The Nervous System
HYPER SYMPATHETIC ACTIVATION
In modern culture, the fight or flight state is often activated excessively and inappropriately, and the ability to flip back to the parasympathetic state is weakened or lost. Hans Selye, the pioneering researcher on the stress response, noted that over-activation of the stress response could lead to disease and illness.
While it is important to have a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system states, and to transition easily among the seven fight or flight stages as appropriate to the environment, it's important to remember that the sympathetic nervous system is for responding to situations of immediate physical danger, or for investigating whether or not this danger exists. There is a common misunderstanding that the sympathetic nervous system is active in any high energy state, while the parasympathetic is a low energy state. In fact, it's possible for the body to be both high-energy and low-energy in parasympathetic - to be angry, run, exercise, have a high (regular) heart rate - as well as to sleep, eat meals, and rest; essentially the body do anything in the parasympathetic state that involves responding appropriately to an environment with no immediate physical danger.
Over-Activation of the Fight or Flight Nervous System
Humans have a unique ability to activate the fight or flight nervous system in response to anxiety or tension that comes up in everyday life – frustration at traffic jams or dislike of co-workers or a dissatisfying career – as well as stressful thoughts – the anticipation of negative outcomes or future stressful events, remembering past stressful events, or feeling insulted by someone’s bad behavior, to name just a few examples.
This is an inappropriate activation, as this is not what the sympathetic system – and all the associated physiological and structural changes – is designed to respond to.
Inappropriate activation of the fight or flight nervous system can be problematic for a variety of reasons. One is that activating the nervous system in these situations does not provide the opportunity to relieve the fight or flight response. Physical activity burns off the stress hormones produced during the fight or flight response, thus allowing our nervous system to return to the parasympathetic state if the
danger does not persist. In a true fight or flight situation, we often have the opportunity for a physical response, such as fighting or running away.
At work, on the other hand, punching people, fighting or running away are usually not appropriate responses to the situation, and so in many of these situations we remain sedentary and retain these hormones in our body, which keeps the fight or flight nervous system active for long periods. This means that the physiological and structural changes also remain for long periods of time, resulting in non-optimal functioning of body systems, health impacts, and functional movement issues.
Another reason inappropriate activation of the fight or flight nervous system can be an issue is that, as the body stays in fight or flight for long periods of time, it loses the ability to flip back to parasympathetic quickly and easily, thus perpetuating the habit of remaining in fight or flight.