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In the last blog post we talked about allostasis - achieving stability through change. In that article we talked about the process whereby the body reacts to a challenge by “ramping up” and reallocating resources so that we are ready for action. We also talked about the need to “ramp down” after the challenge has been met and return to a steady state. Finally, we said that it is important that both the ramping up and ramping down systems are in shape in order to be resilient. But what does that mean? And how do we strengthen those systems?
Let’s start with the “ramping up systems.” These are associated with the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system will prepare your system for action in response to crisis or danger. These changes happen all over your body in response to signals from the brain, but include: dilating pupils, accelerated heart rate, quickened breathing, heightened immune system, resources directed away from our digestive system and instead to our muscles, and the release of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that keep us on high alert.
You’ll notice that many of the above changes involve the heart or lungs in some way. It’s safe to assume that the greater the crisis, the greater demand will be placed on these systems. If those systems are in good shape our adaptive capacity will be greater (1). In other words we’ll be able to ramp up to meet the demand. Researchers also hypothesize that we can increase our personal adaptive capacity to respond to stress (i.e. resilience) by maintaining an active lifestyle with regular exercise. Think of exercise as strength training for the heart and lungs or as building the adaptive capacity (1) of your sympathetic nervous system so that you are less likely to have your systems overloaded. Either way you look at it, your body is better prepared to manage stress. You have more to bring to the moment.
What about the ramping down systems? These are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of these systems as those that are involved with bringing you down from the “ramped up” state back to a steady, resting state. Among many others, the changes in this system would include the slowing of the heart rate and breathing, the directing of resources back to our digestive system, and muscle relaxation. Psychologically, we may experience feelings of tranquility, peacefulness or contentment. Not surprisingly, many of the ways that we support the parasympathetic nervous systems involve practicing relaxation, gratitude, meditation, slow and deep breathing or yoga.
Keep in mind that strengthening the parasympathetic (ramping down) system is just as vital to resilience as the “ramping up skills.” Our system needs to be successful in completing the arc and returning to a steady state, otherwise we will ultimately experience wear and tear on our organs and tissues. (2) Many humanitarians and first responders find that they are quite used to the ramping up process, but have weaker skills for assisting the ramping down. This can be where bad habits like relying on alcohol or sleeping pills enter in as a quick fix for what my body may be having a hard time doing on its own.
Over the years, Don Bosch has frequently described resilience as a discipline. This article provides a few hints as to why. The very fact that our behaviors and practices can either strengthen our whole biological response to stress or undermine it, should signal to us that resilience is much more than just a personality trait. What I do in the day-to-day impacts how I’ll handle crisis when it comes, the degree to which I’ll be able to stretch my resources to meet the need, and ultimately to recover well or bounce back.
(1) Mitochondrial allostatic load puts the ‘gluc’ back in glucocorticoids, Martin Picard, Robert-Paul Juster, and Bruce McEwan (2014) Nature Reviews, Endocrinology Picard Vol. 10, pg. 305
(2) Mitochondrial allostatic load puts the ‘gluc’ back in glucocorticoids, Martin Picard, Robert-Paul Juster, and Bruce McEwan (2014) Nature Reviews, Endocrinology Picard Vol. 10, pg. 304
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