Stress and the sympathetic nervous system

People talk about adrenal fatigue: what is it that they mean? And how can we address it?

When we are relaxed, or less stressed, we make more sex hormones and thyroid hormone.

When we are in a crisis, or more stressed, we make more adrenaline and cortisol.

The 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.

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 last week, 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.

Meditation.
Slow walking outside.
Rocking: a rocking chair or glider.
Breathing exercises.
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…..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

I like this picture of Princess Mittens. She looks as if she has her head all turned around. Isn’t that how we get with too much sympathetic and not enough parasympathetic nervous system action?

Adverse Childhood Experiences 6: Reactivity

I hear people say, “Why is this person so reactive?” “They are suspicious.” “They just aren’t nice. Why can’t they be nice?”

When I get a new patient in clinic who is not friendly and looks suspicious at my questions and is not warm, I do not react. I assume that this person has been hurt and has a past that has a lot of dark in it.

Recently I was talking to a person about chronic pain. We were nearly out of time and I was describing Adverse Childhood Experience scores.

“I have the highest possible score,” he said.

I said, “I believe you.” and waited. He had my attention.

He did not want to tell me about it and he knew we were out of time. “I ran away to live on the streets when I was six.” he said flatly.

I said, “Yes, if things were that bad, I think you would have the highest possible score.”

That was the end of that visit. I gave him the link to the CDC website about ACE scores and studies and set up a follow up.

But think about that. He ran away at age six and lived on the streets. Not with a sibling or a parent or an adult. He was by himself.

He told me a little more on the second visit. I knew he could read. I pictured street classes under bridges. “How did you learn to read?” I asked.

“The authorities kept picking me up. I would run away from foster care as soon as they placed me. Usually the same day. When I was fifteen, a judge said “If you get your GED, I will emancipate you.” It took me a year and three months, but I got my GED.”

So is this your image of a street person? All losers? All crazy? This is a man who left because the street was safer than home and got a GED living on the streets.

He said, “My life has all been like that.”

I said, “Chronic pain is not exactly surprising then, is it?”

There is a song by The Devil Makes Three with this line: “I grew up fast and I grew up mean, there’s a thousand things inside my head I wish I ain’t seen. Now I just wander through a real bad dream, feeling like I’m coming apart at the seams.” That song speaks to me and speaks about the people who view the world with suspicion and fear and whose porcupine defensive spines are quickly raised if they feel threatened. I do well with them because I am the same way and I mostly don’t react to them. I don’t tell them to calm down. I don’t get scared or angry. I stay present and wait. And sometimes they will tell me what happened to them.

How can any of us blame an adult for their fearful terrible childhood? Instead we need to give them space and not reject them out of hand. All that does is reinforce the damage. I think that people can heal, but we must make room for them and behave ourselves and not react.

The photo is my daughter at the Wooden Boat Festival in 2009.