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Movement of the day

Stress and nervous system

I am sure we are all aware of how stress affects the body & mind. So I am not going to scare you about the possible consequences of continuous or accumulated stress in the body. But let’s look into what stress is and what actually happens in the nervous system when we are stressed out. 


From the nervous system point of view, we could say that stress happens when we feel threatened. I say feel rather than think we are threatened, as it is something we perceive from our environment or thoughts, even unconsciously. Our stress response is faster than our logical, thinking brain, and by the time we realize what is causing us stress, our bodies are already in the stressful state. 


Our nervous system has an important job: it wants to keep us safe. And by keeping us safe it is constantly monitoring our surroundings and sending information to the brain, as well as sending information from the brain to the body. And when something is perceived as a potential threat, our nervous system puts us in an alarmed state, activating the sympathetic nervous system. This helps us to be ready for action (fight or flight) so we don’t stay vulnerable to the danger around us. (Or in some cases puts us in immobilization, but this is a topic for other time).


So it is really for our best! But the problem is that most of the time the perceived threat is not really a real threat at all. Elevated heart rate and adrenaline running in the body is useful if we actually need to escape fast, but not so necessary reaction to just constantly buzzing phone or to the thought of giving presentation at work.


Chronic stress


You might already know about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but just as reminder, they are two sides of the autonomous nervous system, supporting your overall well-being. Sympathetic nervous system is active when you are ready for action, and parasympathetic nervous system is active when you are resting and recovering from your daily stressors. 


Both are important, and for your optimal well-being you need to be able to shift between them. Chronic stress happens when your sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated, and parasympathetic nervous system is not taking over anymore, leaving you always active & alarmed. 


It is also good to notice that your nervous system doesn’t make difference between stress or excitement. Being excited activates the sympathetic nervous system just the same, so after a lot of excitement you need as much parasympathetic nervous system activation as if you would have had a really stressful day at work. You know that feeling when you have had a really fun and exciting weekend, but then in Sunday you feel like you need one extra day to just recover from your free time? This is exactly what happens when we don't take our nervous system's needs on account. What is relaxing for your mind is not necessarily relaxing for your nervous system.


And just to remember, getting your sympathetic nervous system activated is not the issue, staying stuck in this state is. Healthy nervous system is resilient, meaning it is relatively easy to shift between different states according to the situation. And this is a skill you can (and should) practice! 


To think about:


  • Do you recognize how it feels in your body to be in the different states of your nervous system?

  • When do you feel it is easiest for you to shift into a state of calmness and being fully relaxed?

  • Notice during your day what kind of situations, activities or other factors activates your sympathetic nervous system. What purpose it serves?

See you tomorrow!

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