Fight or Flight: The Sympathetic Nervous System

Sympathetic nervous systemThe sympathetic nervous system is supposed to work with the parasympathetic nervous system to ferry us along a placid river of life. Instead life is often anything but placid and our ability to deal with the storms life hurls at us is often connected to whether or not the sympathetic nervous system can shut off as the storm rages.

Imagine you lived in a war zone, a city on constant alert, basic necessities scarce and the threat of gunfire and bombs every night and sometimes all day as well. Living and waiting for the inevitable violence to rock your world so that you never get to let down your guard even if you never leave your house. To live in this endless state of fight or flight can be crippling to a person.

A great soldier is one whose nervous system is unaffected by the trauma inflicted around him for whatever reason. Think of the Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now loving the smell of napalm in the morning. (It smells like victory). This is a character whose sympathetic nervous doesn’t put really put a damper on the way he experiences life.

Imagine you had a mother or father possessed of a volcanic rage that erupted for unforseen reasons. If you don’t know when it’s coming you can never relax and you begin to live in a heightened state of fear and anxiety. Welcome to a life lived in the sympathetic nervous system.

Imagine you lived in a city… or on a farm… or on an island…life is traumatizing because danger real or perceived lies around every corner and some people deal with that fact better than others. One of my favorite raps is that we are here to be traumatized and develop a support system to allow for the release of the trauma we inevitably come up against.

This connects to something I wrote about fear and parenting last week. As a parent I don’t want to shield my child from experiencing the fear of danger and injury. That healthy experience in a safe environment prepares him for the ugly realities that might come later. But if I say “careful” too much he won’t be nearly as prepared for dealing with things later in life because he was denied having the experience on his own. But I digress…

I manifest my fear in the same way each time. Either a slight pain in the lower back alerts me to danger or a tingling up and down the spine. I remember once walking the 14th street tunnel between 6th and 7th Avenue in Manhattan one night at 2am. I was in the middle of the walkway when I heard a sound coming towards me and getting louder. I didn’t want to turn but I could feel my hackles rise and that feeling creep up and down my spine. I turned at the last second to see a man with a pocket full of change and keys sprinting through the tunnel without a care for me. He passed and my spine relaxed.

This makes sense because where the parasympathetic nervous system comes out of the cranium and the sacrum, the sympathetic nervous system emanates from the spine in the area between the cranium and sacrum.

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Stuck In The Sympathetic Nervous System
Relax Yourself: The Parasympathetic Nervous System
  1. In my psychology class we are learning in our chapter about sympathetic system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In the beginning you mentioned that the sympathetic nervous system is supposed to work with the parasympathetic system. I liked how you used different stories to demonstrate traumatizing events and how they inflict different types of people and situations. I think you used good demonstration. We are learning the the sympathetic nervous system is the body’s emergency system, rapidly activating body system that meets threats or emergencies. Our chapter also talks about what we do when were frightened. You talked about different people handling things different ways. I thought it was really neat how you told stories to demonstrate how the system may work in different traumatizing events.

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