The autonomic nervous system, its effect on recovery and performance

“Sure you can go zero to sixty, but can you go sixty to zero?”

A loved one begins choking during a meal. You react suddenly and precisely to clear their airway. Your heart is pounding, and it takes a while for it to settle down after.

You are waking up early, and working long hours to meet the demands of your professional and family life. Running on fumes, caffeine and purpose. You are sleeping the bare minimum to fit it all in.

You are pushing through a high intensity training session and need muster the will crank out one more rep, one more mile, or one more minute.

In all these situations your body follows you through physical and mental challenges, and allows you to rise to the occasion, despite the possible costs.

The ability to quickly react to sudden demands, emergencies and work through fatigue is part of what keeps us alive. It’s also part of what makes us feel alive. This “zero to sixty” ability is useful for survival in high demand situations, but staying at “sixty” will inevitably lead to burnout, injury or just decreased mental/physical performance. Prolonged or constant function at “sixty” does not allow us to recover for the next event/day.

For that, we need need to get back down. We need to go “sixty to zero“.

Enter the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is the portion of our nervous system that regulates and synchronizes our organ responses to the perceived demands of our environment/situations. The ANS regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, and vasomotor  activity amongst other things. It has two main separate portions/responses; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system can be viewed as the Fight, Flight or Freeze reaction. This is what readies us for survival in perceived stressful/demanding situations. In short it causes vasoconstriction of most blood vessels of the body, with the exception of the skeletal muscles, heart, lungs and brain. The result is directing blood away from organs not necessary for survival, and increasing blood flow to organs needed for intense physical activity.

The parasympathetic nervous system can be thought of Rest and Digest. It is what returns us to a state of ease and recovery between moments that require heightened attention. The action of the parasympathetic nervous system is essentially complimentary to the sympathetic nervous system, and redirects blood flow back to the organs necessary for recovery and digestion.

This is pertinant because some folks will either stay to long in a sympathetic state, or be unable to leave it all together. This causes a variety of symptoms/ problems, ranging from:

  • Excessive muscle tension, particularly around the neck, shoulders, and back
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart/respiratory rate, increased blood pressure
  • Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Panic attacks, heightened vigilance
  • Digestive issues

The potential deleterious effects on our rest and recovery with this are obvious. But if these are reflexive responses, how are we to wrangle some sort of control over unwanted or prolonged sympathetic states?

One solution lies in our breath. Breathing is the only autonomic process that we can consciously control/effect. It is our access window to the nervous system. As respiratory rates increase, so does our  blood pressure and heart rate to synchronize with it. In fact, many of our systems will synchronize their states with others in order to attain a homeostatic state. As one increases or decreases, so do the others.  Thus, as our respiratory rate decreases, so does heart rate and blood pressure. It is here that we can have a useful effect.

Try the following exercises to experience this:

Exercise A:  If you want to jack yourself up and create an adrenalin release (sympathetic) forcefully inhale in quick succession:

“SNIFF! SNIFF! SNIFF!

Watch a video of this HERE

Exercise B: If you want to bring yourself down, calm, back to a resting state (parasympathetic), take slow breaths. Emphasize a prolonged, full exhale, prolonging a pause before inhaling again.

“Breath in, pause (1,2), breath out fully, pause (1,2,3,4,5, 8 if you can). Repeat”

Watch a video of this HERE

Congrats! You just went up, and you just went down. Zero to sixty and back again.

Breathing is not the only passage to a parasympathetic state. Massage, a day on the beach or sitting by a campfire, laughing with loved ones, and the emotional release of crying are all common ways to get you the same point. But notice the next time you are experiencing some of the above how you let out big, long exhales as the tension leaves you. Respiration changes as your state changes. This has been known for centuries, and modern medicine is just beginning to peak under the hood. The control of ones breath is a central component of yoga, tai chi, and most forms of meditation. This is arguably a large part of why so many people feel the enormous benefits of these activities.

Typically I will meet folks for symptoms of pain/weakness/stiffness associated with physical limitations. At times, especially when these symptoms are chronic or recurrent there will be a notable component of a persistent sympathetic state, characterized by a heightened respiratory rate, high levels of muscle tone, and other varying levels of distress (poor sleep, anxiety, digestive issues, etc). Quite often in these cases, it is necessary to return them to a state of parasympathetic rest, and teach better control/regulation of their sympathetic responses.

The sympathetic response/state will likely always be there when you need it, but for some of us we will struggle to leave it, and for a few they will struggle to not live there. Learn to to return to a parasympathetic state of rest and recovery, and learn to do it often.

Breath in, pause, breath out fully, pause longer.

References:

  1. Courtney, Rosalba “The functions of breathing and its dysfunctions and their relationship to breathing therapy” International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine 12 (2009) 78-85
  2. Posturalrestoration.com

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