Understanding Your Nervous System

By Health Plus

Have you ever had goose bumps appear on your skin when watching a scary movie? Or quickly pull your hand away from a hot stove before the pain even registers? These visceral, instinctive reactions are just 2 of the many involuntary actions controlled by our nervous system. The nervous system is responsible for processing every sensation and thought we experience. There is no system in the body that we rely on more to perceive, understand and respond to the world around us. 

The nervous system is divided into two parts:

  • Central Nervous System (CNS): Consists of the brain and spinal cord
  • Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): Consists of all the nerves and neural tissues outside of the spinal cord and brain
These two parts are connected by billions of nerve cells called neurons, which constantly transmit information and direct communication throughout the body.

One of the most studied reactions coordinated by the nervous system is the ‘fight or flight response’. When we feel anxiety or when we encounter danger, either real or perceived, the central nervous system sends a message telling us how to engage: confront the danger and “fight” or get out of the way and “take flight.” Within seconds, the peripheral nervous system coordinates a synchronized response throughout the body to ready it for action:

  • Eyes - peripheral vision expands to take in more of the surroundings and pupils dilate to let in more light
  • Ears – hearing becomes sharper to aid alertness
  • Heart - heart rate increases to bring oxygen to major muscles
  • Lungs – respiration rate increases to speed up the delivery of oxygen to the blood
  • Blood - thickens to increase clotting and prepare the body for injury
Thousands of years ago the fight or flight response was essential for survival; when wild animals roamed free and houses were loosely constructed huts the world was a far more perilous place. From an evolutionary point of view the modern world is arguably less dangerous. The fight or flight response, however, still plays a critical role in our reactions. And it has not evolved.

To the nervous system stress is stress. Our bodies cannot differentiate between real danger, for example a car unexpectedly swerving into your lane, and everyday stressors related to work, family, over-full calendars and an “always on” lifestyle. Even rigorous exercise, which is necessary and good for the body, is a form of stress (but it also has amazing benefits, more on that below). This constant and seemingly endless bombardment of our senses can create imbalance in the nervous system. For this reason we need to proactively modulate and manage stress. Fortunately there are some very simple, accessible and effective ways to do this.

As we discussed in last month’s 2 part series on breathwork, taking time to practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing is very calming to the mind and body. Practicing yoga or meditation can further reinforce breath control efforts and extend your sense of peace.

Consistent, moderate exercise is another great way to ease stress and reclaim balance in your life. According to the Mayo clinic, “exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever. Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries.” Start with an exercise plan you can easily incorporate into a daily routine such as an early morning walk or run, easy stretching or calisthenics or biking on the weekends.  

Diet is equally important. Studies suggest certain foods can help support the stress response during difficult times:

  • Increase your intake of vitamin C to help curb stress hormone levels and strengthen your immune system.
  • Incorporate green, leafy vegetables into your diet. They are good sources of magnesium, a mineral that can have a calming effect on your nervous system.
  • Eat salmon or tuna. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, these proteins can prevent surges in stress hormones and may support heart health.
Lastly, while we cannot avoid stress or change the body’s involuntary responses to it, we can pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that trigger stress. The simple act of mindfulness is extraordinarily supportive to the nervous system. Being present allows for discernment, and from there we have the power to choose a response.


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