Calming the nervous system

Calming the nervous system

Jun 3, 2024 1:17 PM
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Calming the Nervous System – Beyond Fight or Flight

We all know those moments: your heart races as you narrowly avoid an oncoming car. Tense muscles on a stressful workday when one deadline follows another with barely a moment to breathe. A sudden freeze and flight reflex when an unexpectedly barking dog runs towards you. These reactions are signs that our nervous system is on high alert. Here, you'll learn how our nervous system is structured, what the stress response entails, and how stress has evolved over millennia. Additionally, we will show you how to calm your nervous system when it acts up without any acute threat.

Here you find a great article on this topic from our own HelloBetter Blog. The link below will bring you to our article in German. Following we translated the article for you into english! ⬇️

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How is Our Nervous System Structured?

Before we discuss how to calm the nervous system, let's briefly examine how it's structured. It might get a bit complicated, so let's explore it step by step:

Our nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord, and all the body's nerves. We differentiate between the central and peripheral nervous systems based on their location. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord—the "command centres" of our nervous system. The peripheral nervous system consists of all the nerves that extend from the brain and spinal cord and traverse the entire body.


The Peripheral Nervous System

Next, let's take a closer look at the peripheral nervous system. This system collects all the information from the environment (like a loud noise behind you) through sensory organs and nerves and transmits it to the brain or spinal cord. There, responses to our environment are generated, which are then relayed through the peripheral nervous system and result in a reaction (e.g., you startle and look around for the source of the noise).

The peripheral nervous system is divided into the somatic and autonomic nervous systems based on function. The somatic nervous system's nerves are primarily responsible for the body's movements. We can largely control this part of the nervous system voluntarily—you can decide whether to raise or lower your arm.

When we talk about our nervous system being in turmoil and wanting to regulate it, we mainly aim to calm the autonomic nervous system.

What is the Autonomic Nervous System?

We cannot directly control the autonomic (or autonomic) nervous system. It operates without our conscious input—and that's a good thing. The autonomic nervous system is constantly active and regulates all bodily functions that must run continuously, whether we're thinking about them or not. This includes heartbeat, breathing, and metabolism.

The autonomic nervous system functions like two major opposing forces—yes, they even have their own names. The two antagonists are:

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System: The sympathetic nervous system activates our body and prepares us for physical or mental exertion (also known as the "fight or flight response"). Activation of the sympathetic nervous system makes the heart beat faster, dilates the airways, and inhibits functions that are not currently necessary—like digestion.
  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System: The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It promotes relaxation, activates digestion, and stimulates various metabolic processes (we call this "rest and digest").

The interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is crucial when we want to calm our nervous system.

How Our Nervous System Reacts to Stress

In dangerous situations and under stress, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a cascade of neurological and hormonal reactions to help us handle the situation: adrenaline ensures better blood flow to your muscles, cortisol keeps you alert, and endorphins help you avoid panic. Your heartbeat accelerates, blood pressure rises, and you breathe faster. Muscles tense, pain sensitivity decreases, and your senses sharpen. Your body and mind are on high alert—this is a stress response.

The Stress Response Cycle

Imagine we're in the Stone Age: the danger is an approaching saber-toothed tiger. What do you do? Your brain decides in less than a second which reaction gives you the best chance of survival. Either fight is activated, or your brain decides that flight is your best chance. So you run and manage to escape. You feel deeply relieved! Your body returns to relaxation, and you experience gratitude and joy. The stress response cycle is complete.

There's also a third stress response of your nervous system called freezing. Freezing happens when your brain concludes that neither fighting nor fleeing offers a good chance of survival. In this case, your best chance is to play dead until the danger passes. While your sympathetic system is already running at full speed (heart pumping, muscles tense), your brain hits the brakes hard—the parasympathetic system overwhelms the sympathetic, and you shut down.

