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WHAT IS SYMPATHETIC OVERDRIVE?
We find it helps our patients to understand the basics of this balance, so stick with us while we nerd out a little. There’s a part of our nervous system that regulates involuntary processes called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). It can help to think of it as the “automatic” part of your nervous system.
The ANS has two modes. The “Chill” mode is when we’re relaxed and happy. It is often called the “rest and digest” mode. The “Go, Go, Go!” mode is for when we need to protect ourselves or tackle something challenging. You’ve likely heard the phrase “fight or flight.” That’s this mode.
Sympathetic Overdrive is like pressing the panic button when there’s no real danger. It’s when our control center gets a little too excited and starts sending out signals even when they’re not needed. More specifically, some doctors define Sympathetic Overdrive as the body maintaining a prolonged state of stress lasting 12 or more weeks. Now, let’s chat about why this happens, why it’s not always a good thing, and how you might recognize it in yourself.
THE UNBALANCING ACT
Imbalances can arise from chronic stress, lifestyle factors, or other external pressures. Factors such as work demands, personal relationships, or environmental stressors can contribute to an overactive Sympathetic Nervous System and an underactive Parasympathetic Nervous System. Think about how much the following may have played a role in your life over the past few weeks… or months…. years?
Big Worries: When you’re super worried about something, your system can misinterpret it as a big danger. It doesn’t matter if what you’re worried about is actually dangerous. Your body can’t tell the difference. It presses the ‘panic!’ button anyway.
Little Stresses: Even small stresses, like a not-so-smooth morning routine or a disagreement with a friend, can have an effect. Not each little thing on its own, but together, they can amount to a Big Worry. Compartmentalizing can be a great tool for problem solving, but its downfall can be that in seeing each little stress as manageable, you forget to give credit to their accumulation.
Not Enough Rest: Our systems often need more rest than we want to believe! If we don’t get enough sleep or take breaks, it can get worn out and start overreacting. At LMMT, we specifically note the behavior of “pushing through.” When you start to get tired and decide to push through, your body gives you a little punch of adrenaline to help out. What did you think that “second wind” was? We suspect this starts to confuse your body into pumping adrenaline when it’s time to rest.
Chronic Dehydration: Did you know that dehydration can cause your body to enter into a stress state? Life has enough actual stressors! Let’s not add stress load by skimping on our water and electrolyte intake.
HEALTH ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH SYMPATHETIC OVERDRIVE
Everyone has stress right? So why worry about the level to which you worry? When the Sympathetic Nervous System dominates for extended periods, it can unfortunately lead to serious negative consequences. Excessive and prolonged stress is associated with:
Chronic Heart Failure
Type II Diabetes
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Prolonged stress can also lead to Oxidative Stress which is associated with many other medical issues, including:
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
We’re not saying to stress about these things (you don’t need another thing to worry about!). Our goal is to enable a healthy level of awareness so that if you do find yourself in Sympathetic Overdrive, you can understand the importance of creating a plan to rebalance as life allows.
ARE YOU IN SYMPATHETIC OVERDRIVE?
Being attuned to your body and emotions is crucial for recognizing signs of imbalance- hopefully, sooner rather than later. Common indicators include persistent feelings of stress, anxiety, digestive problems, difficulty relaxing even in calm environments, and more! See how many symptoms you check off:
Increased Heart Rate: One of the most common symptoms in sympathetic overdrive is an increased heart rate. The key here is that it is increasing at what seem like inappropriate times.
Altered Breathing: Your breathing might become faster or shallower as though you’re going up a flight of stairs, even when you are sitting still in a non-stressful situation. It’s like your body is preparing for action, taking in more oxygen to fuel itself. But for what?
Nervous Stomach: Have you ever felt those butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? That can be another side effect of sympathetic overdrive. Your body is redirecting blood flow to the muscles, getting ready for action. Unfortunately, this can leave your tummy feeling a bit queasy.
Emotional Rollercoaster: Your emotions can take a wild ride when Sympathetic Overdrive kicks in. You might feel jittery, worried, depressed, or even a bit grumpy. Or maybe you just seem to have tears at-the-ready. It’s crucial to understand that these emotions are just the control center being a bit too overprotective.
Chronic Pain: Have any pain that just won’t go away? Sympathetic overdrive can make pain stick around longer than it should. One reason is because staying in Overdrive can result in higher inflammation levels in the body.
Brain Fog: When we are stressed for long periods of time, it can become difficult to process information. While brain fog on its own does not mean you are in Sympathetic Overdrive, when coupled with other symptoms, it can point to long-term stress as the root issue.
Adrenal Fatigue: Your adrenals release a special hormone called cortisol when your body is in alert mode. It helps manage stress. But when we’re constantly in sympathetic overdrive, the adrenals often work overtime and might get tired. You can talk to your doctor about adrenal support supplements which can help temporarily while you try to rebalance your system. Beware of using them to feel better while you just “push through” though! You may set yourself up for an even bigger crash in the future.
Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep: Sympathetic Overdrive might also affect your sleep, making it harder to get a good night’s rest. Remember, your body is turning on its “Go, Go, Go!” mode at inappropriate times. This might be while you’re trying to fall asleep or while you’re sleeping. Do you get up to pee at the same time every night? If there is a pattern to it, it is unlikely you actually have to use the bathroom, and more likely your body is firing off adrenaline like bad clockwork. Once you’re awake, you pee. So, it’s just easy to assume that’s why you woke in the first place.
Compromised Immune System: When your body is overworked, your immune system gets suppressed and weak. This one can seem tricky though. We sometimes see patients get sick less during prolonged stressful periods. Don’t be fooled! Your immune system is still getting pulverized. As you exit Overdrive and the adrenaline fades, you’re left more susceptible to illness. It can take a little while to rebuild your immune system, so help it out if you can with extra sleep, breaks, vitamin C, zinc, and antioxidants.
If you notice yourself saying “that’s me” to multiple of the above, you may be in Sympathetic Overdrive.
DON’T PANIC! MAKE CHANGES INSTEAD
We do not recommend panicking if you find yourself in Sympathetic Overdrive. It happens. Sometimes, life needs a lot of us for a while whether it’s personal or professional. We encourage maintaining awareness of these periods as best as possible so that you can be proactive as best as possible. Here are some helpful recommendations:
Heal your Vagus Nerve. There is more and more information out there today on giving your Vagus Nerve the support it needs. In our clinic, we love using Frequency Specific Microcurrent to support our manual therapies as we help create an ideal environment for the body to heal itself. In our experience with patients, it works quickly, and immediately supports better sleep, breathing, and relaxation as well as a gentler emotional rollercoaster.
Hydrate! Again, there is no sense in adding stress to your body just because you need water.
Eat lots of antioxidants. While the role of antioxidant therapies is still being studied for major diseases, why not give your body a little extra support now with extra berries, apples, peaches, carrots, green teas, etc.
We realize a lot of people struggle with prioritizing their care. You’ve probably heard the saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s true. And in our office, we remind our caregivers to “Take better care of yourself so that you may better take care of others.”