Stress and the Autonomic nervous system part 2.

Last week I wrote about how to dial down the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to help with stress. This week I want to write about activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is relatively easy but unless we have decreased the sympathetic drive it is often like putting a band aid on a laceration that requires suturing. It might help a little but eventually we need to treat the root cause, which is the sympathetic overdrive. No amount of meditation and mindfulness can help in some situations and especially if we are burnt out or have adrenal fatigue we need to address the stressors at the same time as activating the PNS

To activate the PNS the following will help.

  • Meditation

Meditation is great for calming the sympathetic system and engaging the parasympathetic instead. If you’re like me you might get a little anxious in formal meditation! “I’m not doing it right, my mind won’t stop thinking, I can’t concentrate on my breath because I’m worried about something that has happened to me.” Sometimes our brains are just thinking too much.

I prefer a walking meditation or a guided visualisation exercise. But many people find formal meditation very calming and centring. Any form of meditation helps you get in touch with your inner self and its wisdom.

  • Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focussing your awareness on what you are doing in the present moment. It involves being aware of what is happening right now and not thinking about the past or future. It is like meditation in that it calms the mind and helps to de-stress.

It is relatively easy to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. You can do the dishes mindfully; paying attention to what you are doing rather than being off in your head thinking about everything that you think you need to be worrying about. You can eat mindfully, drink a cup of tea mindfully, exercise mindfully, you can do any activity where you focus your awareness on that activity.

Mindfulness helps us live more in the present moment.

  • Spend time in nature

Getting closer to nature and the earth helps calm the ANS. It helps if we connect with nature mindfully. Sometimes I go for a walk along the beach but am so much in my head thinking about everything that I hardly pay attention to where I am. When I realise this I try to bring my awareness to the waves and the wind and the sky and my brain starts to calm down a little. Of course even when my brain is in overdrive while I walk I am connecting with the earth but when I bring my awareness to my surroundings and am present this is even more grounding and calming.

To actively ground yourself will decrease the electrical charge in your body which helps relaxation and healing. To do this you need to be in direct contact with the earth; walking barefoot, sitting on the ground or hugging a tree are all good ways to earth yourself. You can also buy earthing devices, which may help if you live in an apartment or can’t get out to actively earth yourself.

  • Deep breathing

Many of us breathe on a shallow level. This is both a result of being anxious and wired, and a cause. If we do some deep breathing, into our bellies, this activates the parasympathetic system and slows things down. Some people just don’t know how to breathe deeply so if you find it hard to take a deep breath and feel your belly expand then you might need to practice. It is best to practice when you are feeling calm.

Lie down with your hands on your belly and slowly breathe in through the nose. Let the air expand your rib cage and feel you diaphragm descend and your belly expand outwards against your hands. Slowly breathe out feeling your belly descend and your chest compress. Let these deep breaths flow in and out with your belly rising and falling. You might like to sigh the breath out your mouth and feel the stress leaving your body as you do so.

Once you have mastered the deep breathing you can do some anytime. Taking a few deep breaths will calm you if you’re anxious or hurried. Even when you’re not anxious it helps to take deep breaths to centre yourself and bring more calm into your day.

  • Relaxation

Any form of relaxation can turn on our PNS. I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV with a glass of wine although this may help for some people. I find the best way to relax is to lie on the earth and just sink in. Other people like to do relaxation exercises and there are many of these available on phone or computer. Or you might like to just lie and listen to calming music while you relax. Combining relaxation with deep breathing is great.

Whatever way works best for you will help in your healing. And if you’re busy just stopping for a few minutes to consciously relax will bring some calm back.

  • Exercise such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi

Yoga, Qi gong and tai chi are all wonderful for calming the SNS and activating the PNS. They work with the energies of the body and help us balance our ANS. There are so many options available to practice these programs that we really have no excuse for not incorporating them into our wellness routine. Classes can be taken locally or online and the benefit from even a few minutes a day is that our nervous system becomes calmer almost immediately.

  • Rituals

Many rituals can have a calming effect. Lighting a candle or incense in a mindful manner can be a useful ritual that gets the body ready to relax. A warm bath before bed or for children the ritual of a bedtime story calms the ANS down. You can make up your own rituals and they have a way of imbedding in your life so that as soon as you begin the ritual the body knows it is relaxing.

