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:
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:
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: