We all have extra on our plates this year, and many coping skills, such as spending time with loved ones and being in community, are not as accessible when we are living with a chronic illness. Stress levels are rising and when stress levels rise, chronic pain and chronic health conditions flare up as well. Our nervous system plays a big role in these flare ups, but the good news is that we have some influence over our nervous system.
Two branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic branch, responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response, and the parasympathetic branch, responsible for our rest/digest/relaxation response. Both branches are important and necessary, but chronic disease and living in an era that values the sympathetic response more can make it challenging to engage the parasympathetic response for recovery. When our sympathetic nervous system is perpetually turned up without time to recover, it wreaks havoc on our endocrine and immune systems, throwing our physical and mental health out of balance.
What turns up the sympathetic branch? In addition to big stressors like illness, death of a loved one, natural disasters and pandemics, everyday stressors like deadlines, loneliness, worry, taking on too much, insomnia, and even scrolling through social media add up to overwhelm our system and put our sympathetic branch into overdrive.
What turns up the parasympathetic branch? The good news is that we can help our system reset by practicing engaging the relaxation response. (This is different from relaxing on the couch with a beer and a movie.) One of our best tools for engaging the parasympathetic nervous system is our breath. Pausing to take a few deep, mindful breaths throughout the day helps our nervous system reset. But any activity that you find joyful and relaxing can help, including (Remember to stay well within your energy envelop for these activities. Remind yourself that stopping at a good point for your body/brain means that you will be able to do it again soon.):
- Spending time in nature
- Very gentle movement/stretching
- Guided relaxation/yoga nidra
- Listening to relaxing music
- Engaging in a creative activity, (painting, making music, etc,) which makes you calmer (as opposed to a creative activity that makes you judgmental of your talents)
And here’s more good news! The more we practice engaging the relaxation response, the easier it becomes. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to its inputs. Just like our brains employ neuroplasticity to learn new skills, we can use neuroplasticity to create new habits of relaxation. This is why it’s so important to practice engaging the parasympathetic nervous system even at times when we feel good and not wait until we’re having a bad day to practice.
If this isn’t easy for you to do, don’t be hard on yourself! We are living through a really stressful time right now and it might be hard to make these changes on your own. It’s ok to ask for support, and there are many free resources for guided relaxation available on YouTube, SoundCloud and the free Insight Timer app. If you’re interested in reading more on the impact of stress on our health, two great books are: Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers and When the Body Says No.