Calming the Stress Response
After recognizing that my symptoms increased when my nervous system was agitated and decreased when it was relaxed, I looked for holistic ways to calm it down—without medications or invasive medical procedures. What I discovered and experienced played a major role in my healing.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates the body’s involuntary functions, actually has two operating systems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), or relaxation response. Whereas the sympathetic system revs up the body by quickly releasing energy-boosting and sensory-heightening hormones, the parasympathetic system keeps the body functioning at an even keel by slowly releasing energy-saving, muscle-relaxing, mood-elevating, and pain-killing hormones—namely, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. If the stress response is turned on, the relaxation response is turned off, and vice versa; the two systems cannot be active at the same time. Ideally, for optimal health, the autonomic nervous system operates predominately in parasympathetic mode and kicks into sympathetic mode on an infrequent, brief, as-needed basis.
The PNS is responsible for maintaining and restoring the body’s homeostasis—a state of equilibrium between interdependent physiological processes, including digestion, elimination, respiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and sexual arousal. Another important job of the PNS is to regulate the body’s natural repair and rebuilding mechanisms. Consequently, in addition to being considered the “rest and digest” response, the parasympathetic system is also sometimes referred to as the “feed and breed” or “relax and restore” response.
The parasympathetic response also counteracts the stress response, calming the nervous system and bringing bodily functions back to normal. This works beautifully when the autonomic nervous system is responding to episodic (or acute) stress—that is, the occasional transient perceived threat—in which case the sympathetic response usually dissipates quickly and the parasympathetic response restores homeostasis. Prolonged (or chronic) stress, however, results in an overactive SNS and an underactive PNS, which can wreak havoc on both our physiological and psychological health. Not only does a continuously activated SNS harm the body; likewise, a continually deactivated PNS inhibits the body’s natural ability to repair and rebuild itself.
Dr. Rankin postulates, as do many other medical practitioners and scientists, that a key component of sustaining and restoring optimal health is to keep the parasympathetic nervous system activated as much as possible. Some activities that have been shown to activate the PNS include meditation, massage, yoga, tai chi, exercising, using one’s creativity, socializing, doing meaningful or enjoyable work, laughing, being in nature, listening to music, interacting with animals, and playing with children.