Yes you are stressed! And you probably don't feel like there is anything you can do about it. The situation we find ourselves in globally is unprecedented to say the least and no-one....and I mean no-one knows what the *$#%^# is going on. Whether you are feeling pretty chill and are blessed enough to be financially secure and physically well or whether you're feeling utterly overwhelmed and terrified, I promise you that merely the current unnatural state we find ourselves in is sky rocketing your body's stress response and driving you into sympathetic-nervous system over load and stress loop. As human beings we are not designed to live in isolation (introvert or not) we need to interact with other people, in person. We need to see their faces and feel their energy. This is how we make sense of the world around us. So when we are in a state of isolation, and when we are constantly being fed a fear driven narrative; and this is unfortunately happening whether you follow the media hullabaloo or not. Its happening because that is the subconscious message that is being received by your nervous system when you pop to the shop and everyone around you is masked up and gloved with big fearful eyeballs staring out from under said masks while the squirt noxious chemical sanitizers at you. When you only see others faces on a screen. When all conversations are about fear and uncertainty. When you are bombarded with words and phrases like isolate, stay safe, protect yourself, protect your family, pandemic, quarantine etc, etc, etc. All of this creates a subconscious narrative of fear, lack, isolation, danger and uncertainty....basically a breading ground for a full on sympathetic nervous system party! (if you don't know what your sympathetic nervous system is, please read my previous blog post alchemise-your-nervous-system-to-reduce-stress-and-increase-immune-health.html)
So what does that mean for your health and your sanity.... well you've probably noticed that you're getting tired pretty quickly, or that you just don't feel like yourself or even beginning to feel ill or like you can't cope with even the slightest bit of stress, things that usually would have been no issue are suddenly overwhelming. This is all due to a sudden increase in your Allostatic Load - scary vague term but actually quite easy to unpack. Have a look at this nifty picture, its gonna show you kinda what happens in your body when your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered.
Okay so your brain takes in all of this information, everything you see, hear, feel etc. it then tells your body what it thinks is going on and releases chemicals and hormones (the panic juice) into your body as instructions for certain things to happen. Basically the hypothalamus sends a messages down your nervous system to your lungs to make your breath short, quick and shallow, your heart rate increases, your liver turns glycogen to glucose, your adrenal glands pump you full of adrenaline, your blood pressure goes up, and your digestive system slows down, you release Catecholamines (panic juice basically) your psoas, pectoral and shoulder girdle muscles tighten up ready for action and blood is driven from the organs and intestines to the extremities. Whamo sympathetic nervous system is a go!
The conversation looks a bit like this - Brain "Danger! Danger! I'm switching on your fight or flight mode and releasing the catecholamines" (big word for stress neurotransmitters & hormones aka Panic Juice - Epinephrine, Dopamine, Cortisol, Norephidrine)
Body "Okay! Cool I'm ready, let's go, lemme run, hide, fight, lemme at'em!"
The problem with this dialogue is that it doesn't work in our modern world where the threats are 99% invisible stress caused by the litany and constant bombardment of our environment. This system was designed to keep you safe from predators that wanted to eat you. Now the only thing that's eating you is your internal dialogue trying to make sense of this chaos.
So your Allostatic Load can be thought of as how much crap are you currently packing into your stress bag how much panic juice are you downing. How heavy is your load and what is that load you're carrying 24/7 doing to your physical, emotional and I believe most importantly spiritual health and well-being. The end result of this Allostatic Load getting outta control is that you get sick. Yup its that simple, our bodies simply weren't built for this. I don't care how hardcore you think you are or how badass you think it makes you to be under obscene amounts of stress, you can only do it for so long before this sh1t is gonna hit the fan and your body will collapse into illness. The list of stress induced illness is so freaking long I can write a Russian novel about it. It is by far the biggest threat we face as a society because being under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system and and allostatic overload makes us make crappy decisions, it lowers our ability to think clearly and to reason, it makes us fearful and easily manipulated. You are not yourself in these states and you cannot function from a place of truth and support when you are in this loop.
