Tired and Wired? How to rebalance your nervous system to beat stress and fatigue.
Tired and Wired? How to rebalance your nervous system to beat stress and fatigue.
By Stephanie Hazel
The most common pattern I see in clinic is one I call ‘tired and wired,' or long-term sympathetic dominance resulting in exhaustion, stress/anxiety, chronic muscular tension, poor sleep patterns and compromised immunity.
If you are ‘tired and wired', you are both overstimulated and depleted. You probably are in a constant state of ‘reactivity', both emotionally and with your work and life. You feel like there is not enough time to do anything, and yet you’re just so tired. The quality of your work and your decisions is compromised, and you easily feel overwhelmed and emotional.
This pattern is a precursor to full-blown ‘burn out’, aka adrenal fatigue. If this is you, now is the time to address it via a ‘Nervous System Reset. Read on to understand more, and learn which herbs and lifestyle changes can make all the difference.
Firstly, let’s understand a little more about the nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is the system that controls our involuntary functioning: things like heart rate, digestion, breathing, hormonal functioning. It is the control system of all our organs and internal processes, operating below conscious awareness.
There are two major branches in the autonomic nervous system:
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
These 2 systems rule different functions, and are wired to operate one at a time. They work in opposition to each other, ideally cooperating to maintain the balance between ‘yin’ and ‘yang’.
Sympathetic Nervous System activates our ‘fight or flight’, or ‘action and alarm’ mechanism, the active yang response of the body. When activated, it mobilises our energy reserves, increases our blood pressure and heart rate and tightens muscles in readiness for action. One of the ways it does this is through stimulating the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline. It also shuts down non-urgent body processes, such as digestion, sexual activity and immune function. It increases heart rate, contracts blood vessels and speeds up brain activity.
Parasympathetic Nervous System activates the “rest and digest”, or “feed and breed” mechanism, the passive yin response. When activated it kick-starts digest and assimilation of nutrients, elimination of toxins, cell repair, immune function, fertility, sex hormones and arousal. It is how we stay healthy long-term, how our cells stay young and functional, and how we turn food into reserves of energy. It lowers blood pressure, slows down heart rate and calms the mind.
A key point: when one is ‘on’ the other is ‘off’. You cannot be resting, healing and digesting when you are in a state of action & alarm.
A note on the ‘Fight or Flight’ mode
This is more accurately called the ‘fight, flight, freeze or foetal’ response. In prehistoric times, this response in humans manifested more obviously, however in our current era, the actions associated with this mode are often quite different.
‘Fight’ is more likely to manifest as argumentative, aggressive behaviour - like arguing with the waiter about your cold coffee or snapping at your colleague who asks about the overdue report. ‘Flight’ is more likely to manifest as avoidant behaviour - like social withdrawal, recreational drug & alcohol use, or even watching netflix.
|violent action & physical fighting||argumentative, agressive & irritable behaviour|
|Flight||running away physically||avoidant behaviour (withdrawal, alcohol, drugs, Netflix)|
|Freeze||hiding from predators||mind blanks, disconnecting from emotions|
|Foetal||curling into a ball to protect vital organs from violence||chronic psoas tension, causing hip & lower back pain|
When are are constantly in a state of action or alarm, our bodies cannot enter the parasympathetic state required to heal, rejuvenate and rebalance. Long term, this results in a number of unpleasant symptoms:
- Persistent fatigue
Digestion is impaired and slowed down. This means you are unable to properly refuel, or make energy to operate optimally. To complicate the matter, the constant adrenaline causes you to burn up your reserves of glucose and glycogen at a faster rate.
- Tight, sore muscles (especially in the jaw, the neck and shoulders)
Persistent stress causes low levels of magnesium, which is crucial for muscle relaxation. Keeping the body in a state of ‘fight or flight’ also increases muscle tension, as our muscles get ready to leap into action.