Ending the Stress Response Cycle and Calming the Nervous System

The good news is that in many situations where the sympathetic system and one of the above reactions are temporarily activated (like a loud bang, a suddenly appearing car, or a barking dog), the body is quite good at ending the stress response cycle and calming the nervous system once the danger has passed. The sympathetic system winds down, and the parasympathetic system activates—the body relaxes.

However, this is different in times of constant stress. In our modern times, the threats have changed somewhat. For our ancestors, it was the saber-tootoothed tiger to run from or fight. Today, stressors are different. Constant tension from always being reachable, working overtime, city noise, mental load, and a thousand to-dos can't be shaken off quickly. This can lead to us not properly engaging the parasympathetic response because the sympathetic system remains continuously activated—we are constantly "on high alert". Even if we manage to end the stress cycle one day, the same stressors often reappear the next day. The cycle begins anew.

Can Physical Activity Regulate the Nervous System?

What do you do if you're chased by a saber-toothed tiger in the Stone Age? You run.

What do you do if you're stressed by 21st-century bureaucracy and demands? You run. Or swim. Or dance around your living room and sing along to Taylor Swift's "Shake it off". Or maybe you sweat it out in a fitness class.

It won't surprise you when we say that exercise is good for you. That exercise can help with stress and improve your health and mood is nothing new. But why? Physical activity helps you break down all the released adrenaline and cortisol, signalling to your brain that you've successfully survived the threat and are safe again. Physical activity is one of the most effective strategies to end the stress response cycle and, in the long run, prevent burnout—one of the most common consequences of chronic stress.

Other Exercises to Calm the Nervous System

Any kind of physical activity is a good remedy against stress and burnout. But it's not the only method that can effectively end the stress cycle. Here are six more strategies for you:

  • Shake it off: Have you ever seen a video of a gazelle that has fled from a lion? Once the gazelle is safe and the immediate danger (the lion) is gone, it starts to shake vigorously for a short while. This is an instinctive reaction to release the remaining stress and accumulated energy. This also works for humans. We can shake off our stress by jumping, dancing, or simply shaking ourselves for a few minutes.
  • Deep Breathing: A few deep and slow breaths into the abdomen can work wonders and regulate your nervous system. A simple exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing technique: inhale slowly while counting to 4, hold your breath while counting to 7, and then exhale while counting to 8. Do this for a few rounds, and you'll notice how relaxation gradually spreads. Other relaxation exercises, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), can also be helpful.
  • Meditation, Yoga, and Mindfulness: Like breathing exercises, regular meditation and mindfulness exercises can calm the mind and nervous system and help strengthen your resilience to stress with regular, daily practice. Even a few minutes a day are sufficient. You can find many videos and apps that provide helpful guidance.
  • Ensure Enough Sleep: When we're already in a stressful phase of life, it burdens our body and nervous system even more if we don't get enough sleep. Make sure you have enough rest at night and use the 10 rules of sleep hygiene to improve your sleep. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, the techniques from the online therapy course HelloBetter Sleep can also help.
  • Crying: Sometimes we tend not to allow ourselves to release our emotions. We don't want to fit the supposed stereotype of the "hysterical woman" or live with the belief that "men shouldn't cry". But honestly—sometimes it can feel really good to just let out the pent-up emotions. Play sad music, find a place where you can be undisturbed, and allow yourself to have a crying fit for a few minutes. Then blow your nose, sigh deeply, and you'll often feel much lighter and more liberated afterwards. This too is a way to relieve stress and end the stress cycle.
  • Laughter, Affection, and Positive Social Interactions: Light-hearted, friendly, and loving social interactions are a good external sign that the world is a safe place. Maybe give someone an unexpected compliment. This can simply convey to your brain that the world is a safe place and that not all people are nasty. Laughing together, a loving and long hug in a trusting context, or an intimate kiss with your partner also signal to your brain that you have escaped the saber-toothed tiger and arrived home safe and sound.

Learning to Better Manage Stress

Which of these strategies is best for you? In the end, it's quite individual and can vary depending on the day and situation. Try out a few and see what helps you best to calm your nervous system. Then keep the strategies that worked handy for the next time you get stuck in the stress response cycle.