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My Last Nerve...Understanding Nervous System Basics

In my last blog I talked about stress, what is happening to our nervous system and how we can use TRE to help. That was the brief summary of it all. Now I want to start looking deeper and talk more about what’s going on, but I will break it down in easy to think about steps and over several blogs.

First, I want to spend some time explaining, in very simple terms, what is happening with our nervous systems and the stress response. This is a quick, simplified look at the nervous system (not a scientific journal here guys).

The Nervous System

Think of the nervous system as a complex part of us that coordinates the actions and sensory information by transmitting signals to and from different parts of our body. There are 2 main parts, the central nervous system (CNS), made up of the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), made up of nerves that connect the CNS with the rest of the body.

I will be talking about the peripheral nervous system, which is divided into subsystems; voluntary and autonomic. The voluntary or somatic system is associated with the voluntary control of body movements via skeletal muscles. The autonomic system is associated with things that are involuntary and not necessarily in our control. Thank goodness, I don’t have to remember to tell my heart to beat! The autonomic system is further divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. This is where we need to look when talking about stress and the stress response.

Stress Response in the Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is also referred to as the stress response or fight or flight response. It kicks in when we are under stress or need a boost to deal with an emergency. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is referred to as rest and digest and is the system where are body can heal, feel at ease, and is socially engaged. There is a caveat to this, but I will get into that in another blog.

In a healthy working nervous system, a stressor occurs, and we go into the fight or flight response. Then after the threat is over, we come back down into the rest and digest mode. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen when we are under chronic stress. We end up stuck in the sympathetic fight or flight. We feel like we are constantly “on” to do battle with whatever we are up against, be it a violent attack or a deadline at work. Because our stresses are multilayered and continual, the SNS can be stuck in emergency mode, and we aren’t able to down regulate back to the parasympathetic nervous system.

So, what’s wrong with that? Well, this short-term boost of energy and tension to fight or flee a threat is meant to be just that. Brief. Get away. Fight. Then calm down and move on. If we stay stuck in it, we keep cortisol levels running high, tension in our muscles and fascia, increased heartrate and respiration, things that can over time cause havoc in our whole body. We experience such things as health issues, pain in the body, high blood pressure, weight gain, autoimmune issues, and much more. Finding a way to help regulate the nervous system so it can flow freely between the SNS and the PSNS is so important. Why can’t we just do this? Well, that’s an interesting question and one I will leave for next time.

Until then, I’ll ask you to think on it.

  • Why can’t you just relax after stress?

  • Or… How long does that calm seem to last?

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