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Are You in Sympathetic Overdrive?

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Dr Skye Scott

Our bodies are engineered to respond to stress in a way that best supports our resilience and survival. High-stress situations trigger what is commonly referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response. The sympathetic nervous system is the hardware responsible for this function; adrenaline floods our bodies, elevating one’s heart rate and increasing our blood pressure; our breathing quickens as we prepare to flee from danger or ward off an attack.

The parasympathetic nervous system can be understood as the much-needed counterforce to the fight or flight response. This system is responsible for the rejuvenative state of ‘rest and digest.’ It lowers our heart rate, calming our bodies while helping us conserve our energy to be used in the next moment of stress. Our parasympathetic functions promote healthy digestion, restorative sleep, the rebuilding of tissues and the efficient removal of waste from our systems.

‘Fight or fight’ is  a short-term survival mechanism. In our more primal days of hunter-gathering and cave dwelling, this response evolved to deal with acute and life-threatening triggers. Today, it is not a rogue lion attack we might be faced with, but more insidious threats like looming deadlines, financial woes, relationship troubles or states of generalised anxiety. In periods of chronic stress, our sympathetic system is continuously activated, leaving us no respite to rest, re-energise and restore balance. Here, in these prolonged periods of stimulation, one can develop Chronic Sympathetic Overdrive.

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Under this chronic stress, your body is in a consistent state of alarm. This intricate natural alarm system communicates with the cognitive regions that control a list of vital functions, placing them under high-alert for long stretches of time. This overexposure to our innate stress response and the stress hormones that come with it, can have a profound effect on all of our internal processes, our mental health, our capacity to self-motivate and self-soothe, and the health of our hearts and organs.

Common symptoms of overdrive include physical and mental fatigue, irritability, headaches, disturbed sleep, anxiety and weight changes. In more severe cases, sympathetic overdrive has been associated with an extensive list of cardiovascular ailments, hypertension, kidney disease, type II diabetes, obesity and metabolic issues.

With the right, sustained interventions, you can restore equilibrium and activate your parasympathetic system. Stress management can look different for everyone. Here are some suggested ways to combat feelings of overwhelm.

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  • Develop a daily mindfulness practice. Try your hand at yoga, deep abdominal breathing, repetitive prayer, meditation or simply taking the time to find stillness and focus on breath. Use visualisation to stimulate your parasympathetic responses. In high-stress, panicked moments; transport yourself to lush forests, oceans, river mouths, to the peak of your own imagined mountain.
  • Be sure to nourish your body with nutrient-dense, vibrant food. Avoid sugar and highly processed foods. Eat things that are organic, colourful and alive. Prioritise gut health with probiotic rich and fermented foods.
  • Spend time in nature. Walk barefoot each day. Find an outdoor activity or exercise that leaves you feeling calmed and re-energised.
  • Do what you can to support and encourage a healthy sleep cycle. Practise sleep hygiene and be mindful of your screen time come nightfall.
  • Consider natural supplementation; Magnesium, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, L-Theanine and CBD oil can all contribute to easing feelings of anxiety.
  • Find joy. Wherever you can, seek opportunities to do things you enjoy, to be with the people you love, engage with your community and do what makes you feel good.
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Take the time to investigate the coping mechanisms you may have developed that do not serve your overall well being. Evaluate your relationships with alcohol and caffeine. Practice mindfulness around snacking or overeating. Seek out company that elevates and supports you.

If you are looking to change your relationship with stress and are in need of a head start, NervIQ is the non-invasive technology we now have to gauge the health and function of your nervous system. The five-minute test can give your doctor a clear picture of your nervous systems’ health. This analysis can give us the insight we need to manage your wellbeing, offering you the support your body needs to not merely survive, but thrive.

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