Stuck In The Sympathetic Nervous System

nervous systemThe last few post were laying out the particulars of the nervous system. Today we will look at what happens when the nervous system doesn’t work as designed. Homeostasis is the end result of a well-tuned nervous system doing its thing. This means that the sympathetic nervous system (excitation) and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation) are working well in tandem to both stimulate and inhibit the actions of the physical body.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is a concept that was first developed by a gentleman who runs a trauma center in Brookline, Mass named Bessel van der Kolk. The essence of PTSD is that certain people, when placed in stressful environments find it impossible to relax out of the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.  What should be a complimentary engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system fails to happen or have any effect.

If someone thinks or feels, for good reason or not, that the danger they perceive is not only imminent but omnipresent and not going away, there is no reason why the sympathetic nervous system will ever take the body off of a high state of alert. This can lead to trouble of all kinds—debilitating pain, uncontrollable rage, organ trouble, sleep disorders and more.

This is what it means to be stuck in the sympathetic nervous system. The world outside is one that presents conflict and danger at every turn and the body lives in a heightened state of readiness for the next assault on the senses.

From my perspective we are all traumatized to one degree or another and I think most people would be shocked at the extent of traumatic stress disorders and the number of people who are living stuck in their sympathetic nervous system. It is one price to pay for living in the modern world.

What I do in my walking program is turn people on to the psoas muscle which I think is both the main muscle we use for walking but also the main muscle when it comes to warehousing trauma within the body. The first exercise that I teach almost everybody is Constructive Rest Position, a true gift to the planet. Constructive rest position is a gravitational release of the psoas that in and of itself can bring a great deal of ease to an uptight body.

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Fight or Flight: The Sympathetic Nervous System
  1. Yea, constructive rest is awesome. In some treatments with stressed out clients I spend some time with myofascial stretches through the abdomen area to loosen not just the psoas but the muscles and structures connected to it, such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and other cores muscles & aponeuroses.

    There’s a great pelvic floor release where the client is basically in constructive rest and, holding the clients knees almost in an embrace, we lift the fascia of the abdominal aponeurosis & rec-abdominis superiorly and hold it there for anything up to a couple of minutes, until we feel a release.

    Clients report they can usually feel the stretch all the way through to their sacrum.

    Teaming this with controlled diaphragmatic breathing can stretch all the way through in a loop back to the posterior diaphragm.

    Thanks for your article! Next time I’m trying to describe the link between psoas, stress and constructive rest, I’ll add this to my resource list. 🙂

    – James M, RMT

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