No, this is not about ancestry! An ancient proverb states:
“As a person thinks, in their mind and heart, so they are, or so they become”.
What we think about, determines to a large extent who we are.
The Power of Choice
It is our minds that think. Life presents us with an endless stream of options. To select which of those options to pursue we decide by the ‘POWER of CHOICE’. It is every human being’s greatest power.
One often hears a person saying, “I have no choice”. This is never true. We always have a choice. However, when we review our options, choosing to implement some of them might appear to produce a result that could be most undesirable, so we do not pursue those, and say, “I have to do this option, I have no choice”. We do have a choice! We HAVE to choose. We have no choice but to do so! Unless we choose not to do anything, but that is also a choice! 🙂
Every moment of our lives our brains make millions, if not gazillions, of decisions we are not aware of consciously. It works tirelessly in the background controlling all the functions of the body. The Central Nervous System CNS (our brain and spinal column), Peripheral Nervous System (everything else), does all this.
Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System – ANS – is involved with all the things the brain performs without our thinking about them, like our heartbeat, all organ functions, digestion, etc. The ANS controls our involuntary and our unconscious body functions. It keeps us alive while we sleep. It helps us breathe when we are unconscious. It tells our heart how fast to beat, and makes sure that our muscles have adequate blood and oxygen when we want to move them. The ANS operates and does all this and many other things without our knowledge or consent.
Sympathetic Nervous System
There are two branches: The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). They do two different things and control two aspects of our lives, but they are not opposites.
What is the origin of the word sympathetic? It is made up from the Greek prefix ‘syn’ which means: together with, jointly; alike; at the same time. Joined with ‘pathos’ it makes up the Greek word ‘sympatheia’ that means “to feel or to suffer, or to be affected by similar feelings”.
Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is key to our survival. But like some of the type of “sympathy” of a well-meaning friend, too much can be, much too much! Constant “Sympathetic” (SNS) reactions to too many things in life, are more undesirable than that friendly excessive sympathy.
The SNS is usually thought of as the fight or flight (and uptight?) response to external threats or events. Few people experience any such life-threatening events that require the actual need to fight or flee. However, due to the constant pressures of modern life, many, if not most people, get into the habit of being continuously uptight just dealing with the daily stresses they face. This is very wearing on the health of the mind and the body. The SNS should come with a warning (which most may ignore), “For occasional, emergency use only!”
The first challenge we face is to be continuously aware of, and admit the fact, that we are uptight a lot of the time, and consciously decide to do something about it.
Many people have an Adrenaline Addiction. Anyone who has an ‘addictive personality’, the type of person who is a ‘busy all the time’ type, may well be an adrenaline junky. This is not a ‘title’ in common use, but it probably should be.
Listen to yourself as you speak about all the things you have “gotta” do. Terms like “I should”, “I ought”, “I must”, also put even more stress on your SNS and keep it working. As exciting as some stresses might be, “Gottas” actually prevent you enjoying your life as much as you would like. They also prevents us from relaxing and enjoying the peace and calm that comes as we activate the other branch, the PSNS.
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) – calm, rest, digestion and recovery.
Ever wondered what the prefix ‘para’ means? It has a lot of meanings that might at first glance appear contradictory, but they are not. The meaning of the prefix ‘para’ depends upon the context in which it is being used.
Para originates in Greek and other European languages. Para as a prefix can mean: at or to one side of; beside; near; abnormal; apart from; along the side of; defend; protect against; to ward off; make ready; to produce; procure, shield; shroud; prepare.
So in a sense, one or more of these original meanings apply to the ever changing relationship and balance between the actions of the SNS and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The aim of this paper is to offer understanding and tools that help people to less and less involve the need to activate the SNS, and to consciously practice entering the peaceful world of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Activating the PSNS promotes calm, rest, digestion, and recovery, and can be measured in terms of heart rate variations. The more time we spend in the relative haven of the PSNS the faster we bounce back, repair damage, and gain strength.
Restorative sleep helps: Autonomic balance during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is similar to wakefulness. During non-rapid eye movement sleep, the balance shifts from SNS to PSNS dominance, improving restful recovery.
Once the difference between SNS and PSNS is understood, people can decide actively to stimulate their PSNS by thinking about, seeking, and embracing calm.
Here are some ways to restore the balance between your SNS and PSNS
- Prayer, Meditation, Thoughtful consideration: Praying and meditating on the value of relaxing and allowing the PSNS to take over and calm us is very helpful. Yoga can be a good way to decrease our reactions to stresses we can’t control. Attending classes, or watching a yoga video at home, will improve your strength, flexibility and breathing.
Each of us can ponder about the particular stress triggers that affect us most. Like stressful people (Mental), manufactured foods (Chemical), overexercise (Physical), electro-magnetic pollution of all types, radar, radio and TV, (and especially phones!) (Electrical) – and work on avoiding them as much as possible. As we calm down, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure decreases, and the lactic acid in our aching muscles disperses, all help promote recovery. These are all signs of PSNS activation.
- Reduce Stress: Stress is everywhere, in every aspect of our lives, all around us. We cannot remove all external stressors. Good health depends on avoiding, removing, or reducing whatever stressors we can control, and work on the reduction of our reactions to those we cannot remove. Activate the PSNS to decrease recovery time after dealing with very stressful events and vigorous exercise.
- Breathing: Breathing straddles the Peripheral nervous system and the Autonomic system. This happens automatically, and we can also control it. We cannot stop our heart, but we can hold our breath for example. Slowed breathing is a hallmark of PSNS.
A simple breathing technique to activate your PSNS...Inhale for a count of 3. Hold that breath for a count of 5. Exhale for a count of 7. Repeat a few times. Slowing your breathing intentionally is a signal that tells your SNS that things are okay. This further activates the PSNS. Daily breathing exercises will strengthen your lungs, improve your immune system, and decrease your resting heart rate.
- Nutrition: Can what you eat affect your SNS/PSNS balance? Yes. Avoid excess stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Adopting an ‘anti-stress diet’ (but not a ‘fad’’ diet, as almost all of which are unbalanced!) with the right mix of protein, carbs, fats, minerals and other nutrients will support the PSNS.
- Massage: Regular massage has been shown to restore balance between SNS and PSNS. It can make us stronger, calmer, improve digestion, and be more able to fight infection. By activating the PSNS, massage promotes recovery. It helps to retrain the body to move more readily into PSNS even when we are stressed.
Conclusion: We do not need to live our lives in such a way that we become a ‘victim’ of our own Sympathetic Nervous System. The best way forward is to consciously and regularly activate our PSNS. The more anyone puts into action the information in this paper, the happier and healthier that person will become.
Brian H. Butler D.O., B.A., F.A.S.K. 16MAR23R2