An overreactive sympathetic nervous system can leave you feeling stressed, fatigued and even raise your risk for disease. Here’s how – and what you can do about it.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's fight or flight response, which can cause anxiety, stress, and other physical and mental symptoms. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated for prolonged periods, it can have negative effects on overall health and well-being. We can end up with what’s known as central sympathetic overactivity, which has been linked to a number of diseases, from increasing our risk for hypertension, meaning high blood pressure, to other conditions like atherosclerosis – this is the hardening of the arteries – and insulin resistance. Why? Stress hormones like cortisol are released and put stress on our bodies. In the long term, we can end up with hyperglycaemia – low blood-sugars, obesity and depression.
Some of the most common causes of this condition include:
- Stress anxiety – and who doesn’t have excess stress? From work to other commitments, many of us are overbooked and in need of a rest.
- Overstimulation – this can lead to hypervigilance and stress, and greater exposure to these triggering stimuli can send our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
- Poor sleep
- Poor diet
- Chronic inflammation
So, what can you do to prevent these issues? Help calm your nerves. Here are 5 ways to keep your sympathetic nervous system regulated.
Deep breathing is a simple yet effective way to calm the sympathetic nervous system. When you take deep breaths, you send a signal to your brain to slow down, which can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. To practice deep breathing, sit or lie down in a quiet place, close your eyes, and inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat this process for several minutes, or until you feel calm and relaxed.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body, one at a time. This can help to reduce muscle tension, which can be a symptom of an activated sympathetic nervous system. To practice progressive muscle relaxation, start by tensing the muscles in your feet and then relaxing them. Move on to your calves, thighs, and so on, until you have tensed and relaxed every muscle group in your body.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing your attention on the present moment, without judgment. This can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, and to promote relaxation. To practice mindfulness meditation, find a quiet place to sit or lie down, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breath. When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Exercise can be a great way to calm the sympathetic nervous system, as it helps to release endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters. Any form of exercise can be helpful, whether it's going for a walk, doing yoga, or lifting weights. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, or as much as you can manage.
There are several herbal remedies that can help to calm the sympathetic nervous system. Some popular options include chamomile tea, valerian root, and lavender oil. Chamomile tea is known for its calming properties, while valerian root can help to promote relaxation and improve sleep. Lavender oil can be used topically (be sure to dilute it first!) or in a diffuser to promote relaxation and reduce feelings of anxiety.
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