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Monday, 16 January 2012
The nervous system
Our nervous system has two major divisions: the voluntary and autonomic (involuntary) branches. The autonomic is comprised of the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems. These systems modulate the heart rate, digestive processes, and blood pressure. Either one or the other system is active most of the time, as they are antagonist systems. This means they can’t function at the same time.
Because the sympathetic nervous system is concerned with survival, its activation takes precedence.
The sympathetic nervous system is triggered during states of panic or anxiety, we get a rush of adrenaline into our body and an entire cascade of events occurs to prep your body to fight or flee for survival.
This includes shunting of blood from the digestive organs to the muscles and brain. Both heart rate and blood pressure increase. We may also notice an increase in perspiration.
All of these changes would assist us in a situation where we have to fight or run away from danger. It’s an extremely impressive evolutionary adaptation that serves us well in emergencies, however, when the “emergency” you are facing is not life-threatening, or not even dangerous (like shopping in a crowded grocery store), then it is no longer a positive reaction in your life. This is also the system involved when we find ourselves in a panic attack.
What many sufferers of chronic anxiety may experience is a persistent fatigue or tiredness. If the sympathetic nervous system is activated for extended periods of time, the adrenal glands can become stressed, overworked. Also, other organs involved in the process can become tired and our bodies enter a state of ‘depression’. So it’s not uncommon to find people who suffer from anxiety eventually find themselves coping too, with depression.
The other part of the autonomic system is the parasympathetic nervous system. It is in command of relaxation responses and processes (like decreasing heart rate and respiration rate; and promoting digestion and repair of tissues). Just as this system automatically takes over during periods of relaxation, we can trigger its presence during stressful periods by practicing mindful, deep breathing.