We all have stress… especially these days.
In the face of senseless violence, environmental destruction, social inequalities, political insanities, a toxic food supply, and oh yeah, that stack of bills – it can be hard to find balance.
Stress it seems, is a fact of life.
But, numerous studies have shown that stress can be incredibly damaging to the body. In fact, the evidence suggests that stress is a contributing factor in the development or worsening of the majority of chronic illnesses (those chronic health problems that affect nearly half of the adult population in the United States). So what do we do? How can we protect ourselves from the harmful effects of stress? And for those of us who face a health challenge, how can we enhance our health and recovery in the face life’s inevitable stressors?
Answer: Rebalance the Nervous System
We can learn to create a better balance in the nervous system – specifically the autonomic nervous system. Balance in the nervous system is a key to a healthy functioning body. Once you understand what a profound difference this balance can make in your health and wellness, you become empowered to take positive steps that can help your body heal.
What Exactly is the Autonomic Nervous System? The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that controls all of the organs and systems in the body – things like digestion, heart rate, breathing, skin temperature, and metabolism.
There are two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System, also known as the “fight or flight system.”
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System, known as the “rest and digest system.”
These two branches of the ANS are sort of like “stop” and “go” buttons for the various functions in our organs. But, problems arise when we have ongoing, perpetual, or unbalanced stress. Unremitting stress over-stimulates the sympathetic system (leading to an overactive stress response) and shuts down the parasympathetic system (leading to an under-active relaxation response). This throws the entire body off balance resulting in a decreased healing capacity, as well as creating cycles of inflammation and deregulation.
Rebalancing the nervous system can promote proper healing, digestion, regeneration of tissues, and functioning of the body’s organ systems.
How do we regain a better balance?
One way is to Practice Relaxation.
Relaxation techniques activate the parasympathetic system through the relaxation response and this simultaneously quiets the sympathetic nervous system. All of this can reestablish balance in the nervous system and even alter the expression of various genes in the body that are involved in regulating healing, regeneration, longevity, and the body’s repair mechanisms. Relaxation enhances the body’s capacity to heal in very tangible, measurable and real ways. Here are some of the positive effects in the body: improving the immune system’s ability to fight infections and tumor cells, decreasing the blood pressure and the stress load on the cardiovascular system, making the blood less likely to abnormally clot, decreasing inflammation, decreasing pain, improving neurotransmitter regulation, improving digestion, decreasing cortisol, decreasing oxidative stress on the body, improving neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, improving glucose regulation, increasing DNA stability, and improving cellular regeneration.
Here are examples of ways to practice relaxation:
- Using guided imagery.
- Being in nature.
- Going for a walk.
- Listening to music.
- Reducing to-do lists.
- Unplugging from technology.
- Deliberately seeking moments of joy and gratitude.
- Slowing down and savoring meals.
- Using Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, or other expressive meditations or movement practices.
- Immersing yourself in an activity that you love.
- Practicing mindfulness in the moment and finding joy or peace in the simple routines that make up the day-to-day aspects of life.
- Shifting the underlying tone of resistance in life by letting go of an attachment to an idea that life should be a certain way. This is about finding acceptance for the conditions of THIS MOMENT.
- Shifting the way we think about stress to see ourselves as capable of rising to our challenges, and to find meaning despite a hardship.
- Getting connected in community to find support.
Using relaxation to protect the body from the harmful effects of stress can be powerful medicine. If you would like to learn more details about how to use the tool of Relaxation as Medicine, you are welcome to receive an introductory Relaxation as Medicine audio training where I share five practices that can help protect our bodies from stress.
And, for those of you looking to practice greater wellness in your lives, you are welcome to join me in the next 5-week Nurture Healing Wellness series beginning October 24th.
 Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller G, “Psychological Stress and Disease”, JAMA, Vol. 298, No. 14, pg. 1685-87 (2007)
 “Longevity, Regeneration and Optimal Health Integrating Eastern and Western Perspectives” Annals of NY Acad. of Sci. (2009) 1172. Pg. 1-361.