Fast- paced modern life is not for sissies. With continual social and work demands, 24/7 connectivity and media overload from videos, billboards, the internet and even cell phone spam, we shouldn’t be surprised when our nervous system gets out of whack.
Modern life, explains Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde, has resulted in “a near constant activation of our nervous system, processing sensory information and making constant choices, without much break”.
She adds, “Just because we’ve become used to a hectic lifestyle doesn’t mean it’s healthy or that our nervous system has adapted as rapidly as technology has evolved.” When your nervous system is out of sync, so are you!
‘I can’t switch off’
Neuroscientists often describe the nervous system as your body’s master computer. It continually regulates a myriad of functions and processes to keep you alive. But unlike a “real” computer machine that cleverly powers down or goes into “sleep” mode when you’re not using it, your mind and nervous system don’t actually do a great job at switching off.
Many of the clients who visit Dr Linde’s psychology practice say, “I can’t switch off”, “If I’m not busy, I feel like I’m not being productive”, or “I don’t know how to switch off, even when I’m on holiday.” Sound familiar?
Now be honest. You probably like constant input and stimulation, even if it sometimes drives you crazy. Don’t believe me? Dr Linde suggests trying to sit quietly for two minutes just listening to your breath and focusing on nothing.
Unless you’re a meditation guru, she says chances are that “at the slightest sound or distraction, your mind will soon start wandering off and seek stimulus”. So what are the main lifestyle culprits that are most likely to unnerve our nervous system? Stress, injuries and chronic pain top the list.
Don’t underestimate the impact of stress on your life! Did you know that stress-related factors cause 85% of all disease or illness, according to The American Institute of Stress (AIS)? Dr Bradley Kobsar, functional endocrinologist and clinical director at San Jose State University’s Health and Wellness Care Centre explains that when your body is under stress, the nervous system responds by increasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
“When you face danger, your hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland. This triggers your body’s stress response to release a hormone called Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).”
After ACTH has signalled the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, several physiological stress responses deal with the immediate danger. Once the threat has passed, other systems restore normal functioning in the body.
The problem arises when stress is prolonged or chronic, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This occurs when your body’s stress response continues after a threat has subsided or when your source of stress is constant.
“The same nervous system chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival. This causes a lowered immunity and prevents digestive, reproductive and excretory systems from working normally,” remarks NIMH in an online article.
According to Dr Kobsar what happens with an ongoing stress response is that it pushes your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, producing “harmful chemical waste that unbalances hormones, causes free radical damage and disintegrates nerve cells”.
You’re unaware of these automatic processes until you notice signs like hyperactivity, restlessness, muscle tension, pain and inflammation, mental fog, fatigue, weight gain and cardiovascular stress.
Some people are prone to having a nervous system that goes out of sync easily. Your body’s framework (bones, muscles, ligaments and joints) does a good job of protecting your nervous system, but unfortunately, any of these elements risk tearing, fracturing, excessive stretching or inflammation.
When this happens, it can irritate the nervous system, causing injuries like pain, muscle spasm, loss of sensation or movement. Ignoring an injury or not taking care of it soon is unwise, since it’s likely to get worse, not better! A dysfunctional nervous system can cause narrowing of the spinal canal (stenosis) or narrowing of the spaces between your spinal discs, chronic pain or loss of mobility.
We’ve all experienced pain at some stage, that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) says is “associated with actual or potential tissue or cell damage”. But chronic pain that persists longer than it should is another thing altogether.
Remember, pain is very complex. It’s also subjective, so only you know exactly how pain feels when you experience it. Both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system are involved in your perception of pain. In the peripheral nervous system, nerves and receptors pass on messages to your brain via the spinal cord.
When various parts of your body experience trauma or damage, special nervous system receptors called nociceptors pass on this information to your brain, which interprets these signals as pain. Chronic pain happens when injury or disease to nerve structures, abnormal body functions or degeneration causes these nociceptive signals to transmit continually.
This triggers an unhealthy action that allows pain signals to be sent more easily. In the process, even non-nociceptive types of nerve fibres can be “hijacked” to send signals along with the ones supposed to be doing the job. Don’t take chronic pain lightly; it may play a role in causing depression, decreased physical activity and even body ageing.
Calm your nerves!
If you want to avoid a long-term toll on your nervous system, you need to change your lifestyle. It’s not always easy, but once we accept that self destructive habits not only affect our mood and health but also the way our brains function, we’ll be able to do something about it, says holistic psychiatrist Dr Larry Momaya of USA-based Amen Clinics that specialises in neuro-psychiatry.
As we recognise the value of stilling the mind, it’s no coincidence that previously “alternative” health practices like meditation, mindfulness and yoga are gaining popularity in mainstream health, says Johannesburg clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. She remarks that studies of the mind-body connection have shown these methods to be “very beneficial for physical and mental health, as well as for concentration and memory”.
The most important thing, say mental health experts, is to find what lifestyle changes work for you. Their advice is not new; you simply need to look at it with new eyes.
That means reducing your commitments if you’re overloaded, doing de-stressing activities or hobbies you enjoy, watching what you eat, getting enough sleep and staying physically active with regular aerobic exercise.