• Ali Copeland

Stress and the Nervous System...


Whether it is stress formed from physical, biochemical, mental or psychological stress, or stress patterns contributed from the more intensified demanding lifestyles that we perceive as ‘normal’ today in Western Society, many people are in a constant state of ‘fight/flight’, a highly reactive state from perceived ‘dangers’ caused by the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) in the body.

When the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, in order to ready the body to mobilise it, it needs to tone down the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) therefore the ‘non-essential’ bodily systems are switched off or slowed down. The body is geared up for a fight or flight response so it slows the systems it doesn’t require for use in this situation, for example the digestive system, immune system, thyroid and reproductive system. When the human body is in this heightened state of arousal for a long period of time it can impact the body in form of cellular dysfunction and disease, through the continued release of cortisol and adrenalin which contributes to the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System. So you can imagine the effect of this state of response on your body, and over extended periods of time, you can see the affect it will be having on your overall physical health and wellness. Understanding the stress response The stress response begins in the brain, when someone confronts a danger – perceived or actual - the eyes and ears send the information to the Amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds and when it perceives ‘danger’, it instantly sends a distress signal to the Hypothalamus. The Amygdala (part of the Limbic system) is a nut shaped mass located deep in the brain and is involved in the processing of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival. However it is also involved in emotions such as anger and pleasure. The Amygdala is the part of the brain that creates both fear and anxiety and it is the reason we are afraid of things outside our control. It also controls the way we react to certain stimuli, or an event that causes an emotion, that we see as potentially threatening or dangerous. The Amygdala is also responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. Therefore it is thought that this determination is based on how large an emotional response an event evokes. The Hypothalamus is considered the command centre of the brain and communicates with the rest of your body through the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which controls all your involuntary body functions. The Autonomic Nervous System has two components, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System is like the accelerator in a car, it triggers the ‘fight/flight’ response providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The Parasympathetic Nervous System acts like a brake in a car, calms the body down and promotes ‘rest and digest’ response once the danger has passed. All of these changes happen so quickly that you aren’t even aware it is happening. In fact, the efficiency of the human body’s reaction from the Amygdala to the Hypothalamus starts this ‘reaction’ before the brain’s visual centres have had a chance to process what is happening, i.e.: a person jumping out of the way from an oncoming car even before they ‘think’ about what they are doing. Why might your Sympathetic Nervous System be ‘stuck on’? This can be simply due to a chronic stress overload, where there is no chance for the body to reset and rest-digest, or this can be due to fear conditioning. If a person learns to associate fear with a common stimulus, for e.g. an angry voice, then they can be triggered more often. When triggered we become more reactive to stimulus and this hypersensitivity makes us more likely to be triggered again, therefore a constant triggering will maintain high Sympathetic Nervous System response. In part, it becomes a vicious cycle of constant trigger and alert, most commonly seen leading a person into anxiety or panic attacks. In some cases you may not even be aware as to what event has triggered you, often it is the meaning that we give to these events rather than the reality, and it is that common stimulus that activates your Amygdala, nervous system, to respond with an immediate survival response. Often this triggers a ‘fight/flight’ response, or in some instances a reaction of rage, anger, shock, fright or freeze. The same incident or event that may trigger you may not affect the person next to you, as the reality vs meaning will be different for each individual. The Vagus Nerve and managing your ‘stress’ and Nervous System The Vagus Nerve is the second largest nerve system after the spinal cord. It is the prime mover of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and the ‘rest-digest’ response in the body. From the brainstem, the Vagus Nerve 'wanders' down into the lower abdomen, touching most major organs, especially the digestive organs, along the way. It brings sensory information on the status of your organs back up to the brain for processing. During the stress response, when the Sympathetic Nervous System overrides the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the ability for the body to bounce back and reset after a stressor is mediated by the health of our Vagus Nerve, or what is called vagal tone. While it is sometimes seemingly impossible to remove all the ‘stress’ from your life and often for many people it can be difficult to find a way to put on the brakes, i.e. activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System to rest and digest, it is important to manage your stress (your nervous system) to reduce a chronic stress overload damaging your health over the longer term. By learning proper relaxation techniques to counter a stress response, you can actively manage the balance between the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System in the body by engaging the Vagus Nerve (activating vagal tone) thereby reducing stress build up and overload in your body. These relaxation techniques can include deep abdominal breathing, meditation, focus on a soothing word or affirmation (e.g. peace or calm or I am safe), grounding-earthing, ensuring good nutrition, quality sleep, creating healthy boundaries, using Flower Essences (in particular Bach Flowers Rescue Remedy), Epsom salt bath or sauna and practicing daily self-care. Physical activity is also effective in reducing the build-up of stress, although it is important to be careful not to over exercise or exercise too strenuously which will only add to the stress load, consider activities such as walking, restorative or yin yoga, qi gong, tai chi or any fluid movement that combines deep breathing and mindfulness which will induce calm. My go-to recommendations to clients in clinic are learning deep belly breathing, where I would start them with an inhale to count of 4 and exhale to count of 7 and once they are comfortable with this type of deep breathing, then building to an inhale to count of 4 – hold your breath for the count of 7 – then exhale to the count of 8. Also incorporating whatever relaxation techniques resonate with them i.e. that could be meditation, yoga, drawing, walking, emotional freedom technique (EFT) etc. and holding particular acupressure points that assist in calming the mind and body. The key is finding what helps make you feel ‘relaxed’ and ‘safe’. The alert and hypersensitivity of the Sympathetic Nervous System activating is in direct response to fear, a fear of not being safe. Therefore another great technique to help reset this fear, reduce stress in your body and allow you to feel ‘safe’ is through Energy Healing. Using Reiki and Kinesiology I can help you reset your nervous system by identifying your triggers, releasing the physical, biochemical, mental or psychological stress load in your body and in particular with Kinesiology it allows us to bypass your conscious thinking processes to isolate the underlying causal factors that might be held in your subconscious mind or on an energetic level. A key principle of modalities like Kinesiology and Reiki, is that the body has an innate healing ability and at all times it is doing its best to care for itself, but sometimes it needs to be helped into a better position to achieve this care. There are flows of energy within the body that relate not only to the muscles but to every tissue and organ. These energy flows can be disrupted or blocked which can then cause a physical issue or symptom to present itself. Thereby using an approach that includes regular energy healings, good nutrition, relaxation techniques to focus on regulating vagal tone and optimising any possible lifestyle changes to support mind-body stress reduction, this will help immensely in resetting your ‘stressed’, overwhelmed and over stimulated nervous system. Healing takes time, so be kind on yourself during this process and in particular during periods of stress and overwhelm…this is when it is most important! It is also important to note that children will also experience this reactive state of activated Sympathetic Nervous System and hypersensitivity to triggers, events and surroundings. The same principles apply to focus on bringing them to a calm and safe space and ensuring that you are assisting them to regulate vagal tone through the techniques I have already mentioned and it is worth noting that Kinesiology works quickly and effectively with children to restore and reset balance in the mind and body.

If you feel that you need some support to let go of ingrained stress patterns, resetting your nervous system flow and to nourish, awaken and glow from the inside out, then feel free to get in touch with me for a chat about how I can help you become the best version of you possible! 

Love and light,

Ali xx

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Ali Copeland Kinesiology & Wellness

0419 810 513

Evandale, South Australia, Australia

©2020 by Ali Copeland.