Slow Down and Lighten Up – Chapter 7

Reaction: My Nerves Are Shot

All of Us

We react to stress with our whole self. Body, mind, emotions, and spirit are all affected by stress and are targets 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.

Our 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.

Human bodies also become charged up and ready for action during the stress response. The difference is that fighting or running away does not solve most human problems and most likely they 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 happens to our body in response to long-term or intense stress. 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 may be 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 suppressed. As one is turned up, the other is turned down.

A simple way to undermine the stress response is to stimulate 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. I have seen this be consistently helpful in stopping the build-up of tension since the early 1970’s with several thousand people (including me). We stop the stress response when we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. 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. (The specific techniques that accomplish this are described in Chapter Eleven.)

That 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 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 in the wild shuts down all non-essential functions in order to focus all its energy on running or fighting. Civilized humans have learned to restrain this impulse. Holding back this extra energy results in more built-up tension, which, rather than being adaptive, interferes with our ability to handle the situation. Our body adapts to long-term high stress by producing stress hormones, which allow the sympathetic nervous system to continue to send energy to the muscles even though we are exhausted. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system suppresses the energy going to the sympathetic nervous system and 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 to be activated by the parasympathetic nervous system to work properly. This is accomplished 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 in most situations.

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 recover fairly quickly. 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 a little bit for a short while. 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. 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.

From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.