Stress and The Body

Katie Watts Renell's picture

In my Mindfulness Mondays class today we discussed the tyranny of stress and the body. Man oh man, do I understand the impact my anxiety can have on my body.  Fearing the worst, it was just recently that I complained to my doctor of having pain in my heart only to find through my EKG that I have a completely healthy heart. It was then that the doctor asked if I’m prone to stress and anxiety…hmmmm…well…

Through meditation I’ve learned just how anxiety prone my body is. Buzzing, shaking, trembling, stomach dropping anxiety, Oh how I love thee. Learning the nuances of my body through meditation, body scan meditations in particular, has been life changing for me. Understanding the neurobiology of stress has also been huge for me as well.

You see, we have this thing called the autonomic nervous system. There are two branches of it: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). If you thought about the two different branches like a car, PNS would be the brakes and SNS would be the gas.

The SNS is the fight/flight response to what we perceive as danger. The PNS is designed to get us back to neutral. This was absolutely necessary to our survival on a daily basis in cave man time. SNS allowed us to run from that saber tooth tiger instead of trying to hug the big fluff monster! The problem is that, living in society as it is today, dealing with traffic, deadlines, family conflict, pressure from your boss, we are dealing with chronic, low level stress. But try telling this to your nervous system! The SNS continues to perceive a threat causing what we call SNS dominance, you know, the shaking, heart palpitating, sweaty, shooting fire from you fingertips feeling? Yep. You’ve experienced the SNS in all its glory. I’m not going to completely hate on the SNS…it’s kept us alive! My problem is we get hit with a tidal wave of anxiety when we sit down for an exam, get stuck in traffic when you’re already running late, dreading to tell your sister that you’re not going to make it to her house for Christmas…that’s when SNS is not so effective.

Originally, when that Saber Tooth Tiger was trying to snack on us, our SNS kept us alive, but now, fortunately, it’s pretty rare for us to be chased around and eaten. As society progressed into the industrialized world that we know it as today, the actual dangers of living became less and less, and were replaced with something new… stress. The SNS never learned to differentiate between a true life and death situation and accidentally hitting send on that text you never meant to send in the first place.

Heart palpitations, stress headaches, insomnia, ulcers can all be caused by the SNS. Fortunately for us, we can use mindfulness to reprogram our poor, confused SNS. When it kicks into high gear, we need to take a step back, notice where we are, take stock of our situation and what we are experiencing. That moment of awareness allows for clear sight and for us to use all of our skills to bring us out of Emotion Mind, and into Wise Mind.