The Practice of Managing Your Stress
The human body is pretty amazing. Not only can most of us choose if, when, where, how, and why to use it, there are systems that automatically work for us. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other functions that allow us to survive.
If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to take this all for granted. So, let’s take a deeper look at the science.
The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is that of a two-part system:
1. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is more activating, and can be triggered by stress to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. The burst of cortisol may cause our hands to sweat, voice to shake, and stomach to clinch as our pulse rate and blood pressure rise. These are the physical manifestations of anxiety. It's a hand on the hot stove moment. Your body is telling you something is important to you here.
2. Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which counter-balances our SNS and supports health, growth, and restoration. When our brain believes we are safe, we slow down and our systems reboot. This is what restores us.
Our vagus nerve (pneumogastric nerve) is difficult to track, but we know that it is the longest nerve in the ANS. It extends throughout our thorax (esophagus, trachea, heart, and lungs; respiration and circulation) to the abdomen (stomach, pancreas, liver, kidneys, small intestine, and portion of large intestine; digestion and elimination).
The vagus nerve can be very powerful, especially when we are feeling stress:
1. It can trigger the parasympathetic response.
2. Communicates from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain.
Dr. J. Eric Vance, MD, writes in Psychiatric Times (May 2018) that we are in a constant state of surveillance for risk, safety, threats, and opportunities to respond. He refers to this process as “neuroception.” It was important to keep us safe and alive in more primitive times. And, it's still with us today.
Fortunately, we can practice calming techniques that send a signal from our body to our brain that we are safe.
I use the Positive Intelligence program with clients to turn these insights into action. It's one thing to know how the nervous system works, it's another thing to build the habits to put it to work for you! Having a practice of calming habits helps you manage your responses.
Consider how you experience stress and anxiety. Where does it show up in your body? What is that telling you? What’s important to pay attention to?