Guest post written by: Mike Ritter
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part 1.
“The opposite of love isn’t hate. The opposite of love is indifference.”- Steven Pressfield
Creating allostatic balance in our lives requires an understanding of stress itself and its various forms. There are two types of stress responses that are important: Acute and Chronic
Acute– Ball up a fist. Put your fist on your sternum, and then give yourself three good punches to the chest.
Do it one more time, and this time really give yourself three more. Harder. 1, 2, 3,.…Good.
That’s acute stress. It’s hard, it’s quick and then it’s over. If you did it correctly you’ll feel the room temperature rise and maybe some tingles on your skin. Those hard punches were interpreted by your body and brain to trigger a sympathetic response which we will talk more about later. Do not worry, very soon your body will return back to normal and that’s the work of your parasympathetic system. Acute stress is great unless you keep punching yourself in the chest continuously.
Chronic– Now, I want you to flick yourself in the same spot on the sternum 10 times. You didn’t quite get the same sympathetic response as the 3 punches did you? The finger flicking compared to a punch wasn’t acute enough to create the same sympathetic response.
Next, I want you to flick yourself in the chest again but, this time, continue doing so for the next 17 years.
Psychologically, the stressor can be barely noticeable at first. You may even get accustomed to the minor annoyance to the point where you won’t notice it. In a short deal of time you’ll eventually form a red mark on your chest. Then that red mark will darken, then a bruise will form, open up and finally bleed. Because the rhythmic flicking will become habitual, you will forget you were lightly flicking yourself altogether. The increase in pain will be so gradual your SNS won’t be alarmed to perform any defensive response such as fight, flee or freeze. This is chronic stress
Two sub-categories of acute and chronic stress are Distress and Eustress:
Distress- unhappiness or pain : suffering that affects the mind or body
Eustress- moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer.
Eustress can be described as the feeling an athlete gets before game time. The lights are on and he/she is getting the “butterflies.” They are feeling the effects of stress that help them rise to the occasion and elevate his/her level of play to a higher level than they can achieve in practice. They will experience a euphoria which elevates mood, cognitive speed, awareness and athletic performance.
Distress can be associated with feelings of desperation, defeat and hopelessness. A soldier held captive overseas experiences distress. They are hungry, in physical pain and tired. Upon capture, they felt heightened sympathetic response similar to the athlete before game time. Now after months in captivity they’ve gone far past the point of elevated cognition and strategy and will experience a decrease in motivation, cognition and athletic performance. The longer the soldier stays in this state, the more difficult it will be to return to normal.
In the training world, these are things we are ultimately attempting to balance. The truth is, the reason no one training method works for everyone is because each individual, at the time of your tenure, possesses a relative bias specific to their current state. No two people are exactly the same. But why? If genetically speaking we are all 99% identical, how could there be such a difference in athletic gains? Well, trying to propose the answer to that question is simple, it’s like saying hurricanes are just drops of water. Clearly they are much more complex than that. Human bodies are a lot like hurricanes. These amazing storms are technically just made of water but I’ve never seen a glass of water knock over an entire city. It’s the complexity of the storm system that makes the water powerful. Allostatic balance works almost the same way. Although different hurricane systems have many similarities, they all possess unique strengths and weakness which evolve throughout the storms short life span. The human body is amazingly similar and there’s a lot left to be learned, but there are two things we do know; we are extremely adaptive and we are always in flux.
Allostatic balance isn’t represented as the Sympathetic Nervous System and Parasympathetic Nervous System in complete 50/50 balance but as two systems constantly in flux, alternating, and balancing one another from opposite ends. They take turns like two boxers dancing back and forth purposefully alternating between offense and defense. They work together but are never in complete congruency. In people, personal life, relationships, jobs, sleep schedule, diet and exercise routine are factored in to each person’s SNS/PNS state of balance and dominance. It has been suggested that a person’s personality also factors into their stress response.
