Stress. It’s apart of our lives. The pandemic is a constant black cloud over our heads. On top of all the regular every day stresses that we have, like work deadlines, kids, housework and just fitting in friends and family. We are all being pulled in so many directions and it is important to understand, and recognise, that all of these things are classed as a stress to our nervous system. And whilst our nervous system isn’t designed to be under constant stress, you can also use it to help manage our stress and anxiety if you know how!
We caught up with Holistic Chiropractor Dr Aimee Brown to learn more about the nervous system, how it works and how we can use nervous system regulation techniques to help manage stress and anxiety. Let’s dive in!
How does our nervous system work?
To understand how you can use your nervous system to help manage and regulate stress you first need to know about the nervous system itself. It has two main parts – the central nervous system (CNS) made up of brain and spinal cord, and your peripheral nervous system (PNS) which is everything else including cranial nerves, spinal nerves and their roots and peripheral nerves. The PNS communicates messages from the brain and the rest of the body.
The PNS has two branches. The Somatic (carries information to and from the nervous system) and the Autonomic system which regulates involuntary functions such as breathing, heart rate and hormone secretion. The Autonomic System then has two parts as well. The sympathetic system “fight and flight” located the vertebral column in the thoracic and upper lumbar region and the parasympathetic system “rest and digest” made of cranial and sacral nerves. With me so far?
All of these parts are meant to work in harmony or balance. It goes into a state of increased sympathetic control in times of stress so we can run away from the figurative tigers in our lives (aka work deadlines, family stress, trying to do it all). Your heart rate increases, digestion slows, glucose (energy) is released, airways open, adrenaline is released, bladder contraction is inhibited and your pupils dilate. Which is great for a short period of time. But you then want your body to balance out into parasympathetic control. This means you are ready to rest and digest so to speak, to recover from the stress. Digestion increases, bile is secreted, bladder contracts, heart rate slows, pupils constrict to name a few.
Ways to deal with stress and anxiety
So, with that knowledge, we can use our nervous system to help deal with stress and anxiety. Keep in mind that your brain doesn’t understand the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, and will stay in fight and flight until the threat is perceived to have gone away.
So to help deal with stress and anxiety we want to stimulate and activate the parasympathetic system. Ways to do this include;
- Breathing techniques – breathe deep and slow
- Water – jump into cold water, or even just splash it on your face
- Get into nature! Even better, barefoot in nature!
- Exercise, move your body!
- Play music that makes you happy and sing your heart out!
- Practise gratitude
- Close your eyes and picture yourself in your happy place.
- Laugh! Watch a silly video if you have to, but just laugh!
- Have a massage – suboccipital release (muscles at the top of your neck) may decrease stress levels in the body.
Many of these tips are based around activating the vagus nerve, which is the longest and largest cranial nerve so it has a big impact on your PNS function!
Most importantly, remember that all these tips are general and not designed to replace individualised advice. Which means my last tip is to see a health care provider (such as a Chiropractor) who is trained in the nervous system, and can help you tailor a plan that will work for you!
This guest article is written by Perth based Holistic Chiropractor, Dr Aimee Brown. Passionate about the mind-body connection, Aimee takes a multidisciplinary approach to chiropractic care. Learn more about Aimee or book in an introductory consult here.