Dr. Eugene Capitano Provides Tips for Relaxing the Nervous System
A Brief Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System and How to Activate its Calming Effects
It’s a position every single human being has found themselves in at some point during their lives. Faced with threatening, overwhelming, or negative stimuli, certain uncontrollable biological responses become apparent: heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tense, sweat is excreted, and a wave of heat descends over the whole body. Collectively, the term for these hormone-induced symptoms is the ‘fight or flight’ response, and it occurs during periods of extreme anxiety or stress. By the same token, as pressure abates and stressful situations de-escalate, the human body ceases to manufacture the hormones that cause these symptoms and sensations of tranquility and relief set in. This is known as the ‘rest and digest’ response. Both of these processes are products of evolution enabling human beings (and other mammals) to increase their chances for survival by prompting them to react quickly to life-threatening situations, and, alternately, to conserve energy and rest during periods of relative safety and calm.
However, what is the science behind this? Can the ‘fight or flight’ response be controlled to the point where it is rendered merely a pesky annoyance, or even easily dismissed? Can the ‘rest and digest’ response be encouraged and cultivated, or even harnessed to tamp down an individual’s general stress levels? By answering these questions, Dr. Eugene Capitano provides a brief overview of the pertinent sections of the human nervous system, as well as a rundown of how to activate its calming effects.
Dr. Eugene Capitano is a chiropractic health coach specializing in the prevention of chronic lifestyle-related disease, as well as the founder of SquareONE Rehabilitation, a rehabilitation clinic, training facility, and lifestyle coaching service encompassing all aspects of athletic care and physical health.
The Autonomic Nervous System
“Physiologically, both the ‘fight or flight’ and the ‘rest and digest’ responses are governed by a part of human anatomy known as the autonomic nervous system” states Dr. Capitano. “The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system that influences the function of internal organs and controls many of the human body’s involuntary reactions, including digestion, urination, sexual arousal, pupillary reaction, as well as the response to anxiety and stress. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two sections: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.”
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The primary function of the sympathetic nervous system is to stimulate the ‘fight or flight’ response under the appropriate conditions. It is activated when information from the eyes, ears, or other senses is sent to the amygdala — an area of the brain that processes emotions — and interpreted as indicating danger. A distress call is then sent to the hypothalamus, which communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, sending signals that activate the adrenal glands, which, in turn, increases the heart rate, quickens the breathing, causes the excretion of sweat, and so on. The sympathetic nervous system is sometimes likened to the gas pedal in a car.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
By contrast, when the brain perceives danger to have passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, causing a reduction in cortisol levels and slowing down unconscious stress responses by releasing hormones that relax the body and inhibit its high-energy functions. This is the so-called ‘rest and digest’ response, also sometimes called the ‘feed and breed’ response. The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes likened to the brake pedal in a car.
Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Over the course of the past few decades, scientists and clinicians have discovered that certain activities can activate the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the general stress levels of overstrained individuals. Among these are playing with animals and children, meditation, deep abdominal breathing, repetitive prayer, exercise, practicing yoga or tai-chi, constructive hobbies, and spending time in nature. There is a significant amount of data indicating that positive visualization techniques and abstaining from multi-tasking are also quite helpful in this regard.
According to Dr. Eugene Capitano, “stress and anxiety can be caused by any number of factors”. In some cases, the triggers are psychological, such as family problems or a tense situation at work. In some cases, the triggers are environmental, such as arranging a move from one dwelling to another or performing any otherwise complicated task under a looming deadline. Whatever the catalyst, stress causes a physiological reaction in human beings serving to heighten alertness, which in specific situations, such as swerving to avoid a traffic accident or escaping from a dangerous predator, can be quite beneficial. However, when prompted consistently by everyday situations such as job strain or marital issues, this process can have a cumulative effect on the body that leads to serious medical conditions like hypertension or other forms of heart disease. It can also alter the brain in ways that may contribute to depression and addiction. Activating and calming the effects of the nervous system in the manner described above will help to fend off the instinctual ‘fight or flight’ response and mitigate the negative effects of stress and anxiety.