We often hear of the phrase ‘fight or flight’ in relation to our body and its neurological reaction to stress, yet we rarely hear of the phrase ‘rest and digest’, which is just as important and as necessary to us.
Where ‘fight or flight’ prepares our body to do just that, flooding our system with adrenalin, increasing blood flow to our limbs and making us generally more alert, ‘rest and digest’ slows us down. It prioritizes blood flow to our internal organs and reduces our heart rate. All in the aid of helping us relax and heal.
Stress is natural, it is a regular occurrence in our lives and we need to accept that. What we need to realize is that our body's reaction to stress is instant and unconscious. We don’t have to think about it.. it just switches straight into ‘fight or flight, with an anxious thought, when we are late for work etc. When in 'fight or flight' mode, the hormones produced actively block our ability to heal and rest!
Rest is also natural but unfortunately, it’s not as regular as one would like! What we need to understand here is that our ‘rest and digest’ response is slow and not always automatic. If we are in a chronic state of stress, our relax response can become desensitized, ignored and forgotten :) We can aid this response when we actively rest. Psychologically and physiologically we need to actively promote our neurological relaxation response. When we consciously relax, by taking deep breaths, meditating, chanting, practising yoga etc, we are able to stimulate our bodies to relax. See some stress management tips here.
So what controls our relax and stress responses?
Our nervous system is the main communicator in our body. It is responsible for stimulating most of our bodily functions. It transmits messages to our body via electrochemical impulses, with the brain being the command centre. Along with the Endocrine System (hormonal system) it is responsible for all communication in our body. You can think of the nervous system as sending someone an instant message via email, while the hormonal system is more like the postal service (takes quite a bit longer as hormonal messages travel via our blood).
Our nervous system is an intricate network of nerve tissue that extends from our brain, right out to every muscle and organ in our bodies. Our brain organises the functions of our body into two systems. We have the Somatic nervous system (all of our voluntary movement) and the autonomic nervous system (all involuntary functions of the body)
Autonomic Nervous System
This is what concerns us when we talk about our stress and relaxation responses. The ANS or Involuntary Nervous System controls the functioning of our body on a subconscious level. We do not consciously stimulate our esophagus to contract to move food to our stomachs, or we do not actively tell our body to breathe in and out! (though this example shows how things can overlap as we can also take active control of our breath!)
It's all happening without us telling it to! Such is life. :) That is the pure magic of the ANS. It’s all the extra background programme running to make sure you continue to function smoothly. The Autonomic Nervous System has two divisions, which work independently and together where required. The Sympathetic (fight or flight) and the Parasympathetic (rest and digest).
Fight or Flight
First of all, let me clarify that our fight and flight response is not a bad thing. In fact, without it, we would not have survived this long. It helps prepare our bodies for action, which in dangerous situations is vital for our survival. In fight or flight our body can go through a number of changes
- Increased heart rate
- ‘tunnel vision’ where your vision narrows - focusing on the danger point
- increased blood flow to your muscles, as well as increased excitability (this all lends a hand to instant action)
- your hearing can become more acute
- in general all of your senses go into overdrive
- stimulates the production of adrenalin which increases our blood sugar levels and fatty acids. This helps provide extra energy on a cellular level.
Our 'fight and flight' response was great when our stresses were more short-term (like running away from danger) but nowadays our stresses tend to be chronic/ongoing. This response becomes harmful when it is in a constant state of activation. Our body is prioritizing the above actions, and so things like growth, repair and digestion gets put to one side
Rest and Digest
This slower action is also vital. Our 'rest and digest' response is especially active after eating, so it's important to rest after a meal. This gives your body a chance to digest your food. In rest and digest your body responds by
- slowing the heart rate
- slowing our breathing
- salivation: the production of saliva - which contributes to the digestion of food and it’s good for your oral hygiene
- digestion: your digestive organs are stimulated starting or restarting the process of digestion. In ‘fight or flight’ hormones like insulin are inhibited. They now get stimulated again and your body can process your food and metabolize it, getting all the nutrients you need for growth, repair and energy.
- elimination: I’ve talked about the organs of elimination before. They are stimulated while in this mode, facilitating the release of waste, toxins and other harmful substances/organisms.
- lacrimation: Have you ever realized that crying relaxes you? Well, it’s one of the signs that you are in the relaxation response.
So actively promote your own relaxation. Take responsibility for this important action and find an activity that suits you and promotes your ‘rest and digest’ response.
EkhartYoga members - try out our restorative yoga classes here