A vivid example of a healthy nervous system can be seen in a cat when it comes face to face with a dog. Immediately the Sympathetic goes on red alert. The whole of its body is mobilised in a fraction of a second. Its fur stands on end, it spreads and straightens its legs, it hisses violently and holds the impulse to scratch the dog’s eyes out until just the right moment. If the dog has enough sense, it sees the futility of a fight and trots off. With amazing speed the cat then finds somewhere to stretch out and starts licking its fur. The Parasympathetic is now taking over.
As humans we have systematically trained ourselves to override the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System), our instinctual life, in favour of a faster, more “convenient” lifestyle. Unlike the bristling, hissing cat, not many of us give full vent to the sympathetic. As a race, we tend to be a little frightened of our instinctual reactions. We do not enjoy our heart racing, our hair standing on end, our legs trembling, and so we tend to tense against such disturbing sensations. This often makes us feel in control, and gives the illusion of security. But we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. If the ANS is inhibited, it will inevitably get stuck in its mode of operation. This does not imply that we should become like animals or small children. It simply means that, in the interest of our health on all levels, we should respect our feelings.
Our conscious mind, or head, should be able to overrule the ANS, or heart, because it is not always wise to do exactly what we feel like doing. And this process works fine, so long as the control exerted is relaxed after the stressful situation has passed. The problem comes when this does not occur. When we continue to hold on and to disallow the ANS its natural functioning, stress is the not-so-natural result. When the Sympathetic is activated it produces a lot of energy which is designed either for fighting the threat i.e., standing up for ourselves, or for running away from it. It is an animal or instinctual response, and it doesn’t matter how rational or intellectual we become, we cannot change the reality of this fact.
Yet how can the natural desire to sleep be honoured when we have to work all the hours God sent and then spend half the night up with the kids? How can we surrender to our bowel movements when there is a long queue in front of the toilet? How can we express the anger and irritation we feel toward our boss when we know it will be cutting off the hand that feeds us? We cannot, and we are not supposed to. Our will power is there for just such emergencies. The healthy use of it is called ‘deferred gratification’. It allows us to hold on to the impulse until we find an appropriate place to express it.
It is a gift to have the ability to control the life that is flowing through us. Stress is the abuse of this gift.
From the book ‘The Relaxation Reflex’ by Robin Sands (sadly now out of print)