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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fight or Flight

Weekly Kodiak Daily Mirror article-
Fight or Flight

In my line of work as a physical therapist, I  work with people whose bodies and brains think they are being chased by a bear. Quite literally. No, they don't come into me with sweat pouring down their face in a frenzy. Its more subtle than that. 

 Its the "fight or flight" nervous system response gone bananas and not turning off when it should.  This presents as a series of bodily reactions which typically occur under duress. We all know the feeling-if you are driving down the road and see a police car behind you turn on their siren and lights. They pick up speed and pull up closer to you.  This moment triggers chemical, organ and muscular reactions which help us quickly respond to this impending doom. Our pupils dilate, heart rate increases, adrenaline is released, blood is deterred from our digestive track, muscles contract. Our body is made ready to  be on high alert. 

This  "high alert" part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. It works beautifully in short term stress situations.  These moments when we have to engage in combat, run or hide. It diverts blood from unnecessary immediate bodily functions (such as digestion of food) to more important areas (such as muscles). 

The problem is when the system turns on and doesn't shut off. It is active when it shouldn't be.  This is caused from prolonged stress, or very commonly-long term pain. The brain is made to believe that it is under continued duress, because of chemical changes which occur long term in the brain. Our brains and nervous systems are "on" too much and don't have a chance to breath. To heal. 

On  a daily basis, part of my job is to explain this to my clients. Unfortunately, sometimes peoples' pain has gone on for months and months or years.    I take notice  of muscular spasms. Shortened breaths. Difficulty relaxing. It is the sympathetic nervous system on overdrive. 

In our go-go-go, on-on-on culture, the ability to relax and renew has been lost. With phones and technology, our brains can't differentiate a stressful  text message from a bear chasing us  across a prairie. So that brings us to rest and digest-the other part of our nervous system which we ideally want to spend the bulk of time in. This is called the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Somewhere along the line, we've forgotten how to really breathe.  

Guiding my clients with cues for how to do  abdominal breathing, we often chuckle about re-learning how to breath.  Not the survival breathing-the short breaths which arise from our shoulders. That is the fight or flight breathing.  But rather the abdominal breaths which send a message to our brain that it is ok to rest and digest. If you've ever watched a young child breathing as they sleep, their stomachs rising and falling with each breath-this is the model breath cycle. 

 Each healthy breath triggers  hormones and chemical responses made for rest and digestion.  Muscle spasms quiet, heart rate slows.  The nervous system is brought toward  homeostasis. 

Kodiak resident Zoya Saltonstall is a mother of two and a physical therapist. She loves black labs and chocolate.

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