The Sympathetic State A primitive example of the sympathetic state is a predator vs. prey scenario. Imagine yourself on vacation in Aruba taking your first deep sea scuba lesson. The salt water is very cool but your suction cupped wet suit keeps you warm. When you began, you were nervous about breathing through an air hose and a mouth piece but now you’ve been underwater for 3 minutes. You have a patient instructor and everything’s ok as most of your fear of the deep blue is slowly going away as you begin to become more comfortable. The scenery of sea life is overtaking your imagination. Below your floating body, you see beautiful coral and schools of fish which are different shades of golds and blues, shining fragments from the warm sun from above. You are finally relaxing and enjoying yourself watching their casual nature. Out of the corner of your eye you see something you did not expect and neither did your instructor. A hammerhead shark swimming from your right closing in from 40 yards away. Your heart begins racing, blood vessels constrict elevating your blood pressure, cortisol and adrenaline production goes through the roof and your muscles are filled with glycogen. You freeze and begin thinking of a way out. The resistance of the water holds you back from moving your arms fast enough as you begin to panic. The hammerhead takes a left turn towards you and you can begin to make out some scratch marks on the left side of its body and all you can hear are the bubbles coming out of your mask. Because your body is in a flight mode unnecessary non-essential systems dial down or nearly off. When you are fleeing from an unknown predator you are farthest from thinking about reproduction, pondering the meaning of life or eating a giant meal. You’re brain and body has made a switch to elevate the most basic of necessities only, surviving a potential attack which requires speed, reactive cognition only and only the essential fuel to do so. Inside the brain the hippocampus releases instructional hormones to the pituitary gland which then streams instructions to the lymph node and adrenal gland to release adrenaline and glucocorticoid in to the blood stream. When your sympathetic signals are elevated your cognition is also appropriated towards the part of brain responsible for logistics and strategy; the limbic brain. You, the scuba diver, don’t have time to ponder the meaning of God or analyze modern art or you die. You have a specific need and your sympathetic nervous system turns on the necessary signals to get it done. This is made possible by the parasympathetic nervous system pulling back allowing room for the SNS to do its job. There’s a balancing act at play here.
Sympathetic dominance and it’s problems. Symptomatically, a major difference between you (the human) and a primate like a gorilla is that once a gorilla has escaped an attack and the scenario is calm again, it returns to normal a normal state of stress fairly quickly. It goes back to it’s next meal, laying in the sun or finding shade. Humans on the other hand are cursed with a blessing called the imagination. We don’t need to see a hammerhead/lion/robbery to imagine that it’s there. Unlike the gorilla, we possess the ability to ask ourselves “What if a lion attacked me?” This poses a problem that is unique to us because the thought of a stressor can actually trigger the same response as a real life attack given the vividness of thought. Don’t believe me? I want you to close your eyes. Imagine a time when you were bullied when you were a kid, or a frightening childhood memory. Think of where you were, who bullied you and what they said. As you go through the dialogue and scenery in your head do you feel the old emotions come back? Do you feel tightness in your chest and did your breathing become shallower? You are feeling the effects of the sympathetic nervous system being turned on and the parasympathetic being turned down. This is a pretty awesome gift because it allows us to imagine, plan and predict scenarios and stay one step ahead of our challengers/predators. It is a curse because when turned on for a long period of time this sympathetic dominance begins to degrade your health. And we have the ability to have it turned on for long and sometimes unnatural periods of time.
In a constantly stressed state, vessels adapt to constriction, becoming muscular and therefore maintaining an extremely narrow diameter, requiring larger amounts of blood to be pumped through them naturally increasing blood pressure. This can happen even in a seemingly uneventful scenario. This is the prefrontal cortex at work which we will talk about in the next section. Appetite suppression is a common symptom of sympathetic dominance. Have you ever noticed at work you can go hours on end working on an important pressure packed project without eating much of anything at all? Low libido and arousal are other symptoms of sympathetic dominance. It is not uncommon for older males in very stressful professions to suffer from low testosterone, both men and women can suffer from low estrogen levels which is an antioxidant preventing a number of cardio vascular diseases and atherosclerosis. Due to the seemingly never ending supply of cortisol mobilized glucose, many sympathetic dominant people will retain “stubborn belly fat” as a result. People with stressful, low ranking jobs or stay-at-home parents are at much higher risk of developing health issues related to stress induced sympathetic dominance.
The Parasympathetic State
The attack is over and you’ve escaped. You’re a very lucky scuba diver for having survived one of the most dangerous of predators. Everything is intact and life can calm down. The SNS turns itself down and the parasympathetic nervous system signals your blood vessels to open in diameter decreasing your blood pressure. Breathing slows down which slows your heart rate, and your digestive, reproductive and heightened brain activity return to normal or heightened state. When primates like gorillas, with no social pressures, return from a sympathetic state they return to a very naturally low stress life.
A parasympathetic state can be reached in a conscious and unconscious state, and therefore can even be achieved during sleep. It can also be achieved through an external stimulus such as a change in environment, foam rolling, massage or a purposeful internal stimulus such as meditation.
Parasympathetic dominance- There aren’t as many chronic health diseases associated with low stressed individuals, possibly because we don’t have very many in that population. As illustrated in section 1, culturally we don’t champion the parasympathetic state. There are very few training facilities with the slogan “Meditate like a champion tonight” on their walls. There are some dangers with becoming parasympathetic dominant though. Should you think this is a clearance to stay away from stressful movement based training, weight training or high intensity training, think again.
In a deep parasympathetic state your heart rate drops and blood vessels relax. In a constant parasympathetic state low blood flow to extremeties can result in a lack of oxygen, nutrients and all of the benefits of strong blood flow. Your metabolism wanes and you can easily slip into a catabolic state which ultimately deteriorates muscle tissue.
