The Sympathetic System: Moving into Action
When I say the words “fight or flight,” how do you respond? Typically, people will do one of 3 things: cringe, feel a jolt of anxious energy, or feel their eyes gloss over (not this again!). The sympathetic nervous system gets a bad reputation. Sometimes, we just want to unplug it. Who needs fight or flight in our lives anyway, right?
The sympathetic system helps move you to action.
Thing is, we really do need it. Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the system that helps move you to action. It kicks in during exercise to help regulate your cardiac responses. And in stressful moments, it’s actually your friend.
A real life example
Imagine Delilah* (name changed). She’s an executive in the food and beverage industry, and she is slated to give a town hall address today to a ton of employees and stakeholders. She clicks on Teams and BOOM–her brain lights up the big alarm button. THREAT!
That alarm says ALL SYSTEMS GO! Her amygdala (alarm center) gets her hypothalamus involved (the director of stress operations), and it commands the sympathetic system to start pumping out hormones from the adrenal glands. The heart beats faster. Breaking quickens so that the lungs get more oxygen. And her blood sugar rises so that her body has more energy.
All of this happens before her brain’s visual centers even fully process what’s happening–that this isn’t a train barreling at us. It’s just a presentation.
Why do we need the sympathetic system?
Pause for a second. Think about why this response would be needed. If it were a train, Delilah could dodge it without even taking time to process it. The sympathetic system pushes the gas pedal, per se, via a pathway called the HPA axis, which releases more hormones to keep Delilah on high alert. When the threat passes, the parasympathetic system kicks in to slowly calm everything down. It’s like pressing the brake on the train.
Questions to ask yourself?
- How does it feel when the alarm goes off and the hormones rush in?
- Do you feel your heart and lungs adjust to help you deal with the stressor? That’s the sympathetic system kicking in.
- Do you notice the system kick in during exercise?
- Can you thank the system for helping move you to action when needed?