  • Sleep

Sleep down regulates the SNS and up regulates the PNS so I have put it in both lists. Sleep is just really important to healing and particularly if stress is a big component of your illness it is vital to be sleeping well.

  • Play more

Not many of us spend much time playing as we get older. But play is wonderful for decreasing stress especially when we do it mindfully and pay attention to the play rather than what else we think we should be doing.

Playing with children helps remind us that play is a great way to learn and also to relax. There are many ways to play including board or card games (although not those that make you highly competitive which activates the SNS) and creative play such as pottery, woodworking, painting, sewing and other crafts.

  • Music and dance

Both listening to and playing music help activate the PNS. Although some music, such as hard rock or heavy metal may stimulate the SNS in some people. It’s the same with dance, which mostly activates the rest and relax response but if it’s too hard rock or the like it may stimulate the SNS for some of us.

Most of us know which music and/or dancing is good for us to de-stress with. I have found that my stress levels are much lower if I listen to music when I drive rather than talk radio or podcasts. We seem to want to fill our lives with information and don’t always take time to just listen to music. Try to just sit and listen to some music rather than doing something else at the same time.

Dancing is a wonderful release and we can do it by ourselves and just move to music any way we want. Some people take classes or go to dance groups but for many people this adds an extra stress to their life – either making life busier or adding a competitive nature to the dancing.

  • Calming herbs

If we need more help calming our SNS down and ramping up the PNS then sometimes herbs will help. Simple everyday herbs such as chamomile tea and lavender oil have been shown in some trials to help with anxiety and stress. Other herbs also shown to be useful are passionflower, kava, lemon balm and valerian. Growing these herbs in your garden is also great and their plant spirits will help bring calm. Picking their flowers or leaves and placing them in your house is a lovely way to bring more of their spirits inside. Of course you can purchase teas or oils and these will help but a close connection to the actual plant brings a greater intensity of action.

I hope you can use some of these techniques to help bring a greater sense of calm to your life and lessen the stress. Just remember to work on ways to decrease the stress to begin with rather than just managing the effects of stress.

Stress and the Autonomic nervous system

This week’s blog is about stress and the autonomic nervous system and is based upon part of the book I am currently writing – How to Heal.

We are all hardwired with a two-part autonomic nervous system. Autonomic means that part of the nervous system that is not consciously directed and that is responsible for bodily functions such as breathing, heart beating, digestion etc. This autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the so-called fight or flight response. It acts to quickly get our bodies ready to tackle a threat by fighting or fleeing. To do this it increases our heart rate and blood pressure. It constricts our blood vessels to route blood away from unnecessary functions such as digestion and to the skin and directs it to our muscles and brain. It opens up our airways and dilates our pupils. It also makes our hairs stand on end and causes us to sweat. The SNS promotes the release of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. All these actions get us ready to fight the threat or to flee (or is some cases to freeze).

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) on the other hand is responsible for the rest and relax/digest response. Here we wind down the stress response and recharge. The PNS decreases our heart rate and blood pressure and dilates the blood vessels. Our breathing slows and our digestion increases. Our pupils constrict and our skin gets warmer (greater blood supply). The PNS causes release of the hormone acetylcholine. All these actions enable us to rest and digest or to feed and breed.

Of course, this is an oversimplification demonstrating two ends of the spectrum. The two parts of the ANS work together to keep our bodily functions balanced. We need both systems in balance. The trouble is in Western society the SNS is often in overdrive and the PNS is in under drive. While we don’t have the physical threats such as lions and tigers we have perceived threats and emotional and mental stress that trigger the fight or flight response. This causes a continual release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, the activating hormones that keep us on edge and lead to chronic over stimulation. This can lead to increased levels of cortisol and a cascade of physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, increased breathing, digestive problems and sweating. All of these are the same as when we are in a physical threatening situation yet when it is a chronic situation with no balance from the PNS we get anxiety and physical issues.

This week I will write about decreasing our sympathetic drive and next week I will write about increasing our parasympathetic drive.

How to decrease sympathetic drive – fight or flight

To decrease the sympathetic drive we have to examine our lives and make changes. Easier said than done. We need to look at everything in our life and try to make the changes that decrease our exposure to stress. This includes exposure to stress in its various forms – physical, emotional and mental. We need to decrease this exposure as much as we can. There are some simple ways we can do this.

