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The Rest & Digest State

You may be aware of the parasympathetic nervous system, or maybe you know it better as the 'Rest & Digest' system?

Lions in the Rest & Digest state
These Lions are Resting & Digesting

Humans, like all animals, live in a constant flow between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. To keep things simple let's refer to these as the 'Rest & Digest' and the 'Fight, Flight, Freeze' states.

Fight, Flight Freeze

The Fight, Flight, Freeze state (sympathetic nervous system) is that feeling you get when you step into the road and a car speed by narrowly missing you, or when you suddenly realise you've missed an important deadline. It's that chest tightening fear. Chills down your back. You turn pale and break into a sweat. We've all felt this from time to time. It's unpleasant but there is an evolutionary reason for it.

Imagine it's the Paleolithic era and you are hunting some gazelles or something.

Suddenly you see a hungry lion racing towards you!

Instantly you go into a Fight, Flight, Freeze state. Hopefully you choose 'Flight' and leg it!

As soon as you see that lion, a number of physical changes occur in you:

  • Your pupils dilate, letting more light in and improving your vision.

  • The heart starts pumping faster, this pumps blood through your body quicker, bringing oxygen to your muscles, allowing them to move faster and for longer.

  • The bronchioles in your lungs dilate. This quickly draws in air, and in particular, more oxygen - again to let the muscles work at their best.

  • Your blood vessels dilate forcing fresh blood to the muscles as quickly as possibly.

  • Several systems slow down and almost stop. The immune system, digestive system and urinary system aren't needed right now so no energy is wasted on these.

  • Your adrenal glands are busy pumping out adrenalin to ensure that now you've started running you keep going until you are out of danger!

Once you've outrun the scary lion and are safe and sound your body quite quickly returns to a more balanced state. Your heart beat slows and your breathing returns to normal.

So this is your Fight, Flight, Freeze state working at it's very best. It can quite literally save your life.

Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system
Modern stress comes in many forms

The problem we have in our modern world is that our Fight, Flight, Freeze state is kicked off by problems such as having a difficult boss at work, fighting with a spouse or struggling to pay the electricity bill.

These are very real problems but, unlike the lion, they can't be outrun. We often have to live with problems that stimulate our Fight, Flight, Freeze state for prolonged periods. Sometimes for years. This can mean that our bodies are held in this physical state of stress for very long periods. This is hardly ideal and can lead to some serious health problems. Remember that in the Fight, Flight, Freeze state our digestive and immune systems aren't working optimally as the body's resources are being diverted away from these systems to maintain the high adrenaline state which allows us to Fight, Fly or Freeze.

"...consider our stress response: if the only time your body reroutes resources from the immune system to your fight-or-flight system is during the occasional sabre-toothed tiger attack, that’s fine. If every mean tweet, upsetting headline or twinge of worry about the mortgage sends your systems into panic mode, your body never gets a chance to recuperate." Joel Snape, "The truth about inflammation"

The antidote to this is helping the body spend more time in the Rest & Digest state.

Rest & Digest

The Rest & Digest state is the exact opposite of the Fight, Flight, Freeze state.

The Rest & Digest State

It is that lovely calm feeling we have when we're doing something that we love. When we happily loose all track of time pottering in the garden on a beautiful spring day. Playing with grandchildren. Hugging a loved one.

These things feel good because they are good for us.

If you have been living in a stressful situation for some time it can be really hard to bring your body back to a state of calm, to that Rest & Digest state. You may need to introduce several new tools that slowly allow you to balance out a little more. This can take time and may feel awkward or difficult at first.

Here are some suggestions that may help to address the nervous system and help you reside more in the Rest & Digest state:

  • Gentle exercises like walking or yoga

  • Massage or other body work. Reiki or acupuncture can bring people great relaxation

  • Meditation

  • Being outside, especially in the sunshine

If you feel like you have been living in a state of stress for too long and would like to see if massage can help you to rebalance your nervous system, please get in touch. I would be very happy to work with you and your nervous system using holistic massage.


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