is a brick in your stomach, or maybe you can’t sleep and your heart is pounding. Maybe you feel overwhelmed and distracted.
Stress isn’t supposed to feel good. It’s there to help you survive threats like an oncoming car or menacing stranger. That clammy-hands, heart-pounding response is your body’s way of preparing you to deal. This is called the fight-or-flight response and comes from your sympathetic nervous system releasing hormones to help increase your chances of surviving the emergency at hand.
The fight-or-flight response causes your breathing to increase, your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense, and your pupils to dilate—all as a way for you to be ready to run from or face immediate danger. At the same time, your sympathetic nervous system slows down the body functions that aren’t needed in the moment, such as digestion, immunity, peripheral vision, and certain brain functions.
Your body’s fight-or-flight response is pretty helpful if the danger you face is short in duration. When the perceived threat has passed, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm things down. Think of it as fight or flight’s opposite, called “rest and digest.”
Your parasympathetic nervous system lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. In addition, your immune system comes back online, digestion ramps back up, and your whole brain is once again accessible. It’s a relaxation response, and it feels good.
A huge problem is that many people today face situations and perceived threats that just don’t go away. Your unreasonable boss, a family member’s illness, or financial problems are all examples of things that can stress you out on a daily basis, leaving you in a chronic state of fight or flight. Needless to say, with your immunity chronically turned down, your digestion not working well, and your heart racing, your overall health will take a hit over time. Researchers have documented that chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure, artery-clogging heart disease, inflammation, anxiety, and depression.
The good news is that even when you’re stressed, there are ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system so your body can relax, rest, and digest. Among them:
Just breathe. I know this sounds corny, but a couple of slow, deep breaths actually activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Spend time in nature. Lots of research has documented that spending time in natural settings like the woods or a park can decrease stress, lower your blood pressure, and increase immune function.
Meditate. I know, this can be difficult for some people. There are a number of apps that can help you with guided meditations. Check out Insight Timer; it’s free.
Get acupuncture. Scientists have found that acupuncture increases the circulation of calming neurotransmitters in your brain.
Take a walk. It can be calming and help clear your head.
Try gentle and relaxing exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi.
Use visualization. Picture yourself in a favorite relaxing place. Your brain doesn’t know that you’re pretending; it thinks you’re actually there and relaxes accordingly.
Play with your pet or children, or find someone with pets or children who will share.
Do something that you find enjoyable, whether it’s a hobby, favorite activity, or simply finding the time to read a book.
Stay in the moment. This is called mindfulness and keeps your brain from hashing through scary scenarios and things you should have said or done.
The bottom line is that chronic stress is not your friend. The antidote is ramping up your parasympathetic nervous system, which is healthy and feels good. The opposite of fight or flight is rest and digest, something we all could use on a daily basis.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com