  • Slow down, take more time to do things

Slowing down is against our western nature but is one way to decrease our SNS drive. In particular slow down when you’re eating; don’t make it a race to finish your meal. Pay attention to the eating and savour the food. This will help you digest better as activation of the SNS causes blood to be shunted away from the gut and the digestive processes. Taking time to eat helps the digestion.

Taking life more slowly generally will help deactivate the SNS. Avoid having to rush to get places; leave more time than you need so that you don’t become stressed.

  • Don’t multitask, do one thing at a time

Doing one thing at a time naturally slows us down and lets us be more mindful of the task at hand. Trying to do more than one thing at a time will leave you feeling pressured and increase your stress.

Do one thing at a time and pay attention to what you are doing. Be mindful of the task at hand then move onto the next task. If you’re feeling stressed by all you have to do make a list and prioritise and then tackle one task at a time.

  • Do less

Our lives can just be too busy. I remember one year when my kids were younger we were having a very busy year and Christmas was approaching. The silly season loomed over me like a monster with event after event we had to attend. Or I thought we had to attend them all. And then the kids got chicken pox and we weren’t able to attend all the events. No one cared that we had missed them all and our Christmas ended up being much less stressful. After that I consciously made the decision each year to wind back the Christmas activities and spend more time at home. Even now I try to avoid all the Christmas busyness and too many parties and instead spend time with close friends and family.

Start saying no to things you don’t want to do. Try to let go of the busy life and replace it with more relaxing time. Let go of doing and spend more time just being.

  • Avoid stimulants

If you’re too busy and stressed out then avoiding stimulants will help down regulate the SNS. Caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines or other stimulants will rev up the SNS and put you into overdrive. For many of us we take stimulants to combat a lack of sleep and relaxation and to do more than we should be doing. Ease back on busyness and the need for stimulants decreases.

  • Avoid excessive exercise

While moderate exercise can switch on the PNS and tone down the SNS, excessive exercise will fire up the SNS. If you are suffering from burn out or if stress is becoming a problem and you are an over exerciser then winding back the intensity of exercise may help. For those people who are not suffering from too much stress then excessive exercise may not be a problem but it may pay to use some of the ‘rest and relax’ techniques to help balance the body.

  • Sleep more

Sleep is the time when our bodies wind down and relax and repair. Getting enough sleep is really important and if we are highly stressed it is even more crucial. 8-9 hours is optimal and being asleep between 10 pm and 2 am is best for restorative sleep.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I will write about increasing our parasympathetic drive.

December 2018 Newsletter

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STRESS

I was going to write this month’s newsletter about stress management and decided that what most of us need isn’t just stress management it’s stress reduction. Sure, we can do relaxation, mindfulness practices, meditation, get plenty of sleep, eat healthily and exercise to help manage our stress but wouldn’t it be better to reduce the stress? Yet many people find this hard to do. Our lives have become so busy that we are under continual stress to be somewhere or do something almost all the time. Our children’s lives are so full of school and after school activities that their heads are spinning too. We have changed from human beings to human doings.

How can we reduce the busyness of our lives? How can we reduce our stress instead of just managing it?

One answer is that we need to declutter our lives – declutter both our physical space and our time allocation. Two years ago, I started the process of decluttering my physical space. When we declutter our physical possessions, we look at each item we own and decide whether it brings us joy or whether it is a necessity. If it doesn’t bring us joy or it isn’t a necessity, we sell it or give it away or throw it out. We gradually surround ourselves with only things that are necessary or bring us joy. We can bring this awareness to how we spend our money as well by only buying things that bring us joy or are necessary. This helps the environment and our pockets.

We can do this in other areas of our life as well. How we spend our time is just as important; does what we do bring us joy? Is that time spent on an activity a necessity or a joyful experience? If it is neither then maybe, we could look at not doing it. We could decide to only spend our time on what brings us joy and what is necessary. This is a choice we make every day and if our lives are too full of stress part of the problem is that we fill them full of too many activities. We could look at how we spend both our money and our time more thoughtfully and we might find we can change our lives for the better.

