Stress is a necessary part of living. Our response to it can save our lives or kill us. We need it for our very survival, but it’s harmful when it becomes overwhelming and interrupts the healthy state of equilibrium that our nervous system needs to remain in balance.
Coming home after a stressful day at work and slumping down in front of the TV does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. Our body’s natural relaxation response, the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system, needs to become activated. This can be done a number of ways—by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, yoga, or by getting a massage.
We control the voluntary part of our nervous system when we need to move our musculoskeletal system, an arm or a leg to swim or dance.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our involuntary or visceral bodily functions: cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, and plays a key role in our body’s response to stress.
The ANS consists of two divisions, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), or relaxation response and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or fight or flight response. They usually function in opposition to one another, usually considered complementary rather than antagonistic, and create a balance within our bodies. For example, when the heart receives neural stimulation from the PSNS, the heart slows down. Conversely, when the heart receives neural stimulation from the neurons of the SNS, the heart speeds up.
The SNS prepares the body for quick response action when stress overwhelms our nervous system, releasing chemicals that increase the heart rate, releasing sugar from the liver into the blood, and other fight-or-flight responses to fight off the threat, or retreat from danger.
The SNS stress response can save our lives in emergency situations where we need to act quickly, however it wears our bodies down when constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life. The relaxation response (PSNS) puts the brakes on this heightened state of readiness, and brings our bodies and minds back into a state of equilibrium.
Long-term effects of chronic SNS response shunts resources away from long term projects, like building a strong immune system, digesting food, and making babies, in favor of short term crises, like being attacked by a gang of thugs in an empty parking ramp. Crises that are usually resolved quickly, one way or another.
When the two systems are out of balance, overstimulation of the SNS can lead to anxiety, hypertension, digestive problems, hardening of the arteries, and heart attacks; All are more likely if we experience chronic stress, especially when combined with a steady dose of hostility.
The PSNS, sometimes called rest and repose or rest & digest, includes all activities that occur when the body is at rest, especially after eating, including salivation, digestion, lacrimation (tears), sexual arousal, urination, and defecation. It responds with actions that do not require immediate reaction. Overstimulation of the PSNS can result in low blood pressure and fatigue.
It’s important that we learn how to switch from SNS to PSNS when we’re not in imminent danger, to relax contracted muscles and improve the flow of energy through our bodies, and to release tension and increase flexibility. Massage has been used for centuries, providing maximum relaxation benefits in minimum time, and is the most effective solution for remaining supple and relaxed in a stressful world.
Our challenge is to learn how to strike the right balance between keeping busy (SNS) on the one hand, learn how to relax (PSNS) on the other, and to realize the dramatic health benefits of living in PSNS more often. Most of us get the busy part right, but often neglect the relaxing part which is just as important.