I will be writing several posts on the topic of using relaxation techniques to combat insomnia, anxiety, worry, chronic pain, stress, and other conditions. If your particular issue or condition isn’t specifically mentioned, it’s still a safe bet that having your nervous system on overdrive for extended periods of time is not healthy or helpful.
Our nervous system was designed to quickly activate a survival response to sudden threats– such as a saber-tooth tiger stalking you. When you detect danger, your breathing and heart rate increase, making sure oxygenated blood gets to your muscles and vital organs so that you can flee or fight for your life. Once the threat is gone, your threat system is designed to power down again. It was not designed to stay on and at full capacity for extended period of time.
Today, however, many of us have nervous systems which are on “red alert” pretty much all the time. We call it stress. Most of us are not in physical danger but nevertheless our bodies are on “red alert.” Our brains perceive danger. Because of this, our amygdala, which is the part of the brain in charge of detecting danger and reacting to it, sets in motion the physiological responses to make us prepared. Remember the increased breathing rate and heart rate? Except now, there is no crisis which happens and then quickly resolves. Now, we have one stress after another in an unending stream. It starts in the morning with your commute to work, continues at work with bosses, employees, or customers who are unreasonable and demanding, and continues on your commute back home, where you are greeted by the fact that your dog knocked the garbage can over and garbage is spread throughout the house. And, oh yeah, your kid forgot to tell you he or she needs something for a school project that is due tomorrow. Stress! And this doesn’t even include life crises such as a hospitalization or the loss of a job or big life events like getting married or divorced or moving.
We are surrounded by stress that our bodies interpret as a threat to our physical wellbeing. When we live in a state of “red alert” we are in a state of chronic hyperarousal. Our bodies were not designed to function like this and it takes a toll on us. It’s also exhausting. Chronic insomnia is a state of ongoing hyperarousal. Generalized anxiety or worry is, as well. The hyperarousal makes it hard to sleep. That lack of sleep sets in motion other happenings which circle around to make it more likely you are hyperaroused, becoming a vicious circle. Chronic pain is another example. When you are hurting, you are likely to tense your muscles. This, in turn, may cause additional pain, another vicious circle. The good news is, you can interrupt these circles through intentional relaxation and the use of relaxation techniques!
Relaxation techniques work by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the brake for the fight-or-flight stress system (officially called the sympathetic nervous system). They are mutually exclusive. When one is active, the other is on pause. By turning our attention to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can turn off the stress response, at least for short periods of time.
In the next part of the relaxation series, I’ll start discussing specific techniques you can begin implementing and practicing right away.
If you are struggling with stress or any other issue, I invite you to give me a call at (816) 226-4678. Let’s set up an appointment to meet and develop a plan to address your need.