Stress- it’s not all bad

We’ve all finished on a Friday afternoon, come home, got our comfy clothes on and poured a glass of wine to commence the recovery between work that we call the weekend. But how can we use stress to our advantage? Hear me out, after all, it’s stress awareness month.
The word stress triggers us to think of negative things, being late for work, change in energy bills, traffic, but what if I tell you, in some circumstances, stress is good! In fact, every species on Earth have evolved due to all kinds of stressors. Exposure to small doses of acute stress can be beneficial. This is a phenomenon known as Hormesis. In simple terms, hormesis describes ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. There are certain things we can do to get these beneficial hormetic responses, which we’ll explore later. Today’s blog will focus on the difference between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems and provide a couple of tools to stimulate both with the aim of building resilience and recovering from stress.

Sympathetic Nervous System

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Fight or Flight’. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is your fight or flight response. It is there to respond to acute stressors and give you a boost of helpful hormones, energy, strength or speed when you need it. It is your very own superhuman switch within you. This fight or flight response is characterised by an influx of adrenaline, specifically noradrenaline from the adrenal glands causing an increase in heart rate, redirecting blood flow to the muscles, dilating pupils and dilating bronchioles (in the lungs). The effect: a primed and focused individual like Michael Schumacher going round the track in his prime. This innate response isn’t designed for today’s modern world chronic stressors. Our ancestral genes weren’t designed to deal with the M1 at rush hour. Chronic stress has a large negative effect on our overall health.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the system that helps stimulate ‘Rest and Digest’. Think relax and ‘zen mode’, the PNS is the system that lets us go from the Hulk to Dr Bruce Banner, from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde. When stimulated, the PNS stimulates certain nerves in the body, specifically the Cranial nerves, Spinal nerves and the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut and works as a bi-directional communication link between the two, this is known as the gut-brain axis. This is one of the reasons why the gut is known as the ‘second brain’. Activation of the PNS can influence our mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. The major issue with modern-day living is that we live with a vast number of added stressors in our lives (work, relationships, noise pollution, traffic- I hate the M1) resulting in us chronically being in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
What we want is the ability to manipulate both nervous systems for us to improve our resilience to stress, increase our focus and attention and be able to fall into a rest and digest state quicker. Below are a couple of tools that can be used to consciously activate the SNS and PNS to build resilience and reduce stress.

Building resilience and using stress to your advantage- Hormesis

A few examples of positive stressors include exercise, cold, heat and the sun. By giving your body a healthy dose of the above can result in an acute stimulation of the SNS. Depending on the activity, this can induce positive hormetic responses that build resilience to stress. One way to build resilience to stress is exposing yourself to the cold.

Temperature can be a stressor, if you’ve ever gone to Bridlington and got in the sea, you’ll know what I mean. Definitely not the same as the Mediterranean! However, cold exposure has been shown to increase resilience to stress, increase endorphins, therefore improving mood and increase noradrenaline (helping us focus and learn). It also helps convert beige fat to brown fat by creating new/more mitochondrial cells (energy power plants), resulting in more energy being burned throughout the day! You don’t need to be in cold long and if you’re not used to cold exposure, it’s better to build up to longer bouts. A little protocol to try below:

  • Cold shower/Ice bath
  • 2-3x a week
  • Aim for 3-4 mins per exposure
  • If you’re not cold adapted, start with smaller bouts (30 seconds) and increase by 10 seconds per week until you can withstand longer.
  • What temperature? – uncomfortably cold, where you want to get out but can stay in safely!
  • If you have any form of medical condition or health complication, always consult your doctor for medical advice prior to participating in the above activities.


Letting go of stress through the parasympathetic nervous system

There are many ways that people relax and that sense of calm you feel when relaxed is due to activating your PNS. A free method that we can all use to reduce stress is changing the way we breathe. Breathing is powerful. Long exhales and other breathing techniques stimulate your PNS which helps you relax, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, reduces anxiety, reduces blood pressure and helps clear your mind. There are many different breathing techniques, but this one protocol below is known as ‘box breathing’.

Box breathing, is a technique used when taking slow, deep breaths. This is a simple breathing exercise that anyone can do that takes a short amount of time and involves breathing and holding your breath over certain time periods. The slow breathing and holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the Vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. By inhaling through your nose, you also produce Nitric Oxide, which dilates your blood vessels, improving oxygen circulation and produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. Here’s a box breathing protocol you can try below:

  1. Fully exhale through the mouth, getting rid of all the oxygen in your lungs.
  2. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, for 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  4. Exhale slowly and deeply through the mouth, for 4 seconds.
  5. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  6. Inhale again for 4 seconds and repeat sequence.



Paul Rudd, Health and Wellbeing Coach at Trinity Medical Centre primary care network

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