Last year I decided to leave conventional general practice because I wasn’t enjoying my work. There is the necessity of needing money to live on, so I do need to work which is why I started at Safflower clinic. I now choose to spend longer with patients and not stress myself out with ten-minute consultations. Sure, I earn less money but now I try to spend less money. I try not to buy things I don’t really need, and I am aware when I buy stuff that it may have an impact of the earth and on my pocket. I could work more or harder, but I choose to work less and buy less and spend more time doing things that bring me joy. I spend more time writing and gardening and walking and having fun with family and friends.

I have taken on more study and find this can be a source of stress if I try to be a perfectionist about it. Like most people my expectations of myself can be too high so I try to find the joy in the study and if it’s just a drag I only do what is necessary. Since I started at Safflower life has been a bit too full of work and study, so I am considering whether to defer next year’s study or do less study. Each activity in our life can be examined and we can let go of those activities that don’t fill us with joy or aren’t necessary. In this way we help reduce our stress levels, which is really the best stress management technique there is.

If you would like to buy a copy of my book – Holistic Medicine, Beyond the Physical – copies are available on my website for $30 including postage in Australia or you can pick a copy up at Safflower Clinic for $20.

Disclaimer. This newsletter is for research and entertainment purposes only. The information given in this site is not intended to replace a therapeutic practitioner relationship.

The Tarkine

Last week I spent four days in the magical Tarkine. This relatively unknown location in Tasmania is a great place to experience old growth forest and get in touch with the natural world. The Tarkine is located in the north west of Tasmania and houses some of the most spectacular forest on the planet.

This rainforest is unique in that many of the plant species are ancient and there are many species that don’t exist in other places; it is said to be a living remnant of prehistoric forest. To spend a few days walking and camping in such a place is rejuvenating for the spirit and soul. We desperately need to protect such wilderness areas as they are still under threat from mining and logging.

The Tarkine has been listed as one of the top ten places to visit before it disappears and the main threats are not just logging and mining but also climate change. While such cool climate rainforests are generally fire resistant because of their moisture content increasing temperatures and droughts may dry out the forest making it vulnerable to fire.

To help protect the Tarkine there are a number of things we can do. The first is to visit it and experience its magic. The second is to work to preserve it by opposing mining and logging in the area. Go to Save the Tarkine website for more information. Thirdly we all need to recognize climate change as a major threat to the ecosystems of this planet, including the Tarkine, and work to change our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants. Our health depends upon the health of our planet.

 

Seven steps for dealing with overwhelming stress

In our busy western lives stress can often become a problem. Sometimes there are so many things happening that we become overwhelmed. This is when our stress hormones really kick in and we find it hard to cope with the many demands. I have written about dealing with stress in my book Holistic Medicine but here are seven simple steps to follow when you find yourself overwhelmed and stressed out.

 

  1. Recognise that you are under stress. Sometimes we are so busy and overwhelmed by our lives that we don’t even realise that we are under stress. It helps for us to step back for a moment and take some deep breaths. We can pause for a few moments and just pay attention to the fact that our lives have become too full.
  2. Ground yourself. When we are overwhelmed we lose touch with our self and pay too much attention to what is going on around us. The process of grounding starts to bring us back to our selves. Grounding can be as simple as going for a walk outside (bare feet is best), doing some grounding yoga poses or lying on the earth.
  3. Focus on simple things that you can do. When we are overwhelmed with so many things going on in our life we need to focus on those things that will make a difference to our level of stress. What can we do to make a difference in the short term?
  4. Ask for help. Sometimes we try to do everything by ourselves. It is good when we are overwhelmed to ask for help from our family and friends. We can let them know things are overwhelming and that we need some help.
  5. Centre yourself. This is a process of paying attention to our heart centre. We can tap into our inner self and pay attention to the calming effect the heart centre can have on our whole self. Our intuition may help guide us to how to deal with the stress and how to prioritise our time.
  6. Pay attention to what being overwhelmed is telling you about your life. Most of us do too much and we forget to take care of ourselves. Stress shows us that we are not looking after our own needs very well.
  7. Let go. We may need to let go of the need to control everything in our lives. We may need to let go of doing so many things and being so busy. If we can let go of our busyness we can make some time in our lives to listen to our own needs better.

 

We become overwhelmed and stressed when we don’t listen to ourselves and forget to pay attention to our own needs. These seven steps help us take some time out and begin to listen to what we need in our lives. Our priority should be to simplify out lives and pay better attention to what makes us happy.

 

Disclaimer. This web site is for research and entertainment purposes only. The information given in this site is not intended to replace a therapeutic practitioner relationship.

