One of the most common and long-standing methods told to those that are ‘stressed out’ is to exercise, and usually, to exercise hard. This makes some sense if you look at it, as it would appear that a person that is ‘revved up’ has some ‘energy to burn’ and what better way to get rid of that energy than to do something that is healthy for you, like exercise. Unfortunately, this is one instance where common sense leads us astray and can make the underlying issue much, much worse.
The issue at hand is the erroneous assumption that a person that is stressed out, anxious, revved-up, that can’t relax and/or any of the other numerous symptoms of an overactive central nervous system actually has ‘energy to burn’.
Without getting too far into the biochemistry of it (for a more complete discussion see our 3-part series on Balancing the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems) when a person is under a lot of stress (whether that stress is physical, emotional, and/or psychological in nature) a part of the central nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into high gear. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response that allows us to prepare for what’s coming and act. This is great in the short term as long as we can deal with the stressors at hand and then calm down. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with stress, and often find ourselves in a state of sympathetic nervous systems dominance (also called an overactive central nervous system). Overtime, this SNS dominance causes increased breakdown in the body, severely depleting our reserves and causing immune system dysfunction. Unfortunately, any exercise that can’t be performed comfortably on a full stomach also stimulates your SNS, which increases the breakdown within your body. This is why many athletes and people that workout regularly often suffer frequent illness, poor quality sleep, anxiety, poor digestions and/or increased muscle tension.
But that doesn’t mean that exercise can’t be used to bring balance to the system; it can. You just have to know which exercises to do and pay close attention to the intensity and duration of whatever you are doing.
If you are trying to balance an overactive sympathetic nervous system with exercise, focus on low-intensity exercises such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi-gong, gardening or simply walking or hiking outside. The key is to keep the intensity low (so as to not bring more stress into your system) and focus your energies on what you are doing. This means paying attention – i.e., not listening to music/podcasts, watching TV or doing anything else other than paying attention to what you are doing. Think of it like an active form of meditation.
Doing this low-intensity, highly mindful forms of exercise will calm your system down and allow you to recharge your depleted batteries. Over time, you will be able to pick up the intensity and duration of exercise; just be sure to continue to incorporate some exercise of the re-charging variety every week to keep yourself balanced.