When you’ve found yourself in a stressful or scary situation, you’ve probably felt that ‘woosh’ in your body. Your heart rate accelerates, you start sweating, and your mind stops wandering and hyper-focuses on the situation. This sequence of physiological responses happens because of your sympathetic nervous system.
Knowing how and why your body responds in this way can be very helpful when you’re going through periods of high stress in your life. So, what is our sympathetic nervous system? And why do we need it? Here’s your guide to understanding your ‘woosh.’
What is the sympathetic nervous system’s function?
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is part of your autonomic nervous system, which regulates your automatic body functions, such as heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature.
Your SNS is about helping you respond to stress triggers in your everyday environment. It does this by temporarily prioritizing some bodily functions you may need (such as heart rate and alertness) and deprioritizing others (such as digestion). When you have felt shocked, scared, or stressed, this is your SNS in action.
Our sympathetic nervous system is important because sometimes we need our bodies to have a rapid, involuntary response, especially in situations of danger.
Our sympathetic nervous system is important because sometimes we need our bodies to have a rapid, involuntary response, especially in situations of danger. That’s why our SNS is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ nervous system.
Thankfully, our SNS works in harmony with our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) to maintain the internal balance between our various states of stress and chill, known as homeostasis. It’s important to note that, as with all autonomic nervous system functions, they happen without us being immediately conscious that they are occurring. They are automatic.
Fight or flight nervous system
One of the main ways that our sympathetic nervous system can become activated is due to something referred to as ‘fight or flight.’ This is our acute stress response, which happens when we perceive something to be mentally or physically terrifying.
In prehistoric times, this response was critical because you could often encounter dangerous situations (i.e., a lion or bear) that would require your immediate action – fight for your life or run away as fast as you can. These days, we rarely experience situations of such extreme threat. However, our modern life contains many triggers that can still activate our sympathetic nervous system in this way.
The term ‘fight or flight’ was originally coined in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon when he noticed how the body could mobilize itself when in danger. These days, this concept has been expanded by psychologists to include the following responses:
- Fight: responding to a perceived threat with aggression.
- Flight: responding to a perceived threat by running away.
- Freeze: responding to a perceived threat by becoming immobile, mute, or unable to act against it.
- Fawn: responding to a perceived threat by trying to please people to avoid conflict.
Overactive fight or flight response
It’s not hard to recall moments when you may have experienced a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Perhaps at work (being asked to speak in public or encountering an angry customer), in your personal life (asking someone out on a date or hearing some shocking news), or just walking down the street (having a dog bark at you or encountering an aggressive driver). Any of these situations can trigger our sympathetic nervous system and cause us to respond in one of the above ways.
There is nothing wrong with having a fight or flight response to a scary situation. When presented with an immediate threat, your body was designed to spring into action (or stop you in your tracks). However, some people can struggle with having a ‘fight or fight’ response regularly in their everyday life.
Our modern world is full of tension and pressure, so we often find ourselves having an acute stress response to situations that aren’t actually dangerous or scary.
Our modern world is full of tension and pressure, so we often find ourselves having an acute stress response to situations that aren’t actually dangerous or scary. However, your body may still perceive them that way.
Those living with chronic stress or anxiety may struggle to regulate their sympathetic nervous system, which means, at times, their body may continuously be in ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is why they may respond to everyday situations (such as a work meeting or a conversation with their partner) by quickly becoming aggressive, speechless, or needing to leave the situation.
For those with an overactive fight or flight response, dealing with the source of stress or anxiety is essential for overcoming this issue. They should speak to a doctor or therapist about how to tackle this problem. However, when they feel triggered, they can also focus on activating their parasympathetic nervous system by going for a walk in nature, doing some deep breathing, or light stretching.
Sympathetic nervous system and exercise
When you exercise, your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for physical activity by increasing your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Even thinking about exercise can cause an anticipatory heart rate response. Your SNS also ensures that glucose is released from your liver to give your a boost of energy. Your heart rate will continue to rise in accordance with your exertion during exercise, and then your PSNS will then take over to bring it back to normal once you’ve finished.
Exercise has been shown to reduce hypertension and the effects of SNS overactivity.
In extreme cases, overactivity in the sympathetic nervous system (perhaps for the reasons suggested above) has been associated with cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension and heart failure. However, exercise has been shown to reduce hypertension and the effects of SNS overactivity. So, while exercise may activate your SNS in the present, it actually contributes to your overall health and homeostasis in the long term.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.