Why you should take a break (like your life depended on it)
As summer begins to wind down it’s easy to get caught up in the back-to-school energy of the fall. But these last two weeks of August are actually a perfect time to relax, unplug, and give your body a rest.
Why? Because taking a break from stress is crucial to our good health.
Fight or flight and the autonomic nervous system
You’ve probably heard the term “fight-or-flight”, which is the body’s reaction to stressful situations. Fight or flight is an easy way to understand what’s going on with our autonomic nervous system (the nervous system responsible for unconscious activity and responses in the body) when we encounter stress.
The autonomic nervous system is actually divided into two distinct nervous systems – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When we experience stress, be it physical, mental, or emotional stress, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, our body is flooded with adrenaline, and the blood flow of the body moves away from the organs and towards the skin.
This reaction is incredibly important, or at least was, when we were out in the woods fighting saber tooth tigers. When we have adrenaline coursing through our veins we have energy and focus, and when blood rushes to the surface we become more highly attuned to and aware of our physical surroundings. When dealing with life-threatening situations, having an engaged sympathetic nervous system is pretty important.
Stress, stress, everywhere
Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’re faced with all kinds of stressers that are nowhere near life-threatening: tight deadlines at work, complicated relationships, the glorification of being busy… we’re also constantly fighting the physical stress of environmental toxins from mass produced products and pollution.
Basically, our cultural sympathetic nervous system has been run ragged for decades, hence a collective rise of exhaustion, anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, and general dissatisfaction with life.
And here’s the kicker: when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged, it means that our parasympathetic nervous system can’t be.
Rest, digest, feed and breed
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” bodily functions. It’s what kicks into gear when we’re relaxed, and what’s responsible for digesting our food. It’s also sometimes called the “feed and breed” response, because sexual arousal is strongly tied to states of parasympathetic engagement.
Here, too, you can see why things like digestive disorders and sexual disorders are on the rise in our society.
So what’s a nervous system to do?
One word: relax.
We need to step away from the phone and television, put work out of our minds, lay off the caffeine (which stimulates the adrenals and shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system), and let our bodies rest and digest for a while.
You have about 2 weeks of freedom and summer left – why not use them to give yourself a break? I’ll be back this week with some ideas on how to slow down, give your poor sympathetic nervous system a much-needed rest, and maximize your health before the stress of fall settles in.
Until then, take a breath. Take a walk. Turn your phone on to do-not-disturb, and enjoy what’s left of summer.