De-stress: Understanding Your Nervous System


Society today is fast-paced; we are constantly in a hurry and seek instant gratification. With that, lifestyle choices have the ability to take a toll on one’s health. Heightened levels of stress can create a ripple affect not only on oneself, but those around us as well. To be able to maintain balance within a high stress lifestyle, one must first understand the brain's governing body, the Central Nervous System.  

The Central Nervous System's (CNS) two main functions are the "sympathetic" nervous system and the "parasympathetic" nervous system. Both systems play a key role in keeping our bodies and minds balanced in a variety of ways. The sympathetic nervous system controls the "fight or flight" response. This system is dominant when the body is in a heightened state. Heart rate will increase, blood flow will go to skeletal muscles, and body temperature rises. Examples of this include, intense exercise, an important business presentation, or any time the body feels in danger or a state of arousal. Stimuli help the body adapt to situations, but only if it can conversely enter a "rest and recovery state.” This is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. The problem is, most people never fully get out of the sympathetic state. Everyone is constantly being stimulated by external factors like being stuck in traffic, caffeine, high demanding jobs, sitting in front of screens, the list goes on. This can lead to high irritability, elevated levels of anxiety, unhealthy heart conditions, general unhappiness, slow metabolism and even bodily injuries from chronic tightness.  

It is important to make sure ones body is balanced between the two nervous system states. Below are a few practical solutions to get out of a "sympathetic" state:   

1) Monitor caffeine/stimulants: 

Caffeinated drinks are designed to create a heightened sense of arousal. That’s why many of us rely on it throughout the day to stay energized. The problem is, we are constantly "feeding" our sympathetic nervous system every time we drink it, thus experiencing symptoms of anxiety and jitteriness. Start by monitoring your daily caffeine intake and reduce it if you tend to feel some of the above symptoms. Eventually try and do an entire week without it! 

2) Evaluate screen time:  

We live in digital age; everything we do seems to be in front of some sort of screen. Televisions drive a sympathetic response with news stories that are designed and reported to elicit an emotion. Negative stories immediately put the mind into an anxious state and the worst part is, this is how most people start their day. If people are not watching the news on TV, then they are likely scrolling through their favorite social media. These apps are designed to create addictive habits by making users always curious/worried about what others are doing. Additionally, emails are now being sent directly to phones, making it impossible to start and stop the business day. Start by eliminating some of these bad habits from your routine for 3-4 days a week. Don’t reach for the phone first thing in the morning. Only check your email on your work computer. Fill your newfound free time with activities that drive a parasympathetic (rest and recovered) response with the following examples. 

3) Physical and mental practices 

A simple and easy way to recover is enough sleep.  People stay up too late scrolling on phones or watching TV instead of giving the body time to rest and recover. Strive for a minimum of seven hours of sleep and upwards of ten hours if lifestyle allows it.  

Next, focus on developing strong nutritional habits with a balanced physical training routine. Alternate between high intensity training days and low intensity training days. High intensity training drives a high sympathetic response, which is needed to cause stress on the body in order to solicit change. It must be balanced with low intensity work to get the body to rest and recover. After a stressful day, most people like to “burn off steam” with an intense workout, when in reality this is most likely creating an even worse stress or sympathetic state. Instead focus on moderate to lower intensity training and breath work. 

Breath work is one of the most practiced ways to achieve a parasympathetic state. There is a reason those who practice yoga and meditation tend to live lower stress lifestyles. Routines involve focused breathing patterns, which help calm the mind and nervous system. One can emulate a similar state by dedicating five minutes to sit in silence. Practice focusing on breathing with your diaphragm by letting your ribcage and belly expand and contract. If you do not have time, or cannot sit still for five minutes, you are a person who would benefit from this practice the most.  

Below is an example of one’s day to show high stress levels, sympathetic state activities and their cyclical nature: 


-4.5 hours of sleep (sympathetic) 


- Wake up and look at phone (sympathetic) 

-Drink caffeine (sympathetic) 

-Watch the news (sympathetic) 


-Emails, high demanding boss (sympathetic) 

After work: 

-Only high intensity exercise because "I am stressed" (sympathetic) 

-TV and late night phone use, instead of more sleep (sympathetic) 

It is easy to develop bad habits. The first step to a healthier lifestyle is self-awareness. If you find yourself struggling from stress or anxiety, lack of energy, chronic muscular tightness, slowed metabolism, and lack of happiness, try balancing your nervous systems with the small positive changes mentioned above! 


Shaun Kneafsey

Fortitude Fitness

Director of Training