So break the loop! Step away from the panic juice! its easier than you think!....
if you want to know how please read my previous blog post alchemise-your-nervous-system-to-reduce-stress-and-increase-immune-health.html
Here I give some really simple and accessible techniques to switch off your sympathetic nervous system and switch on your para-sympathetic nervous system so your body and your soul can have a break and you can come back into your power.
If you need more help or info, please contact me, or book a session with me and remember you are in control of your body, your emotions and your health! you might simply need some tools to take your power back!
Love, Light & Alchemy
What is your nervous system and how does it affect your daily well-being and overall health?
The human body is essentially made up of two nervous systems. The Sympathetic Nervous System commonly known as the Fight or Flight system and the Parasympathetic Nervous system commonly known as the rest & digest system, although I like to refer to this as the Calm & Clear system as it is when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant that we are able to respond to life with calm and clarity as opposed to reactive stress driven responses.
Gaining an understanding of my nervous system and how it affected my health and overall well-being was one of the most life changing experiences I have had. Once you gain an understanding of these systems you can begin to take your health back into your own hands and understand how to heal and balance not only your mental health but your physical health as well.
This will not be an in-depth and technical exploration of anatomy and the nervous system rather an accessible explanation of how these two systems affect your life and what you can do to have control and power over which system rules.
Fundamentally our bodies and brain are still quite primitive in the way they respond to stress, when stress is triggered in the brain, it activates the release of a cocktail of hormones and chemicals in to your body, these consist of stress hormones - dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and especially cortisol. This stress hormone cocktail triggers the body to activate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which tells your body that you are in danger and you probably need to run away or fight your way out of this situation; because in our primitive incarnation this would have been the case, you would have been confronted by a predator trying to eat you. So your body prepares you for this by taking blood from the organs and digestive system and diverting it to your extremities so you can run and fight. By speeding up your breath so that you are taking shorter more shallow breaths and as such raising your heart rate. The psoas (hip flexor) muscles as well as the pectoral and trapezius muscles around the neck and chest tighten in preparation for action. These are only some of the effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System being triggered the list goes on and is quite complex but to serve for this post, I will leave it at this. Basically your body does what it believes is necessary for you to survive and it does this with the intention that you will take quick action and either escape to safety or be dead so the intention is never for the body to stay in this state for any extended period of time. But due to the nature of our modern stressors this process no longer looks quite the same. What happens in our modern environment is that the stress is pervasive and mostly mental. It is based in worries, concerns and fears for our financial survival and seldom based on an actual immediate physical threat. So the body doesn’t do what it was designed to, it experiences the rush of stress after the email, or the call from the boss, or the unreasonable dead line, or unexpected bill and instead of using the stress hormone cocktail and running or fighting our way to safety we sit, we stay still in front of our laptop, in the car, in the meeting. Our brain then believes that we have frozen out of fear and to try and save us it sends more of the stress cocktail into our system, and so what is known as the stress loop or Sympathetic Overload or Overdrive takes hold. This state over time results in a litany of physical, mental and emotional maladies, you only have to type “stress related illness” into google to be shocked at what a scourge this is on our human experience, stress is by far the biggest threat and killer we have ever confronted.
BUT there is a simple solution and it's in your hands to access it.
Here comes the hero in this story, your Parasympathetic Nervous System! When the Parasympathetic Nervous System is in control the body returns to normal healthy function, it moves out of survival mode and into thrive mode. Blood circulation normalises, breath deepens and slows, the digestive system re-ignites, the heart rate stabilises and the hormones and chemicals that make us feel happy, calm, creative, clear minded and at peace flood the system. The immune system self regulates by lowering acidity creating a stronger immunity and a more alkaline environment (it is important here to also understand that stress leads to high acidity in the body and all viruses and disease including cancers can only survive or take hold in an acidic environment, an alkaline body cannot sustain disease) This makes us physically healthier and more resilient as well as lowering anxiety and lifting depression.
A simple way of accessing the Parasympathetic Nervous System is by understanding and stimulating the Vagus Nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagal nerve originates in the brain as cranial nerve 10 and is the longest nerve in the body, it travels down the neck and throat and passes around the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen and pancreas. This nerve is the major player in your Parasympathetic Nervous System, which as discussed above is our ‘rest and digest / Calm & Clear system. The name Vagus nerve comes from the Latin for “wondering” as this nerve innervates so much of our body it was aptly named the wandering nerve or vagus nerve.
