An overactive sympathetic nervous system, also known as the body’s fight or flight response is closely linked to fibromyalgia. Any perceived threat or stressful situation can trigger the fight of flight response. The fight or flight response is designed to help us function in emergency situations. It is meant to be a response that only lasts a short time and then turns itself off. With fibromyalgia, the fight or flight response gets stuck in the “on” position playing havoc with our body, our emotions and our ability to think clearly.
Increased activation of the fight or flight response is associated with poor sleep, fatigue, poor cognitive function (brain fog), anxiety and depression. Recently researchers have also found a direct correlation between our fight or flight response and fibromyalgia pain.
The overactive fight or flight response in fibromyalgia is linked to a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system.
Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system which controls involuntary functions. These functions include breathing, blood pressure, digestion, heart beat, bladder function and narrowing or widening of the blood vessels.
The ANS contains two branches, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Both of these systems control the same group of body functions, but they have opposite effects on the functions that they regulate.
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is the one that controls the “fight or flight” response, also known as the acute stress response. It is our body’s automatic response that prepares the body to “fight” or “flee” from perceived harm or threat to our survival.
When activated, the fight or flight response causes a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones to pump through our body. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure, dilates pupils, restricts circulation, slows down digestion, relaxes the bladder, and makes us more alert. It also provides a boost in energy so that we are capable of dealing with the stressful situation effectively.
While the stress response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly, it wears your body down when constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect. It counteracts the stress response. The PNS brings the heart rate and blood pressure back to normal, constricts pupils, improves circulation, enhances digestion, calms us down, contracts the bladder and puts us into a state of rest and relaxation. It conserves energy and can be summarized by the phrase “rest and digest”.
When the autonomic nervous system is functioning as it should, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work in harmony to maintain balance in the body. The sympathetic nervous system helps us respond to stress and then the parasympathetic nervous system restores us to our normal state.
In fibromyalgia and many other chronic illnesses, this autonomic balance is impaired with an excessive sympathetic nervous system response and underactive parasympathetic nervous system response. So now the question is, how do we turn off our fight or flight response? Is it even possible?
Can We Turn Off The Fight or Flight Response?
Most of us have heard of the fight or flight response, but have you heard of the “relaxation response”? The relaxation response is a term coined in 1975 by a pioneer of mind-body medicine, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School. The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the fight or flight response.
The relaxation response is a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm and focused. When the relaxation response is activated:
- Your heart rate decreases
- Breathing becomes slower and deeper
- Blood pressure drops or stabilizes
- Your muscles relax
- Your body begins to heal
In addition to its calming effects, the relaxation response increases energy and focus, relieves aches and pain, heightens problem-solving abilities and boosts motivation and productivity.
We can turn “OFF” the fight or flight response by turning the relaxation response “ON”.
A variety of different relaxation techniques can help bring your nervous system back into balance by producing the relaxation response. Many of these techniques can be incorporated into your regular daily schedule. There is no single technique that works for everyone. Read about the relaxation response next and you will find tips on how to find the right technique for you to turn off your fight or flight response.
Do you practice any relaxation techniques? If so, what have you found works for you? If not, are you thinking about it?