A friend quotes her son, who says that our immune systems are failing because we have been in isolation. I respond that it’s not isolation: it is stress. Anyone who is not stressed by the addition of war to a pandemic needs to have their head examined. Why does stress mess up our immune systems?
We have two main systemic states: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic is the high stress, fight or flight, muscles fired up, gut on hold, and unfortunately we have a pretty sympathetic state culture. Add a pandemic on top of that and then a war and no wonder everyone is flipping out. Parasympathetic is the one we don’t hear about: the happy, relaxed one that likes stupid cat videos and laughter.
Without the sympathetic nervous system, we can survive. Without the parasympathetic, we die.
I have written about how we metabolize cholesterol, depending on whether we are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state. When we are relaxed, or less stressed, we make more sex hormones and thyroid hormone. That is parasympathetic.
When we are in a crisis, or more stressed, we make more adrenaline and cortisol. That is in the sympathetic nervous system arousal state.
A pain conference I went to at Swedish Hospital took this a step further. They said that chronic pain and PTSD patients are in a high sympathetic nervous system state. The sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight state. It’s great for emergencies: increases heart rate, dilates air passages in the lungs, dilates pupils, reduces gut mobility, increases blood glucose, and tightens the fascia in the muscles so that you can fight or run. But…. what if you are in a sympathetic nervous system state all the time? Fatigue, decreased sex drive, insomnia and agitated or anxious. And remember the tightened fascia? Muscle pain. The high cortisol level also is not good for the immune system, so we are more likely to get sick. High cortisol also raises blood sugar and the immune system is hyperalert. We are more likely to develop autoimmune disorders.
When we are relaxed, the parasympathetic system is in charge. Digesting food, resting, sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation, urination, and defecation. So saliva, tears, urine, and bowel movements, not to mention digesting food and interest in sex. And muscles relax.
If the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, how do we shut it off? I had an interesting conversation with a person with PTSD , where he said that he finds that all his muscles are tight when he is watching television. He can consciously relax them.
“Do they stay relaxed?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” he replies, “but my normal is the hyperalert state.”
“Maybe the hyperalert state, the sympathetic state, is what you are used to, rather than being your normal.”
He sat and stared at me. A different idea….
So HOW do we switch over from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state?
Swedish taught a breathing technique.
Twenty minutes. Six breaths per minute, either 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out, or 6 in and 4 out. Your preference. And they said that after 15 minutes, people switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state.
Does this work for everyone? Is it always at 15 minutes? I don’t know yet. But now I am thinking hard about different ways to switch the sympathetic to parasympathetic.
Slow walking outside. No headphones! We need to listen to the birds and wind, watch the trees, really look at nature. All of the new sensory input relaxes us.
Rocking: a rocking chair or glider.
Breathing exercises: 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Work up to 20 minutes.
Massage: but not for people who fear being touched. One study of a one hour massage showed cortisol dropping by 50% on average in blood levels. That is huge.
Playing: (one site says especially with children and animals. But it also says we are intelligently designed).
Yoga, tai chi, and chi kung.
Whatever relaxes YOU: knitting, singing, working on cars, carving, puttering, soduku, jigsaw puzzles, word searches, making bean pictures or macaroni pictures, coloring, a purring cat, throwing a ball for a dog…..and I’ll bet the stupid pet photos and videos help too….
My patient took my diagrams and notes written on the exam table paper home. He is thinking about the parasympathetic state: about getting to know it and deliberately exploring it.
More ideas: http://www.wisebrain.org/ParasympatheticNS.pdf
Add the ongoing “culture wars” here in the states to the list of stressors
Yes, I understand.