Ok, so how do you alchamise the nervous system and increase health?
We focus firstly on Vagal Tone. The tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. We measure vagal tone by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when breathing in, and slows down a little when breathing out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation rate and your exhalation rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. Meaning that you are more likely to quickly and more easily switch back into the Parasympathetic Nervous System after stress.
What does that mean for your health?
High vagal tone improves the function of many body systems, causing better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improved digestion via better production of basic stomach and digestive enzymes, as well as reducing stress induced migraines and headaches. Higher vagal tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety and higher stress resilience. One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it essentially interprets and decodes the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. We understand through much research into the connection of the gut in mental and physical wellbeing that the gut microbiome has a direct affect on your mood, stress regulation and overall inflammation, so we want the ability for the vagus nerve to read and interpret these signals from the gut to be high.
What happens to your body if your vagal tone is low?
Low vagal tone is directly associated with cardiovascular conditions and strokes as well as depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and much higher rates of inflammatory conditions. Inflammatory conditions include all autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus this list goes on and on.
So what do you do now?
This is the good news part! You have total control over and access to increasing your vagal tone and activating your Parasympathetic Nervous System on your own, but it requires commitment and regular practice. To some degree, we are all genetically predisposed to varying levels of vagal tone, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t change it.
Here are some ways that you can tone the vagus nerve and switch on your Parasympathetic Nervous System:
Breath: By using a simple 2 to 1 breathing technique you can easily stimulate the vagus nerve and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Simply place your hands on your belly and your heart, then breathe deeply into the belly allowing the diaphragm and lungs to expand for 4 counts and then very slowly breathe out for 8 counts. If you are very stressed already and find it difficult to do a whole 4 counts in and 8 out then starts smaller with 3/6 or 2/4 counts and work your way up.
Movement: Practicing conscious breath and movement based exercise such as yoga and Pilates can hugely assist in increasing vagal tone as well as activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Chanting, Humming or Singing: Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. Chanting OM is a really simple practice that works brilliantly or even just humming a tune you like or if you’re a better singer than me then sing!
Meditation: Personally I believe that meditation is the answer to all life’s questions but a 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that loving kindness meditations such as Tonglen increasing positive emotions leading to increased social closeness (even while social distancing ;-) and an improvement in vagal tone.
Probiotics: Balancing the gut microbiome - the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. By simply taking a daily probiotic the effects and implications for your overall health, and in particular on inflammation are far-reaching. If you suffer from any inflammatory condition, digestive upset, high blood pressure or depression, I highly recommend you investigate your vagal tone.
Stress / Trauma release positions: We’ve known for years that breathing exercises and meditation greatly improve our health, but it is so incredible to learn and understand the mechanism by which they work. To add to these practices we can create a physical feed back loop from the body to the brain to tell the brain that we are not in danger. This can be done by using a simple position such as Supta baddah konasana or bound angle pose. To get into this pose lie with your feet together and your knees splayed apart in a diamond shape, place pillows or supports under your knees so that you are not straining to maintain the position, then let your arms drop open slightly above you with your palms up and hands open, support your head and neck with a pillow. Basically make sure that you are as comfortable as possible in this position and allow the whole front of your body to be open and fully exposed.
Cold Water: By simply splashing your face with cold water or using a jolt of cold water at the end of your shower you can stimulate your vagus nerve. The mechanism here is not fully known, but cold water has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. Check out the Wim Hoff method if you are intrested in a deeper understanding of the study of the effects of cold on the nervous system and your health https://www.wimhofmethod.com/
I hope that by reading this post you feel a little more empowered and feel like you have the keys to begin alchemising, accessing and understanding your physical and mental well-being a little bit better. If you have any questions or need some further assistance or info on any of the subjects discussed here please get in touch with me by using one of the contact sheets on the website.
Love, Light & Alchemy
Gisela is a mother, wife, teacher, medicine woman & creatrix of The Alchemy Movement - on a journey to discover how to best channel her goddess energy and be of service in the most powerful way.