A Buddhist monk who masters deep meditation may possess great understanding of their purpose in life but may have a great deal of trouble dealing with physical threats or performing difficult tasks in a timely manner. If your health goals involve fitness, then physical fitness is a big part of the equation. Without sympathetic training you become susceptible to injury, suffer from low metabolism, and lose proper nervous system function in adverse situations. In the case of the scuba diver, you tapped into your well prepared fight or flight system to escape a dangerous situation. Without that capability, you would be toast. Aside from a fight or flight, most animals have a third option to use in a defensive situation: freeze. Think of another animal like a turtle, in a scuba divers’s situation. Most turtles aren’t physically matched for their predators; they aren’t fast enough to flight, not strong enough to fight, so they default to freeze. Possums famously default to freeze, thus the well-known phrase “playing possum.” Humans have all three capabilities installed from birth ready to use. Freeze isn’t your best option in most dangerous scenarios though. But freeze is a useful observatory function when unpredictable scenarios arise. Just like walking a tight rope, or experiencing an earthquake for the first time, an unfamiliar situation will trigger a freeze.
Parasympathetic dominance can be just as harmful as sympathetic dominance, just in different ways. This is like being able to exhale but not inhale. This parasympathetic dominance poses a problem because our immune, muscular and glycolytic systems suffer. Threats are real for all of us, and unless you exercise the fight and flight systems, your body isn’t able to handle the overload when it is needed. Again, we don’t live in a world that provides these stimulations naturally on a regular basis. We have to take time to provide the stimulus. As far as physical threats go, it’s best to stay prepared. You shouldn’t live in fear, and the best way to manage fear is to prepare. Preparation builds confidence, and confidence allows you to be more relaxed and focus. It comes full circle.
Humans Thrive on Volitility
For this reason human beings do not do well in the middle ground. That is why the sedentary population have so many chronic health issues continuously connected with chronic stress. Although on a day to day basis this population may feel that they are staying away from danger they are actually allowing all of these healthy systems that are the foundation for human health and vitality to fall asleep. When some people stop eating animal protein, their bodies stop producing digestive enzymes responsible for breaking down complex animal proteins simply because they are not needed. Elite athletes, such as Usain Bolt allocate so much of their time to develop enough synapses in the brain to perfect a movement cycle that they lack optimal synapses in other tasks. Here is a famous yet painful video of Usain Bolt playing basketball.
The interplay between the SNS and PNS loses flexibility the same way if it is not used consistently. Dominance in one will lead to an inability to use the other effectively. Essentially when these systems are not exercising to the end points of their capabilities they are slowly going to sleep when they aren’t used often. The interplay between these two systems might be the most human part of us all. They make up our limbic system which starts with a portion of the brain which ultimately controls self preservation and reproduction of a species, endocrine function, and response to stressors. We live in a world where our fight or flight is rarely ever challenged naturally and the parasympathetic nervous system is undervalued due to a society hell bent on long work weeks and demanding workloads. You must create opportunities to exercise these systems. There are a number of chronic health issues directly correlated with SNS and PNS dominance.
- Low/high testosterone
- Low/high estrogen
- Poor sleep patterns
- Decreasing or low athletic performance
- Joint pain
- Low metabolism
- Poor mood
- Poor physical fitness
- Loss of muscle mass
- Vericose veins
At a purely human level, your ability to flexibly stimulate your SNS and PNS is a strength that goes far beyond your muscles. By deliberately practicing sympathetic and parasympathetic training into your lifestyle, you are giving yourself control of your longevity. The more well-known benefits of sympathetic training (high intensity) include: self-defense, injury prevention, strength performance, heightened metabolism, and endorphin/dopamine production. Also purposeful parasympathetic training promotes hormone regulation, mental clarity, increased libido, creativity, sense of purpose, sense of connectedness and more healing of the sympathetic nervous system to run at an optimum level. Even if you’re hell bent on competing at a high level of sport, the benefits of parasympathetic training will enhance your ability to thrive in the sympathetic. Allostatic balance and flexibility is a skill, and skills only develop with frequent practice. With the current state of our civilization which is very sympathetic dominant, the more the parasympathetic is practiced, the deeper you may dive into sympathetic and parasympathetic responses and you can eventually possess control over their use.
It may take a person 20-30 minutes to switch over from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic but those who are practiced can achieve it within minutes. Massage therapist Ryan Destafano says that roughly roughly 45 out of 50 people he sees on a weekly basis take the full 20-30 minutes to show signs of the parasympathetic activation. Oddly enough, most of these people are in the working class 25-45yr old age range. “People who are younger and older than that tend to respond quicker. It may be that people younger than 25 have a better physiological response and the older clientele tend to be more mentally relaxed. But it really seems to depend on their lifestyle, personality and state of mind.”
Stay tuned for Part 3.