Take a look at this image. The Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, and other basic survival processes. This system is not in our conscious control. There are two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic branch initiates a fight or flight response. The opposite is the Parasympathetic branch: calming, relaxing, restorative. Both Sympathetic and Parasympathetic are phases of the Autonomic Nervous System. Remember, the Autonomic Nervous System is not in our conscious control.
Stick with me here. When signals from injury or previous injury are interpreted by our brain and our nervous system as painful enough, the Sympathetic branch of the nervous system (the fight or flight response) kicks in. It is an evolutionary response that is meant to be protective. It leads to physiological changes: muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, shallow and rapid breathing, sweating, dry mouth, slowed immune response, inhibited digestion. All this to give us the strength to either fight or run away. It is a stress response.
This response could save our life in moments of real and imminent danger. But we want to stay out of this branch of the Autonomic Nervous System during the times we don't need it, which for many of us makes up the majority of our time. We don't want to 'hang out' here. The question you should be asking at this point is: but how can I help it, since it's not under my conscious control?
GREAT QUESTION! Enter the Somatic Nervous System. The Somatic Nervous System is within our conscious control. It makes possible our body movements as well as how (not whether) we breathe. That means that through the conscious manipulation of breath we can cue into the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System and induce a relaxation response. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic nerves, which has a calming effect on the entire body. This is where we want to 'hang out'. Shallow, chest breathing cues us right into the Sympathetic system - a tensing, fight or flight type breathing.
1. Ask yourself "how do I breathe?"
2. Is the way that you breathe cueing you into the Sympathetic (fight/flight, tension, stress) system or the Parasympathetic (relaxing, calming) system?
Additional resources added 10/19/18:
Cueing into the sympathetic system and experiencing chronic stress can sometimes lead to "self-medicating" behavior, which is why drug/alcohol addiction and stress can go hand in hand. One of our viewers requested we provide this resource on the page for those who may want to learn more about how stress, triggers, and addiction are interrelated.
Stephanie Yeager: Passionate about spreading the word of hope and healing for those like her, influencing a paradigm shift in the medical community toward greater understanding of chronic pelvic pain disorders, and prevention initiatives that may protect young women before onset can occur.