American society prides itself on staying busy. Long work hours and family responsibilities often keep the average American busy from the minute they wake up until they fall asleep. Typical days include getting up early to get the kids off to school, then running off to work or to run errands for the day. Next is the flurry of after school activities right into cooking dinner, cleaning up, getting the kids to bed, then if we are lucky an hour to ourselves to relax before bed. It seems almost every minute of the day is spent in overdrive mode, rushing to get from one thing to the next.
This constant state of rushing around activates a part of our nervous system known as the Sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system associated with the “Fight or Flight” response. It has been embedded in our behavior for hundreds of years to help us survive crisis situations. The problem is that constantly living in this state upsets the balance of the brain and nervous system and can lead to many problems including immune dysfunction, anxiety, depression, bone loss, sexual dysfunction and insomnia.
Stress, by its very nature activates chemical cascades in the brain that immediately start affecting the physiological processes of our body. An isolated stressful event (i.e. slamming on the brakes and just avoiding a fender bender) will cause a chemical cascade of stress chemicals and hormones that can affect the body for an additional 6 hours after the event happened. Stress chemicals and hormones, like cortisol, help the body to survive a stress, but have negative effects as well. Their job is to ensure survival often at the cost of other important bodily functions.
For example, cortisol suppresses immune function making it easier for a cancer cell to escape detection or making you more susceptible to infections. It also promotes the breakdown of bone tissue thus promoting osteoporosis. And if stress hormones are being released at night sleep patterns can get disturbed resulting in insomnia. This is why I always discourage people from watching violent television or the nightly news before bed.
Opposite of the sympathetic nervous system is the Parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our brain that is activated during relaxing activities like dozing off in a hammock on a sunny afternoon. When this part of our brain activates, the body is able to start repairing the damaging effects that occur during sympathetic activity. Immune function, digestive function and cellular repair mechanism are all activated and the body starts it’s process of repair and rejuvenation.