Taking a Deep Walk in the Parasympathetic
Dave Fisher, LMT
What is the parasympathetic state? It is our body’s "deep processing" healing state of heart, mind and body. It is our body’s inner antenna that guides us to healing by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, deepening respiration and breathing, and reducing high of beta brainwave activity (highly focused thought) while increasing alpha, theta and delta waves (diffused, relaxed, creative, dream-like thoughts). Thus, the mental state of the parasympathetic is relaxed focus and receptivity. This mental state is conducive to creativity and inspirational insight. The parasympathetic also activates our immune system to maintain the long-term integrity of our body; initiates digestion in order to effectively process food and absorb nutrients as well as a host of other regenerative systemic responses. These responses allow our total self (body, mind and spirit) to relax, be nurtured and heal. It is the job of our parasympathetic state to restore balance to our lives (physiologically, emotionally and spiritually) so that we can be open to life abundant.
The parasympathetic is our body’s natural resting state – and birthright. It is the state which is meant to be our norm. Unfortunately, that "norm" has been redefined by the rigors, demands and stressors of our society. Our new "normal" state is now our "sympathetic state" -- high alert and tension.
By design, the sympathetic tension state is a short-term survival response. In the blink of an eye, this state readies us for action. Whether that means swerving out of the way to avoid a collision on the highway or meet a project deadline, the sympathetic state focuses our attention like a laser beam with high-beta brainwave activity, speeds up our heart rate, diverts blood away from the internal organs to muscular extremities (so that our reflexive responses work at their optimal best), shuts down the digestive and immune system (after all, those are long-term "programs" of the body and not needed for this short-term need) as well as many other physiological response that reconfigures our system to deal with the current demand facing us. It's a pretty amazing response. It is an effective short-term response to situations that demand high alertness and quick, decisive actions. And if we could then immediately "step down" this DEFCON 1 reactionary response when the threat was over, then all would be well. Our bodies would return to the parasympathetic, restoring balance through the removal of various stress hormonal "messengers" (such as adrenaline), lowering our heart rate, dilating blood vessels and restoring nutriative flow to internal organs, activating our immune system, and so on. But this typically does not happen. Instead, we live an a highly competitive dog-eat-dog business and economic environment. Top dogs are rewarded and applauded. Aggression in the name of national defense is lauded as the only sensible course of action. Domestic violence soars. There is always one other deadline, one other crisis, threat or fear and our stress response stays "on guard."
And, ironically, the healthiest state with which to confront and solve these challenges (the parasympathetic) is the very one that is not active when we need it most. Instead, the fearful, adrenaline induced, highly focused "all options narrow to one" is active and influences all our decisions, both individually and nationally, and those choices come down to one of two choices: fight or flight. Sound familiar? These are the reactionary states which are informing our decisions and perpetuating the problems they attempt to solve, both on the personal as well as societal level. They keep us combatative when what we need is cooperation. They keep us emotionally depressed and anxious when what we need is hope, insight and love.
The stress state has become so commonplace that many of us are not even aware of the amount of tension that effects our moods, our thoughts, our organs, our tissues and muscles - indeed every aspect of our life. We are like a frog slowly dying in boiling water. Thrown directly into hot water, the frog will immediately jump out. But if the heat is gradually turned up over time, the frog will continue to try to acclimate to the stressful environment until, finally, not realizing the danger it is in, dies. We are that frog. We do not realize the danger that we are in since we gradually try to adapt to more and more stressful and toxic environments. This attempt to adapt to the boiling water comes at great cost to our emotional, spiritual and physical well-being and is ultimately doomed to failure.
Quality of life erodes, slowly and imperceptively at first, and then more rapidly as many wonder why backs break, or we can't sleep well, or we keep getting sick, or we start taking more and more anti-acids for heart burn (remember, the digestion system is taken "offline" during our sympathetic stress response), or begin experiencing depression or anxiety or systemic failures such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.
So what happens if we are constantly in situations that initiate our sympathetic stress response? How can we truly heal and restore balance? What are the long-term ramifications of habitually asking our bodies to initiate our sympathetic nervous state? They are compromised soft tissues (achy, sore and tight muscles), a depressed immune system (and, consequently, susceptibility to disease), a depressed digestive system and inability to maintain digestive balance and a general emotional, mental and spiritual erosion of life and well-being.
We need solutions that enable us to spend much needed time in our parasympathetic relaxation state. It is time to recognize that the ability to live fully and deeply is within our grasp if only we pull off the harried high speed raceway of the sympathetic and spend time every week, every day even, in the restorative state of the parasympathetic. And when we do, wonders await. Time seemingly slows as balance and perspective is restored to our lives. Our energy level increases. Our perceptions and lens with which we view the universe widen and, suddenly, there are vistas of wonder, soaring mountains and deep oceans. The internal din and claxons of the sympathetic state quiet and the calm song of your heart begins to murmer messages of insight and life purpose. This is your place of stillness. And it is through the deep walk in your parasympathetic that you find this sacred, holy ground. For your own health, for your life, take that walk right now.