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  • Writer's pictureDezerrae Sanchez

Why do our emotions affect our bodies?

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are two branches of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions. These systems play a crucial role in regulating our physiological responses to stress, and their impact on mental health is significant. Understanding how the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems function can shed light on their effects on mental well-being and provide insights into managing stress and promoting overall mental health.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's "fight-or-flight" response, which helps to prepare us to respond to perceived threats or stressors. When activated, it triggers a series of physiological changes aimed at preparing the body for action. The sympathetic system releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, increases heart rate and blood pressure, dilates pupils, and diverts blood flow away from non-essential organs toward skeletal muscles, providing a burst of energy.

While the fight-or-flight response is very important for survival situations or being in an episode of Naked and Afraid, chronic activation of the sympathetic system can have negative consequences for mental health. Prolonged exposure to stress and elevated sympathetic activity can lead to increased anxiety, irritability, and heightened emotional reactivity (meltdowns). It can also contribute to physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, and sleep disturbances. Therefore, finding ways to manage and reduce sympathetic arousal is vital for maintaining mental well-being.

The parasympathetic nervous system acts as a healthy counterbalance to the sympathetic system by promoting relaxation and restoration. Often referred to as the "rest and digest" response, the parasympathetic system helps restore equilibrium in the body after the stress response has subsided. It helps to lower the heart rate, promotes digestion, and enhances the body's ability to repair and regenerate.

Activation of the parasympathetic system is associated with a sense of calm, relaxation, and overall well-being. Practices that stimulate the parasympathetic response, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness, can help reduce stress, anxiety, and improve mental health. Engaging in activities that promote relaxation, such as spending time in nature, practicing yoga, or engaging in hobbies or enjoyable activities, can also enhance parasympathetic activity and contribute to overall mental well-being.

The balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is crucial for maintaining optimal mental health. When the sympathetic system dominates and remains constantly activated due to chronic stress, it can lead to a state of sympathetic overdrive, resulting in anxiety disorders, chronic fatigue, and mood disturbances. Alternatively, when the parasympathetic system is underactive, individuals may experience difficulties in relaxation, sleep disturbances, and a reduced capacity to cope with stressors.

Fortunately, there are several techniques and practices that can help regulate and balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, leading to improved mental health:

1. Mind-Body Practices: Mind-body techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are effective in activating the parasympathetic system and inducing a state of relaxation. These practices can help reduce stress, anxiety, and promote a sense of calm and mental clarity.

2. Physical Exercise: Regular physical exercise has been shown to have numerous benefits for mental health, including the regulation of the autonomic nervous system. Engaging in aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, or cycling can help reduce sympathetic arousal and promote parasympathetic activation. No motivation? That’s ok. Start slow, walk down the block, walk up and down the stairs a few times, park a bit farther from the store entrance.

3. Sleep Hygiene: Adequate sleep is essential for maintaining a healthy balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Prioritize good sleep hygiene by establishing a regular sleep routine, creating a conducive sleep environment, and practicing relaxation techniques before bed such as progressive muscle relaxation.

4. Social Support: Cultivating strong social connections and having a support system plays a role in managing stress and promoting mental well-being. Engage in meaningful relationships, seek emotional support from trusted individuals, and consider joining support or hobby groups to enhance emotional resilience.

5. Stress Management: Implement effective stress management techniques in your daily life. This may include practicing time management, setting boundaries, engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy, and seeking professional help when needed.

In conclusion, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems play a significant role in mental health. An imbalance between these systems can contribute to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. By understanding their functions and incorporating practices that promote parasympathetic activation and reduce sympathetic arousal, individuals can cultivate resilience, manage stress, and promote overall mental well-being.


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