The Autonomic Nervous System Part 3: Maintaining Balance

Thus Far

In the first two parts of this series, you've looked at the Fight, Flight or Freeze and Rest and Digest responses in your body.

Both are important. Fight, Flight or Freeze keeps you alive in dangerous situations, and gives you energy when you exercise (the so-called "runner's high" comes from an adrenaline rush.) Rest and Digest allow you to do the work of thriving: growth and repair.

One or the Other

You can't use the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems at the same time. Your body has to choose between the two. What this means is that if your body is in Fight, Flight or Freeze more often than necessary, you lose out on your ability to Rest and Digest. 

Stress in Present-Day America

Remember how in Part 1 you learned that many modern day stresses are interpreted by your body as threats, and it reacts by turning on Fight, Flight or Freeze? So...chances are you are in Fight, Flight, or Freeze more often than necessary, and losing out on your time to Rest and Digest. 

Not having time to Rest and Digest makes healing harder.

Oy vey. Chances are you can't get rid of traffic jams, your screaming kid, or your moody boss. So what CAN you do to turn on Rest and Digest? Plenty.

Rest and Digest's Secret Weapon

Fight, Flight or Freeze is mediated by your spinal cord (thoracic and lumbar regions, if you are curious) - the signal "THREAT!" only has to make it to your spine for your body to turn on Fight, Flight or Freeze. Your brain is not part of the equation. This allows for the quickest response during an emergency.


Rest and Digest is mediated by your sacral spinal cord AND your brain. That last detail is *super important.* It means that you can use your brain - your willpower - to turn on Rest and Digest when you want to.


Training Time 

You can train your body to override Fight, Flight or Freeze if your brain realizes that the situation does not require it. For instance, you can teach yourself how to be calm during gridlock, while watching your kid meltdown, or dealing with another one of your boss's unreasonable demands. Are those situations stressful? Sure. But do they have to be? Not necessarily.

Do not pretend to be calm - while on the inside you are a mess - but  call on your training so you can really be calm, inside and out, when a difficult situation arises. You probably have heard of this before - it's stress management.

Switching between the Two

The key to finding balance - the unique balance that works for you at this stage in your life - is that

You want your body to be able to switch quickly and efficiently between Fight, Flight or Freeze and Rest and Digest.

Don't be discouraged if you go to a yoga class or get a massage and then walk out and almost get hit by a car. Yes, you are no longer in Rest and Digest - but the fact that you can react quickly to a threat is a sign that your nervous system is working properly. Once the threat has passed, you want to go back to Rest and Digest efficiently. That is why taking yoga, getting massages, or doing meditation are so helpful - they train our body in Rest and Digest, so that over time, we are able to switch into it more quickly.

The Take-away

Figure out what activities gets you to a state of Rest and Digest, and put them at the top of your priority list. Rest and Digest is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

To get there, you may use one of the techniques listed above, or something else, maybe a particularly enjoyable hobby: gardening, playing your favorite instrument, woodworking. 

How do you know you are in Rest and Digest? One simple sign is that your belly begins to gurgle. That is the "Digest" part in action.

By encouraging Rest and Digest, not only will you feel better in the moment, it will train your body to spend more time there, giving you additional resources to heal your pain.

And healing your pain is exactly what you want to do.