How To Turn Stress Into A Strength: Know Your Nervous System

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 9.02.58 PM

Stress changes the very structure and function of your brain. Your nervous system cannot distinguish whether stress is mental or physical – thus when stress is present, every movement, thought and reaction is altered.

With that being said stress can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress); therefore, how we react and respond to stress ultimately becomes the primer for living an optimal lifestyle.

Positive and Negative Stress:

Distress or negative stress directly relates to high levels of stress that we cannot recover from. This can include overtraining and the physical stress of intolerable volumes or loads; as well as trauma and prolonged mental and emotional stress.

Eustress or positive stress directly relates to tolerable levels of physical and psychological stress like sport and exercise, meditation and things we enjoy.

The Rise of Chronic Pain:

We live in a society where chronic pain, inflammation, injuries and daily soreness are at an all time high and it’s not because of high intensity workouts, it’s because of STRESS!

We live a world that feeds upon being busy, being over worked, under slept, and where every workout has to feel like going to war to be successful. Maybe, that’s a bit of an embellishment, but the majority of people I see in my practice are all searching for balance, but all spend 8 or more hours seated (not moving), that’s 489 minutes of your 1440 minutes in a 24-hour day. Then heading to the gym for an hour or more; which usually consists of high intensity training, loading the body and when they ask me… “I don’t know why I have pain, I don’t feel stressed.”

They are usually missing one major element in their lives – RECOVERY. This can include too much mileage too soon, or too much load without sufficient mobility, stability or movement screening first, but recovery is usually not on their radar.

Recent theories have suggested that neuro-inflammation and substantially increase when facing prolonged, uncertain and uncontrollable stress. Our internal systems are designed to modify the level of metabolic activity, adrenal activation and cortisol release to adapt to environmental demands that may eventually lead to maladaptive responses inducing a series of stress-related pathophysiological strains.

The hippocampus is highly sensitive to the effects of prolonged exposure to stress hormones and such a state has been referred to as allostatic load and may contribute to the triggering, the amplification and/or the persistence of the pain and soreness state. (Borsook et al., 2012).

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 8.58.50 PM

Your Nervous System In a Nutshell:

Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls your body’s unconscious processes; such as blood sugar, adrenaline dump vs drip, digestion, heart rate and breathing and much more.

The ANS has two main branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) (flight or flight) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) (rest and digest). Both of which are critical to our survival.

Flight or Flight:

As humans have evolved, we no longer require the need to hunt for our food or protect ourselves from the same sort of predators. Yet the same alarm system our ancestors used to ensure survival is the same alarm system that we see being over used with busy lifestyles, lack of sleep, work hard-play hard mentality and your health is suffering for it.

Rest and Digest:

Why is the parasympathetic system important to your health and training model? Simple, our physiology depends on it with the promotion of digestion, cellular repair and the ability to sleep restfully to recharge our mechanical batteries.

Our internal structure works around the clock to ensure balance, and offers us subtle suggestions when things start to fall off the tracks. This can be in the form of mild sickness, not feeling rested, feeling fatigued or foggy, and even prolonged pain or discomfort that is out of the ordinary.

If you do not account for recovery and rest, it’s like driving a car with a flat tire and a half tank of gas and expecting it to operate like a Maserati.

It is important for your body to go into deep recovery mode if it needs it. This can have negative impacts on training improvements and longer-term health if we do not allow the parasympathetic system to do its job.

Understanding the “tone” of the autonomic nervous system can be extremely useful in assessing whether you are over training (catabolic or breaking down), under training (plateau) or developing and adapting (anabolic or building up) state; as well as determining the nature and effectiveness of your therapeutic sessions and training sessions.

Monitoring Your Nervous System’s Activity:

With the rise of wearable technology and fitness/health trackers it’s easier than ever to monitor your health; however it can be challenging to know where to start or how to interpret the data once collected.

To ensure you don’t play the guessing game, it’s always best to consult with a professional who can help you achieve a baseline or do as much research as you can to ensure your success.

The keys to monitoring your nervous system your health and the state of your recovery boil down to these 3 key ingredients:

  1. Resting Heart Rate
  2. Sleep Patterns and Quality
  3. Heart Rate Variability

In the next 3 articles, we will look at each of these in a little more detail, starting with heart rate variability next week. If you can’t wait till then for more information on monitoring your nervous system activity and recovery contact Moveolution or keep an eye on the Moveolution facebook, instagram and twitter pages.


Apkarian, A., Baliki, M., & Geha, P. (2009). Towards a theory of chronic pain Prog Neurobiol, 87 (2), 81-97 DOI:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2008.09.018

Borsook D, Maleki N, Becerra L, McEwen B – Understanding migraine through the lens of maladaptive stress responses: a model disease of allostatic load. Neuron 2012;73:219-34

Heart Rate Variability, Elite HRV

About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...