The Third Pillar - Relaxation & the Body's Natural Stress Response System
Updated: Oct 3, 2022
Recently I talked about the four pillars of health of which relaxation is one. According to Dr Chatterjee a lack of relaxation is the root of many of the problems that he sees people presenting with in his GP practice; his reasoning being that modern life is incredibly stressful and our body’s natural stress response system is not built to cope with the kinds of challenges we face on a daily basis – at the end of the day we are perfectly adapted to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle but are not well adapted to exist in the current technological environment that we find ourselves living today.
Having an understanding of how our stress response system works can help us take steps towards managing our stress levels and building our resilience. It’s all to do with our central nervous system, which is a network of fibres that control the functions in our body that are outside our conscious control – e.g. our breathing, digestion, and keeping our hearts beating.
We can think of there being two parts to this system. There is the sympathetic subsystem which regulates our “fight and flight” (survival) response, and there is the parasympathetic subsystem which regulates things like sleep and digestion. The two are mutually exclusive, which makes sense as you wouldn’t want to be falling asleep in the middle of an attack by flesh eating zombies!
Our organs are plumbed in to both subsystems, for example our heart rate is increased by the sympathetic subsystem in response to a perceived threat and it is decreased by the parasympathetic subsystem when we feel safe. In my previous post on the emotional regulation system I talked about the importance of invoking the soothing system, which is another way of referring to the parasympathetic subsystem.
Part of the parasympathetic subsystem is a major nerve called the vagus nerve which connects the brain to the majority of the body’s organs – we can think of it as being like an information super highway between the brain and the rest of the body.
This nerve has two branches and these have different functions. There is the dorsal branch which is involved in the regulation of the organs below the diaphragm, and there is the ventral branch which is involved in the regulation of the organs above the diaphragm.
From an evolutionary perspective, the dorsal branch is much more ancient and is a pathway that can be traced back to our reptilian ancestors*. When the dorsal branch is activated it puts us into an emergency state (our most primitive of responses) to conserve energy for our most basic functions. Sometimes this is called a “freeze state” and someone experiencing this may appear shut down and unable to respond properly to the outside world.
On the other hand, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve is a more recent addition to the system from an evolutionary standpoint. When it is activated we come into a state of safety, feel grounded and are able to connect with the world and people around us. It is this system that we can tap into to help us calm down the sympathetic nervous system and the fight and flight (survival) response.
I’m conscious that there is a lot of different terminology in what I have just said, so to summarise:
Sympathetic system: when we feel threatened this kicks in and our inner meerkat takes over scanning the surroundings to identify the danger. Our body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol to get us ready to response to the perceived threat so that we can effectively defend ourselves either by running away as quickly as possible or fighting an aggressor with all our strength.
Parasympathetic (Dorsal subsystem): when this takes control we may feel like we’re shut down and “not here” (dissociated from our surroundings), or numb or frozen in some way. This system kicks in if we’re unable to escape from a situation – if we can’t run away or fight our way out, then we simply shut down. This is an important system to understand if we have experienced trauma in our lives. It is also an important consideration for physical health conditions affecting the digestive system such as IBS/IBD (by virtual of this subsystem being connected to organs in the lower part of our body).
Parasympathetic (Ventral subsystem): when this state is online we feel safe and comfortable, calm and grounded, with a sense of peace. Our body releases oxytocin which gives us a “feel good factor” and also promotes a sense of social connectedness**.
By engaging this subsystem we use our new mammalian “hardware” to override our ancient defensive systems (our so called "lizard brain").
These three states can be thought of as different positions on a ladder. As we go about our business day to day, we move through different positions on the ladder, up and down, depending on the cues received by our nervous system about whether we are safe or in danger.
Stressful situations can be perceived as potentially dangerous and will push us out of the parasympathetic ventral state towards the sympathetic and the parasympathetic dorsal states. When we feel unpressured and “safe” again, we will move back up into the parasympathetic ventral state. Our nervous system will always try to move towards the appropriate state to help us navigate whatever we’re dealing with at the time. By giving our nervous system the right cues we can help ourselves get back into a safe state…the problem is that in the modern world, our ancient systems can perceive danger all over the place! In addition, individuals who have experienced trauma, or abuse, or their needs were not met during their formative years, are more vulnerable to being pushed towards the parasympathetic vagal state, as their nervous system perceives danger cues in things that are related in some way (perhaps even indirectly) to the challenging things that they experienced.
The good news is that our nervous system can be trained to start noticing and paying attention to safety cues in the environment around us and to reduce its reaction to danger cues that are based on past experiences. The first step is learning to recognise the state that we are in at any given time. For example, signs that we are in the sympathetic state are feelings such as anxiety, fear, panic, anger and frustration. Signs that we are in the parasympathetic dorsal state are feelings such as low mood, depression, helplessness and hopelessness. Once we recognise that we have moved out of the parasympathetic ventral state, we can use strategies such as adjusting our breath or posture, using movement and/or all our senses in grounding exercises to help us invoke our soothing system and get ourselves back into the safety state.
Dr Chatterjee recommends four different strategies that we can employ to help us use our soothing system to help us shift away from the survival and emergency states towards our safety state:
1. Taking at least 15 minutes every day for yourself, just to focus on yourself – it doesn’t matter what it is that you are doing as long as you give yourself some undivided attention to look after and care for yourself;
2. Screen-free Sunday – it doesn’t have to be a Sunday of course, but spending one day a week away from constant connectivity has been shown to be beneficial for our wellbeing;
3. Meditation – Dr Chatterjee advocates this as an antidote to the stresses of the modern world and says that it can be as simple as listening to your favourite piece of music with your eyes closed for 5 or 10 minutes, or if you want something more structured, there are many apps that you can download to give you the guidance you need ***;
4. Exercise – relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi and even something as simple as stretching can really help calm our nervous systems and help us to soothe ourselves.
Remember, when we are feeling anxious, angry or stressed, when we are overwhelmed and just want to hide ourselves away from everything, when we’re feeling disconnected from the world and other people, spending time alone and perhaps sleeping a lot, our nervous systems are simply trying to do their best to help us through the difficult circumstances we’ve found ourselves in. We can use our physicality to generate safety cues to send a clear message to our nervous system to invoke our soothing system. Regular participation in relaxing activities will train our system to become more responsive to safety cues and less responsive to triggers based on historical vulnerabilities (as opposed to danger cues where there is a real and present danger).
Also helpful is to afford ourselves a healthy dose of self-compassion…but I’ll save that for a future post!
*I often refer to our “reptile brain” when working with clients as a useful way of understanding why we may be responding instinctively rather than rationally to certain situations.
**Humans are very social animals. From an evolutionary perspective being part of a community was important for our survival. Sadly in modern times we can find ourselves socially isolated and this can be very challenging , presenting a stress upon our wellbeing since our sympathetic nervous system can perceive this as threatening. People experiencing chronic loneliness may find fewer opportunities to activate their ventral subsystem than those who do not, and may find that their dorsal subsystem is frequently, or even constantly, activated.