Photo from Unsplash by Tim Marshall

 

Stress

Stress is a term that is bandied around an awful lot these days but what does it really mean and how does it affect our health?

Stress comes in a number of different guises and it affects our health primarily by putting extra demands on our adrenal glands (although it is much more complex than just the adrenals). The adrenal glands secrete a number of different hormones such as cortisol, DHEA, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Acute stress causes a surge in some of these hormones that puts us into a flight or fight response which is very useful if you are faced with a sabre tooth tiger or other acute stress. Chronic stress,such as most of us face in today’s fast and stimulating society, leads to chronic increases in these stress hormones and this leads to health problems of many sorts. Our adrenals may react by increasing secretion of the stress hormones at the expense of restorative hormones such as DHEA or eventually they may react by decreasing secretion of the stress hormones leading to fatigue and other health issues.

Sometimes we think of stress as only the emotional kind and it is true this is a major source of stress for many people, but we shouldn’t forget the other sources of stress that contribute to our health problems. Stresses can be divided into four main groups – environmental, psychosocial, physiological and biological.

Environmental stressors

  • Pollution – air pollution and contamination of our food supply with pesticides and herbicides puts extra stress on our body. Heavy metal toxicity is a problem for many people. Noise pollution can also be a problem.
  • Radiation – Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is a major problem in today’s society. We are exposed to millions of times more EMR than our grandparents and the effects on our  cells can be severe. We are also exposed to more ionising radiation than ever before with the increase in X-rays and air flights.
  • Weather – weather extremes put our bodies under stress and with climate change these weather extremes are becoming more common.

Psychosocial stressors

These are the emotional type stressors that we all think of as affecting our health. In today’s fast paced society there is increased performance stress in schools and work places. The constant pressure we put ourselves under can lead to adrenal exhaustion and burnout. Many of us also face financial pressures, relationship pressures and anxieties about the future.

Physiological stressors

  • Ageing – as we age our bodies have to cope with the accumulation of many years of ongoing stress of all sorts. Our cells age and the powerhouse of the cell – the mitochondria – decrease in number. Ageing puts at us increased risk of infections and degenerative diseases both of which contribute to increase stress on the whole body.
  • Illness – any illness puts extra stress on the body. Something as simple as a cold will increase the stress response. Chronic disease causes even more stress with both physical and emotional components.
  • Trauma – physical trauma is an obvious stress but emotional traumas can take a larger toll. Grief is a major stress with increases in many health problems in the first year following the death of a loved one.
  • Nutritional deficiencies – our poor diet and poor farming practices have led to an epidemic of obesity and deficiencies in many nutrients. If we don’t have the basic building blocks for our cells to work with then there is physiological stress at a cellular level.

Biological stressors

The main biological stressors are infections; all infections put stress on the body but there are some chronic infections that can affect us profoundly. Viruses, bacteria and parasites can all be to blame. The Epstein Barr virus (EBV), the cytomegalovirus (CMV), the hepatitis virus, the herpes virus and others have all been implicated in chronic diseases. Bacterial infections such as Lyme disease are now thought to be a major cause of chronic ill health.With the increase in overseas travel many people are exposed to bacteria and parasites that cause an increase burden of disease.

With all these stressors it is amazing that the human body works as well as it does and that for the most part good health is the norm. But with all these stressors affecting our body and our adrenals we do need to look after ourselves as well as we can. The seven key ways to decreasing the effect stress has on our lives are as follows.

  1. Eat a healthy diet. I have discussed this on my website and a good diet is essential in providing the building blocks for the body to replace and restore cells and to manufacture hormones and produce energy.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep. Also discussed on my site – 8-81/2 hours sleep between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am is the most restorative and healing.
  3. Exercise daily – 30 -45 minutes of exercise a day is optimal. Too much exercise can be an additional stress on the body.
  4. Meditation – daily meditation decreases the stress response and calms the sympathetic nervous system.
  5. Relax with family and friends and cultivate community.
  6. Consider nutritional supplements and herbal tonics to help the body cope with stress.
  7. Avoid artificial stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants may provide short term relief from stress but long term they create more problems for the adrenals and the body as a whole.

 

Disclaimer. This web site is for research and entertainment purposes only. The information given in this site is not intended to replace a therapeutic practitioner relationship.