- Constant stress or anxiety just under the surface
Sympathetic activation prevents the release of GABA, the major brain chemical we use to calm down. This means that our mental state is one of excessive alert, looking for danger and often finding it whether it is there or not. The SNS also increases our sensitivity to stimuli, making loud noises, bright lights, the ads on the bus and our kids’ demands much more intense and stressful.
- Insomnia, light sleep or irregular sleeping patterns
Without the PNS activating, it is difficult to drop into deep sleep. You may find your mind racing for hours without finding sleep, or that you sleep fitfully.
- Low immunity, causing multiple colds or flus, and recurring cold sores.
Immune function is only strongly activated during PNS activation. I find that cold sores are especially common in this pattern, as the herpes virus lives in the nervous system and is happy to take advantage of the weakness. Slow healing time is also common.
- Digestive problems
Because the sympathetic nervous system stops digestion and assimilation, freeing up more energy for action, many people find that they stop digesting food well, leading to bloating and constipation. Other people may find that their digestion tries to ‘dump’ what is currently awaiting digestion, causing diarrhoea, especially after tea or coffee.
- Rapid ageing
Stress ages you! The PNS is the one responsible for repairing cells, rejuvenating tissues and restoring our vitality.
What causes the ‘tired and wired’ pattern?
Unfortunately, our "more" lifestyles seem exactly designed to cause this problem!
If I was trying to create this pattern in someone, I would prescribe the following:
- Have coffee every day, ideally multiple times!
- Take on lots of ambitious work or study projects with stressful deadlines
- Make sure you feel stressed every day: about family, about work, about uni, about money. It doesn’t matter. Just stress out daily!
- When you’re tired and struggling to concentrate, don’t rest! Just have a coffee and a sweet snack and keep on going
- Make sure you always drink tea or coffee right after breakfast and lunch, to ensure you can’t absorb the nutrients you just ate.
- When you finish your work day and are feeling stressed or anxious, don’t engage in a nice calming walk or cuddle session with your dog / your lover / your friend. Instead, unwind with alcohol or other drugs
- In your downtime, keep stimulating your nervous system by watching series that contain lots of violence or emotionally distressing scenarios
- Before sleeping, spend time on your phone, to really inhibit the release of GABA and melatonin.
- When you get a cold, make sure you take Panadol and caffeine to suppress the symptoms, and just keep working. That’s right! Don’t let your immune system do its job, just keep soldiering on.
As you can see, ongoing stress, over-work and inadequate rest are the key contributing factors. Caffeine use (yes, even one coffee per day) reliably activates the SNS and triggers the release of adrenaline. This is why we like it: it makes us feel ‘ready for action’, however undermines many other necessary functions.
Some holistic herbalists attribute this pattern to excessive ambition. When we are very serious about achieving our goals, whatever these goals are, we can easily ignore our body’s request for downtime, and push ourselves beyond our natural limits.
Herbs and Habits to Reset your Nervous System
1. Rest when you are tired
This sounds so simple, but it is radical. When you’re tired or can’t concentrate, lie down, close your eyes, and just rest for 10-30 minutes. No TV, no music, no talking. Just resting. Sleep if you can. Napping is a fantastic strategy.
2. Eliminate caffeine
I know. It’s really really hard. I love my morning earl grey tea, and it’s a struggle not to drink caffeine every day. But when you are artificially stimulated, you cannot really know how tired you are. At the very least, cut down to 1 coffee OR 2 teas per day. Make sure you have caffeine-free days weekly, where you allow yourself to move in slow motion.
3. Engage in calming activities
Walking, dancing or yoga are nice calming activities to discharge the physical tension created through SNS activation. Most animals will ‘shake off’ a stressful situation once the fight or flight moment has passed. Loving physical touch is also very good at calming the body - cuddle your friends and family, pat the dog, or get a massage.
4. Rebalance with herbs
There are some excellent nervine herbs that have been used for millennia to relax, rebalance and restore the nervous system.
Check out next month’s blog for a deep dive into these fantastic Nervous System Herbs.