I wrote this for a group of physicians, so it’s heavy on the science. BUT I think everyone can benefit from understanding the difference between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic. Also, we can survive without the sympathetic but not without the parasympathetic.
My essay yesterday was about antibodies to tubulin, what tubulin is and how antibodies work. This doesn’t seem very useful if the only thing we can do about the antibodies is remove them by theraputic plasma exchange or give anti-inflammatories. However, there are other approaches. As a rural Family Physician, I have an ever expanding toolbox that I learn from multiple specialties and patients. Mothers of children with PANS/PANDAS may already have figured out many of these techniques.
Our bodies have two basic modes for the nervous system. The well known mode is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the amped up fight or flight system. When we have a very activated sympathetic nervous system, we make less thyroid hormone and less sex hormones and switch production to more cortisol and adrenaline. This helped me to understand adult patients who say they are constantly tired, don’t want sex, they keep getting sick and they also have trouble sleeping. Borderline low thyroid, low sex hormones, elevated cortisol and elevated adrenaline, though it may be at the upper range of normal. The sympathetic nervous system readies muscles for flight or flight, turns digestion to low, reduces secretions everywhere (eyes, salivary glands, stomach, gall bladder, urine, etc) and tightens fascia around the muscles. Blood pressure and heart rate rise. High cortisol over time is not good for the immune system.
The other mode is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the relaxed system. Digestion and urination works well, muscles relax, cortisol and adrenaline come down, thyroid and sex hormones are manufactured. Blood pressure is lower and heart rate is lower.
The first technique I use to change from sympathetic to parasympathetic is breathing. Swedish hospital is teaching the anxious patients, chronic pain patients and veterans slow breathing. Five seconds in and five seconds out. They recommend building up to 20 minutes over time. If done for 20 minutes, they said that almost everyone calms from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Some people endorse square breathing: in, hold, out, hold, in. I did daily Zen Buddhist meditation facing a wall for 40 minutes during college. This also works and some children might find it an enjoyable challenge. I find Zen meditation easier in a group than alone. I asked a 30 year veteran of the Special Forces to try the 5 in and 5 out breathing because he would find his muscles tight just watching television. He was reluctant, but he returned and said that he is surprised that it works. He also said that he is not used to the relaxed feeling and it feels weird.
Other ways of activating the parasympathetic nervous system for adults include walking, rocking, laughing, magazines seem to love hot baths, anything that relaxes. Playgrounds include places to climb, spin, swing and hang upside down, for children to get a break and play. Again, different people find different things relaxing. During my second strep A pneumonia, an antibody titer came back at 600 with normal being 200 and below. I have read that children can have titers of 2000. I could barely function with a titrer of 600 (off work, obviously) and thought that if my titer was 2000 I would hide under my bed and not come out. I would like input from child psychiatry on downregulating the sympathetic nervous system to parasympathetic in children, but my guess would be that a safe place is very important. Where is that safe place for each child and when they are not having a flare, can they practice going to it in their minds?
Another helpful parasympathetic activity is games or puzzles. My father died leaving an out of date will and a difficult estate. For the year that I worked on it, I did a suduko every day. I could not solve the estate quickly but I could solve the number puzzle every day and that gave me a small window of feeling good and relaxation. Board games or puzzles could work as well. I am less certain about computer games: my understanding is that the visual cortex is activated along with other parts of the brain. This seems more sympathetic than parasympathetic but I could be wrong. The familiarity of a video game may feel very safe and more predictable than the illness. Old movies and reading beloved books is parasympathetic for me. Oddly, sex is parasympathetic in women but both sympathetic and parasympathetic in men. Music can relax many people, and repeating the same music or album over and over. Comics and silly cat videos are parasympathetic.
As a physician, I often acted in a high sympathetic nervous system. A friend of my son’s said, “Your mother is crazy.” My son replied, “No, she’s just intense. About EVERYTHING.” I had to learn not to be intense about everything. We can model relaxation and parasympathetic activity and slowing down for our children, but we may have to set more boundaries at work.
Here is the best write up I have found on the internet about the parasympathetic nervous system: http://www.wisebrain.org/ParasympatheticNS.pdf. They have a great explanation as well as exercises to calm to parasympathetic.
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