This time of year I frequently see clients ‘winding up’ in the rush to Christmas; whether it be increased time at work in the office or on the road, burning the midnight oil at social events or just trying to tame the kids as they approach the end of school term. This state of ‘stress’ is driven by the autonomic nervous system, and, an imbalance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system function.
Primarily, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘flight or fight response’. This results in the release of adrenalin, among many other neuronal and hormonal substances, which mainly accelerate processes in the human body like heart and lung function. The parasympathetic system, known as ‘rest, digest and recover’, broadly does the opposite. These two systems are constantly working to maintain the body’s homeostatic rhythm, or balance, in response to internal and external events.
Don’t get me wrong, momentum is important for balance, same as if you are an elephant on a string. However, when the balance continually favours a sympathetic state, as in the rush to Christmas, our body becomes ‘stressed’. Remember the body’s response is automatic, and once stressed, subsequent events that may not normally have been stressful tend to become so. This ‘stressed’ bodily state feeds changes in our neurochemistry and can lead us to feeling emotional stress, anxiety and/or depression. And, so the elephant begins to fall.
To keep that elephant balancing, it makes sense that we should promote parasympathetic activity and assist the body to ‘restore the rhythm’. I like to consider these simple tools;
Hey, I am a movement man so bear with me. The common ‘device posture’ we see now of forward head carriage, rounded shoulders and increased spinal curvature is like giving the elephant a unicycle. Smart people have hypothesised that the forward head position interferes with vagus nerve function which drives the parasympathetic ‘rest, digest and relax’ system. Rounded shoulders and increased spinal curvature promotes the sympathetic state and restricts using the diaphragm to breathe.
What to do: stretch your chest in a doorway, be mindful of posture and correction, mobilise the thoracic spine (rolled towel/roller)
Breathing is essential for life. As mentioned above poor posture restricts diaphragm function and optimal breathing. Promoting diaphragmatic breathing simulates the parasympathetic system and takes you from a ‘fight or flight’ to a ‘rest, digest, relax sate’
What to do: practice diaphragmatic breathing of an evening to unwind. Combine with rolled towel to encourage thoracic mobility to hit two birds with one stone.
SLEEP, EAT/DRINK and BE MERRY:
Melatonin is the sleep/wake hormone. It is closely related to serotonin, the feel good hormone. If serotonin is low, it is hard to process stressful events. Try and get to bed earlier and rise early to reduce sleeping in during daylight hours.
Eat healthy/clean when possible to counter the negative effects of alcohol and reduce the strain on the body’s detoxifying system. Remember if you are emotionally stressed, it is very likely your insides are stressed. Help them out.
Be merry, mingle, socialise. Device time leads to poor posture, usually late nights and poor eating habits feeding a sympathetic state. Light up all those dopamine receptors with love and interaction and not excessive screen time. Call for another elephant.