In my line of work as a physical therapist, I work with people whose bodies and brains think a bear is chasing them. Quite literally. No, they don't come into me with sweat pouring down their face in frenzy. It’s subtler than that.
It’s the fight-or-flight nervous system response gone bananas and not turning off when it should. This presents as a series of bodily reactions that typically occur under duress.
We all know the feeling — if you are driving down the road and see a police car behind you with its lights on and siren blaring. It picks up speed and pulls up closer to you. This moment triggers chemical, organ and muscular reactions, which help us quickly respond to this impending doom. Our pupils dilate, heart rate increases, adrenaline is released, blood is deterred from our digestive track, and muscles contract. Our body is made ready to be on high alert.
This high-alert part of our nervous system is called the sympathetic nervous system. It works beautifully in short-term stress situations, such as those moments when we have to engage in combat, run or hide. It diverts blood from unnecessary immediate bodily functions, such as digestion of food, to more important areas, such as muscles.
The problem is when the system turns on and doesn't shut off. It is active when it shouldn't be. This is caused by prolonged stress or, very commonly, long-term pain. The brain is made to believe that it is under continued duress because of chemical changes that occur long-term in the brain. Our brains and nervous systems are “on” too much and don't have a chance to breath, to heal.
On a daily basis, part of my job is to explain this to my clients. Unfortunately, sometimes people’s pain has gone on for months and months or years. I take notice of muscular spasms. Shortened breaths. Difficulty relaxing. It is the sympathetic nervous system on overdrive.
In our go-go-go, on-on-on culture, the ability to relax and renew has been lost.
With phones and technology, our brains can't differentiate a stressful text message from a bear chasing us across a prairie. So, that brings us to rest and digest — the other part of our nervous system that we ideally want to spend the bulk of time in. This is called the parasympathetic nervous system.
Somewhere along the line, we've forgotten how to really breathe.
Guiding my clients with cues for how to do abdominal breathing, we often chuckle about re-learning how to breathe. Not the survival breathing, the short breathes that arise from our shoulders. That is the fight-or-flight breathing. But rather the abdominal breathes that send a message to our brain that it is OK to rest and digest.
If you've ever watched a young child breathing as they sleep, their stomachs rising and falling with each breath — this is the model breathe cycle.
Each healthy breath triggers hormones and chemical responses made for rest and digestion. Muscle spasms quiet, heart rate slows. The nervous system is brought toward homeostasis.
Kodiak resident Zoya Saltonstall is a mother of two and a physical therapist. She loves black labs and chocolate.