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Is That A Man-Eating Bear!?

I want to talk about the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. These are more commonly know as fight or flight and rest and digest.

So what has this got to do with a man eating bear?

Let me explain.

I'm sure you'd agree that if you saw this running towards you, you would run for your life hoping that it had recently eaten.

This event would activate your Sympathetic Nervous System, aka The Fight or Flight response.

This response is triggered by stressful events and is designed to to give us the energy and focus to escape danger. It also causes some rather noticeable changes within the body.

So what happens when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered?

  • Our pupils dilate - this helps us see better

  • Our rate of breathing increases - this floods the body with oxygen

  • Our heart rate increases - this provides the body with more energy

  • We experience increased levels of adrenaline - this increases energy levels, strength and physical performance

  • Our muscles tense - this prepares us for action

  • Our digestion slows down - this allows our bodies to focus on surviving

All very important things when facing a life or death situation.

However, most of us have probably never been in this situation, nor are we ever likely to be (fingers crossed).

But did you know that your body believes that it is in this situation every single day?

Maybe more than once a day.

For some people it could be all day!

And not only that but it is you that is telling your body that it is in this situation!

Let me explain...

Unfortunately we haven't evolved enough to keep up with the way human life has evolved.

Years ago the only reason our fight or flight response was triggered was when we were literally in a life or death situation (bring on the man eating bear).

We are now triggering our fight or flight response with things like deadlines, health concerns, financial worries, relationship problems, the daily commute, etc, etc, etc.

Our bodies start to react to our stress and anxiety by preparing for a life or death situation. It has no idea that what is actually going on is we are sitting in a warm office, completely safe from any danger, remembering we have forgotten to but the bins out.

Now if you are constantly triggering your fight or flight response throughout the day you are probably feeling very stressed, tensed and anxious.

Keep this up for weeks, months, even years, and you are going to start seeing some very negative effects on your physical and mental state.

We are not designed to be in fight or flight mode constantly but modern living has, unfortunately, got us all believing that this is a normal state to be in.


Let me list some effects that triggering your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), continually, has on your body:

Physical effects

  • Decreased immunity

  • IBS and other digestive issues

  • Chronic headaches

  • Muscle tension or pain

  • obesity

  • Fatigue

  • Low sex drive

  • Skin and hair problems

  • Type 2 diabetes

Now for the psychological effects

  • Depression/anxiety

  • Constant worrying

  • Brain fog

  • Sleep problems

  • Irritability and anger

  • Mood swings

  • Low self-esteem

And behavioural effects

  • Over or under eating

  • Social withdrawal

  • Loss of motivation

  • Substance abuse

If you recognise any of these in yourself try remembering the last time you allowed yourself to properly relax.

Now you might think that sitting in front of the TV late at night when the kids have finally gone to bed as relaxing, but it isn't putting your body into the rest and digest response so that it can recover from all the stressing you have done throughout the day.

So lets talk about rest and digest and how do we activate it?

The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and can be triggered in lots of ways (but not by watching TV or playing a computer game!)

A few ways to activate it are:

  • A repetitive sport like running

  • Yoga

  • Playing a musical instrument

  • Meditation

  • Dancing

  • Spending time in nature

  • Playing with animals or children

  • Getting a massage

  • Knitting, crocheting or other craft you enjoy

  • Breathing exercises

  • Progressive muscle relaxation

  • Repetitive prayer

Well that was more than a few!

It is really important for our bodies to reverse the effects of fight or flight and the only way to do this is to trigger the rest and digest response.

If we spend all our time with our fight or flight response activated it starts to take a toll on our health and wellbeing.

Here is an example for you regarding eating while in fight or flight.

  1. You have had a really stressful morning at work. You have fallen behind and have a big deadline looming. You feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. You look at the clock and realise it's lunch time. You decide to get away from your desk for 10 mins to clear your head and make something to eat. With lunch made you head back to your desk to eat while you work. You absent-mindedly munch your way through your food not really noticing what you are eating or how fast you are eating it. 30 minutes later you have a stomach ache and feel slightly sick (which you blame on the work load).

  2. You have just finished cooking dinner. The kids are playing up and not coming to the table when you call them. Frazzled and stressed you finally get the little darlings to sit down and pick at the food you have just lovingly prepared for the family. Trying to hide your frustration and annoyance you eat your own dinner as quickly as possible to move on to the next job that "needs" doing. Later that evening you wonder why you are feeling bloated have bad heart burn.

  3. You sleep through your alarm and have no time for breakfast. But there's that voice in your head (probably your nan's) "breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" so you grab something as you are rushing out the door and stuff it in your face only to regret it not long after when you have chronic indigestion.

Sound familiar? I know I'm guilty of all these things!

But why does this happen?

Because our bodies do not want food when we are in a life or death situation!

I refer you back to the last thing on the list of what happens when the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is triggered - Our digestion slows down - this allows our bodies to focus on surviving.

If we are fighting or running for our lives, digesting our last meal is pretty low down on the bodies priority list.

If you are always eating your meals in a state of stress you are going to struggle to digest them. Just imagine what damage this will have over a long period of time (see the list of physical effectives above and I'm sure you can identify which ones would be caused by this).

The good news is we have the ability to live calmer, healthier lives.

And breathe...

Mindfulness is the best way to start recognising when we are triggering fight or flight in ourselves. It allows us to focus on the present. To be aware of where we are and what we are doing. To see the impact that our actions and reactions have on those around us and ourselves.

If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness can help you, I have a lovely free Facebook group where I share daily quotes, talk about my own experiences, share meditation exercises and give you the opportunity to reflect on your own day/experiences. You can join here

If you would like to receive a copy of my free guide to a better nights sleep you can get it here, this will also activate several emails from me where you will learn all about me and my journey with mindfulness.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. Why not check out some of my other ones here.

Lots of love

Fiona xx

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