The Stressed-Out Work Out: The Missing Piece In Your Health Puzzle?

Functional fitness has become the buzz word in the fitness industry. There are a lot of theories about the best way to keep yourself fit, healthy, and live longer. Whether focused on building muscle or increasing cardio endurance, most systems involve a program designed to increase functional capacity. Before you start feeling guilty about missing your workout quota for the week, check out a vital missing piece to your total health: your nervous system.

Far beyond the benefits of any other work-out, having a balanced, functional nervous system is critical for a long, healthy life. Your muscles and joints move you through gravity. Your cardiovascular system pumps the blood to deliver oxygen and nutrients. And your nervous system pretty much takes care of everything else.

Your nervous system calls all the shots. It carries messages to and from your brain to allow your body to function. And I mean ALL your body’s functions are controlled by the nervous system: your senses, your thoughts, your movements, your digestion, when you’re hungry, when you poop, how you sleep (or don’t), when you laugh, cry, feel, see, react, dream, play …. Get it? Your nervous system is the big boss that interprets your experience of the world and allows you to interact appropriately. (emphasis on appropriately)

Unfortunately, our current culture subjects us to a barrage of internal and external stressors from the moment we wake up to when we lay our head down to sleep. It’s the nervous system’s job to help us cope with those stressors; how successfully you cope depends on your functional range.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “fight or flight” mechanism, also called the sympathetic nervous system. That’s been hard wired into us from the early days of life on planet Earth. Back then, that reaction helped keep us safe from predators or marauding rival clans. When the body sensed danger, it increased adrenaline to pump the blood away from the core, into arms and legs, so we could fight or run. It heightened our senses so we could see and hear potential threats in our surroundings. And when the danger passed, we shook it off and resumed cave life around the newly discovered campfire.

Today we don’t have to worry so much about saber-toothed tigers, but the new stressors are a bit more insidious. Kids late for school, angry bosses, erratic drivers cutting us off, even those sneaky internal critics that get us “shoulding” on ourselves – they can all pile on to create a recipe for constant, low-level stress that keeps us in fight or flight, even when we think the day is done and we can relax.

The opposite of fight or flight is called “rest and digest,” a.k.a., the parasympathetic nervous system. That produces a relaxed state that allows the body to maintain health, primarily by digesting food, delivering nutrients to our cells and promoting healthy sleep, so the body can self-repair and come back into balance.

A resilient nervous system can move back and forth between varying degrees of these two states with relative ease, activating us when needed and allowing us to rest and rejuvenate with regularity. The natural rhythm of our day presents opportunities to cycle through a range of stimuli that keep our nervous systems tuned up.

But, subject yourself to too much stress for too long without rest, and your nervous system’s functional range becomes narrower. Each time the body is stressed beyond its limits, it becomes harder for the body to come back into balance. We can effectively get stuck in fight or flight. When that happens, sleep and digestion suffer, which can set off a chain reaction of symptoms: from brain fog to leaky gut, insomnia to chronic pain.

Here are some signs that your nervous system might need attention:

  • Sleep issues (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or awaking not feeling rested and refreshed)
  • Digestive upset (poor appetite, indigestion, problems with elimination)
  • Emotional triggers (road rage, disproportionate reactions)
  • General feeling of nervousness, anxiety or fear
  • Overall fatigue, lack of energy or motivation
  • A feeling of being “tired and wired” at the end of the day
  • Weight issues: gain or loss, or an inability to lose weight even though you’re dieting

The good news is human beings are resilient. If you are suffering from an over-taxed nervous system, there are habits you can adopt to help increase your functional range. The first step is to find what works for you – what relaxes you? What feeds your soul? Then do that thing – a lot!

Here are a few suggestions for easy ways to activate your parasympathetic response:

  • Breathe – it may sound silly, but when you are under stress you really can “forget” to breathe. Notice your breathing throughout the day. Do you sigh a lot? Do you catch yourself holding your breath? Deep belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the primary control for the parasympathetic response.
  • Do Yoga but only if it relaxes you. Some people get stressed out by worrying they’re doing it wrong.
  • Laugh – also stimulates the vagus nerve. Why not try laughter yoga?
  • Take a long hot bath – preferably with Epsom salts (for muscle tension relief), and perhaps some essential oils to stimulate the relaxation response.
  • Take a walk in nature. You don’t have to do a strenuous hike, just a stroll in the park can help lower blood pressure and calm thoughts.
  • Get a massage – research has shown that, beyond the obvious relief of pain and muscle tension, massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Connect with friends. Positive social interaction has been shown to support healthy nervous system function.
  • Meditate / Pray / Practice Gratitude – these all connect mind, body and spirit to make you feel calm and in balance.

Meditation, connecting with nature, laughing with friends, receiving regular massage or other bodywork — no matter what brings you joy, taking regular steps to nurture the rest and digest function can help to re-tune your nervous system, increase functional range and come back to balance.

So, what are you waiting for? Take the guilt out of self-care and create your own Stressed-Out Work Out. Your body will thank you for it.

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