It’s 3.30 in the afternoon and the day is going swimmingly. In fact, it’s going so swimmingly that you’re content to sit back for a moment and say “Well, isn’t today going swimmingly”.
Enter the boss, normally a cause for mild heart rate increase and gentle, hazy anxiety for something you might have done or failed to do but really aren’t sure about. But, nope, not even getting that today. “Swimmingly” you note again, sure you can hear violins.
You feel in charge, capable, and certain that if you bolted into a phone booth and tore off your shirt there’d be outrageously coloured spandex underneath, boots that clashed terribly but were somehow strangely appealing and a cape that never, ever tangled. (Ever noticed that with real superheroes?)
On a slightly more prosaic level, your brain is relaxed but quietly alert, bathing in nice amounts of dopamine. It’s a happy state. Mmmmmmm.
Suddenly, and without warning, (hence suddenly) a squeal of tyres is followed by a car crashing through your office window.
You leap out of your chair looking nothing like the spandex-decked superhero your children believe you to be and dive (trip) headlong toward the door. The car comes to rest on your desk, spilling your coffee. You struggle to make sense of the scene: the broken glass, the car leaning crazily on your desk, the good fortune you had not to be wearing your iPod at full noise, and the somewhat bizarre observance that your window is on level 2.
Some really interesting things just happened. You’ve probably heard of the Central Nervous System, or CNS. This is your brain and spinal cord. It’s called this to differentiate it from other nervous systems you have, such as the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS), so named because it’s on the edge (Periphery) as opposed to the middle (Center).
One component of the PNS is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is further divided into two important systems that are directly related to car crashes and bosses arriving. They are the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Cool huh? Ok, don’t worry about all the words, just read on.
I prefer to think of them in simpler terms. It’s in fact a little bit of an oversimplification, but a useful and effective one. The Sympathetic NS is like a gas pedal, the Parasympathetic NS is like a brake.
Driving the Nervous System
Now it gets really easy.
I used the car thing because it’s extreme and makes a better illustration. When this came through your window, what allowed you to leap across your carpet pattern in a single bound? Your gas pedal.
The Sympathetic NS roared into life and did some cool stuff, fast. It took blood from your internal organs and pumped it to your large muscles by increasing your heart rate. It shut down digestion and rest and got you out of the chair, dilating (widening) your pupils, and increasing your lung capacity. This, with the cascade of chemicals that have flooded your system, got you moving.
By contrast, the parasympathetic NS does the opposite, aiming at more vegetative states. When a snake lies still for a week trying to digest a cow? Parasympathetic. Pupils constrict, heart rate slows, breathing slows, digestion increases and so on. Like we’ve been talking about with brain resources, the same applies here. Given the resources available at the time, what is the brain best able to do with them. Direct them to action or direct them to inaction? After eating a cow? Not much else.
And in the same way that your car doesn’t usually have your gas pedal and brake pedal pushed to the floor at the same time, your body operates these two systems the same, one up, one down. They can’t both use all of your resources at once.
If you’re still with me, well done. Let’s stretch a little more…
Stress, in its various forms, is a demand for you to respond to a threat of some kind. Maybe it’s financial pressure because the bills are mounting and you can’t pay, or it’s exam time and you’ve got lots to do. It might be traffic, children, relationships, work, meetings, parents-in-law, real or imagined, current or historic, and so it goes on.
We’re going to talk a little more about stress in the future but let’s keep it simple for now.
Whenever we encounter a stressor, which is the thing that demands a response from us, we experience an activation of the Sympathetic NS, to a greater or lesser degree. This helps us cope with the demands of life.
So, all day, your body is driving your nervous system car, alternating feet on the pedals, a bit more brake, a bit more gas, depending on what you need to do. Get a bit more stress like the boss coming in, and we get a bit more gas – slight increase in heart rate, pupil dilation, blood flow and so on. She goes and we get a bit of nervous system brake: heart rate drops back, breathing slows, pupils constrict a bit and so on.
With things like the car through the window, naturally we get the gas pedal to the floor, and it takes longer for us to take our foot off the nervous system gas and apply the brake. With long-lasting stress such as marital tension or finances, it’s like our foot is on the gas a little more than normal or necessary, all the time. Hello ulcers.
So here’s the take home bit
Getting through each day is a little easier if you can understand your gas and brake pedals. They faithfully do what is required day by day to help you manage.
We’ve got lots more to say about this but, for now, a simple exercise to do when you feel pressure on the gas, is to visualize a real foot coming off the gas pedal and being applied to the brake. Breathe slowly through it. Repeat if necessary. It’s quick, discreet and easy.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems
What have you noticed?
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