REACTION: MY NERVES
All of us
We react to stress with our whole self. Body, mind, emotions,
and spirit are all affected by stress and serve as vehicles for management and prevention. The next four chapters, along with
Part Two, look at these aspects of ourselves separately, but it is important to remember that each of us is a whole person.
We cannot separate our body from our mind or our spirituality from our emotions. These are parts of us that function together
as a single whole. We separate them only in order to make them easier to study and understand.
body under stress
Stress is often described as the "fight or flight response." This pretty well sums up what
happens to the bodies of both humans and animals under stress. When an animal is threatened, it will either fight or run away.
Its body becomes charged up and ready for action. This is an adaptive response that often saves its life.
also become charged up and ready for action during the stress response. The difference is that fighting or running away does
not resolve our concerns - in most cases either would make things worse. Animals discharge the build-up of energy in their
muscles through physical action in response to stress. We have learned to hold back this impulse. That is how tension is produced.
People who suffer from long-term stress often say "My nerves are shot." That's actually a pretty good
description of what's happening in our body during the stress response. In terms of our ability to intervene, the stress
response starts with the nervous system. To be more specific, it starts with the autonomic nervous system, which contains
the nerves that regulate where energy goes in our body. My description of this process will be very general and a bit oversimplified.
The intent is not to present a detailed description of physiological concepts but simply to understand that which we want
to learn to regulate.
Our autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts which function in opposition to each other.
The sympathetic nervous system is connected to our muscles - it energizes them when we need to act. The parasympathetic nervous
system is connected to our internal organs. It regulates body-maintenance functions such as digesting food, fighting off disease,
keeping our blood clean, etc.. In a healthy individual, these two parts of the autonomic nervous system alternate in a balanced
way to allow our body to adapt to the needs of a given situation.
The stress response always activates the sympathetic
nervous system. This sends energy to the muscles, getting us ready for action. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated,
the parasympathetic nervous system is deactivated. As the one is turned up, the other is turned down.
A simple way to
subvert the stress response is to simply turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Since the stress response requires sympathetic
nervous system activation, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system prevents the energy from going to the muscles and
thus prevents tension from building. This technique has worked consistently for over twenty-seven years with several thousand
people (including me). The stress response stops building tension when we take steps that activates the parasympathetic nervous
system. (The specific techniques that accomplish this are described in Chapter Eleven.) There is no delay; The process takes
less than a minute. As soon as the parasympathetic system begins to dominate, the stress response loses its power.
doesn't mean that we are suddenly free of stress and tension. We still need to recover from the tension that has built
up. This recovery can occur quickly with short-term stress. If our nervous system is in good balance when we begin to experience
a stressful event, we can recover in less than a minute once the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated. However, if
the stressful event is particularly intense, or if our stress levels have persisted or increased over hours, days, months,
or, sometimes, even years, recovery gets more complicated.
Over 1,400 physical and chemical changes can take place in
our body in response to long-term stress. Essentially, everything in our body shifts focus so that maximum energy is sent
to the muscles. An animal whose life is threatened may thereby survive: having the energy to continue to run or fight can
be the difference. Civilized humans have learned to restrain the impulse to fight or run in dealing with our stress. For us,
this extra energy results in more built-up tension, which, rather than being adaptive, interferes with our ability to handle
Our body adapts to long term, high stress by shifting energy and resources to our muscles, actually changing
the chemistry of our blood. Stress hormones are produced which allow us to continue to send energy to the muscles even though
we are exhausted. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system under these conditions stops the build-up of stress. This
can make a significant difference in how we respond to the situation, but it does not take away the tension that may have
been escalating for months. The stress hormones need to be cleaned out of our blood before we can restore a more natural sense
of balance to our nervous system and our lives. Our liver is prepared to do this cleaning, BUT, it needs energy from the parasympathetic
nervous system to work properly.
The necessary energy is supplied by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system on
a regular basis over time. My experience is that doing this six times per day for three to five minutes over a period of two
to four weeks is sufficient to get us back into balance.
There seems to be a point where we begin to become much more
reactive as our stress levels increase. I call it the sunburn line. (My guess is that it corresponds to a certain concentration
of stress hormones in our blood, though I have seen no research on the point.) It is very helpful to get to know our sunburn
line. When we're below the line, new stressors will temporarily increase our tension levels, but we can recover fairly
quickly in the short term. When we're above the line, even a little stressor can send us off the charts. It's just
like having a really bad sunburn - even a light touch can make us yelp with pain. If there were no sunburn, a hard slap in
the same place might hurt only a bit briefly. We get to know our sunburn line as we approach and cross it and by becoming
more aware of tension in the body. (See Chapter Six.) We can learn to recognize a level of tension that begins to feel like
sunburn and then to take action and make decisions that prevent us from going over the line.
Learning to regulate our
parasympathetic nervous system gives us the ability to stop tension from building in the moment and to recover from accumulated
tension over time. The feedback I've had on this approach has been very consistent for a number of years. People who have
tried this method report handling a wide range of stressful situations much more effectively. When they practice these balancing
techniques over time, they report an increased sense of ease and satisfaction in their lives.