Top 5 Ways to Reduce Sympathetic Stress
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is one part of the autonomic nervous system, which is an incredible control system that acts largely unconsciously (hence autonomic) and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. The other part of the autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is often described as the “fight or flight” system because it is activated in response to stress or perceived threats. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” system. Both form part of the amazing evolutionary journey of humans.
The sympathetic nervous system activates most commonly under stress. The old adage of the “being face to face with a saber-toothed tiger” has been banded around for decades. When a stress stimulus presents (the saber-toothed tiger, or in modern day, someone badly driving that causes you road rage), the adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline. This increases our heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and diverts blood to muscles. This would help us escape from the saber-toothed tiger, or fight back. We have a heightened alertness, and energy levels, perfect for quick action to survive. In modern day, we’re rarely in severe life-threatening danger, but other stimuli like road rage, an argument with a neighbour, or work stress can trigger our sympathetic nervous system.
To bring us out of the sympathetic state, and into a slower parasympathetic state, we need to calm down. Here are the top 5 ways to reduce sympathetic stress:
Calm down. Take 15-20 deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths. This helps bring in oxygen, slow our heart rate, and lower our blood pressure. It helps us to slow down. It tells our body and brain that we are no longer fighting or flighting, we are resting and digesting. You can close your eyes while breathing, and always nose breathe. The importance of deep breathing cannot be underestimated, and I’m pleased I taught myself to deep breathe 20 years ago. It’s a huge benefit to every aspect of health, and has been a fundamental technique in staying calm during stressful times.
Sleeping is a great way to calm our system down. In some chronically stressed people, this may not be enough (see the next point). For most people, when we sleep our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and our bodies start the repair processes. Aim to get 8 hours of sleep per night, avoid blue light and screens just before bed, switch your phone to airplane mode, read a chapter of a book before bed, and enjoy a nice long restful sleep.
3) Reduce the underlying stress
We’re most commonly in an aroused sympathetic state because of chronic stress. This means our adrenal glands are pumping adrenaline like crazy. We need to reduce the underlying cause. Anxiety is also a big issue. Anger is a big issue. Having events placed on you that you cannot control is a big issue. Imagine being evicted from your house, and you need to quickly find somewhere to stay. Or imagine you have an ongoing conflict with someone in your family. It makes you feel very stressed, agitated, pupils dilated and muscles tensed. That’s a typical flight fight stress response. Reduce the underlying stress by sorting out conflicts, addressing work stress, and getting to the root cause of anxiety.
If we constantly feed ourselves sugar, we’ll constantly be getting spikes in insulin. If we have alcohol, drugs, and caffeine, we’ll be putting ourselves in that energetic state, not allowing our bodies to recover. Eating whole foods, green vegetables, a varied diet, organic diet, drinking good quality water, reducing unnecessary medications, and reducing caffeine can make a big difference to move us from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state.
5) Mindfulness, meditation, yoga
Practising relaxing therapies such as mindfulness and meditation can easily move us from being sympathetic to parasympathetic. Qi Gong and Tai Chi does the same. Gentle exercises such as swimming and walking can also help. Being in nature can be beneficial too. Yoga is great for breathing, stretching and strengthening. You can see these activities slow our bodies and minds, and help us to regulate our nervous systems.
The SNS is an amazing evolutionary adaptation that benefits us enormously, and is necessary for every part of living. But we must be balanced with our sympathetics and parasympathetics. Seeing a physio or osteopath is a great way to address pain, which helps reduce stress. Physiotherapy and osteopathy help you feel better. When you feel better, you feel happier and more contented. This helps reduce stress. Address underlying pain by calling us on 0208 685 6930 or emailing our team to get more information specific to your needs, so we can best point you in the right direction. Incorporating these practices into your daily routine can significantly help in reducing sympathetic stress and improving overall well-being.